Need a new trail? Head to the Doeskin Ranch Unit of Balcones Canyonlands NWR

Hikers make their way along a trail at the Doeskin Unit of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris LeBlanc
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Hikers make their way along a trail at the Doeskin Unit of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris LeBlanc
Hikers make their way along a trail at the Doeskin Unit of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Hikers make their way along a trail at the Doeskin Unit of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Looking for new trails to roam? Head north to the Doeskin Ranch Unit of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.

I spent a few hours Saturday hiking the ranch, part of more than 30,000 acres set aside for preservation as part of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The land protects habitat that’s important to endangered species, including the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler that nest here.

Hikers gather at the trailhead before striking out on two-hour walk. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Hikers gather at the trailhead before striking out on two-hour walk. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

The trip marked the latest of the REI Best Hill Country Hikes series with Fit City. (Read on to find out about upcoming hikes.) Cody Ackerman and Ivey Kaiser of REI’s Outdoor School in Austin led the excursion, herding the 20 or so participants along the trail, sharing a bit of the property’s history and answering questions about the plants and animals that live in the area.

The logs used in this old ranch structure were cut to shed water. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

The logs used in this old ranch structure were cut to shed water. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

We headed out first on the short Creek Trail. Ten minutes in we paused to check out the ruins of an old log shed, a remnant of the land’s previous incarnation as a ranch. From there we hiked along the creek, stopping to admire an undercut bank and a row of tablet-shaped boulders that looked like a toppled stack of dominoes – all evidence of the power of water that arranged them this way.

From there our group marched like ants through fields of waving, rust-colored grasses and up a few easy switchbacks to a lookout point at the top of a ridge where we could see for miles into the Hill Country.

Hikers make their way down switchbacks at the Doeskin Ranch Unit. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Hikers make their way down switchbacks at the Doeskin Ranch Unit. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Views like this work like salve on my soul, which craves wide open spaces. I needed that view after seeing all the development popping up along U.S. Highway 183 during the hour-long drive to get to the preserve.

Among the tidbits I learned during the outing?

Fall asters brighten the trail. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Fall asters brighten the trail. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

  • Only ash junipers that are 40 years or older slough off strips of bark. It’s an easy way to tell the tree’s approximate age.
  • Each fuzzy little burst of orangey-colored bristles on a prickly pear is capable of spawning an entire new cactus, so if you don’t want the plant to spread, don’t mow over it. You’ll just be propigating new thorny cacti.
  • Golden-cheeked warblers use strips of bark from ash juniper to make their nests.

More than 5 miles of trails crisscross the Doeskin Ranch Unit, which is open from sunrise to sunset year round. (I’m a trail runner, and I couldn’t help but thinking this might be a good place to go for a run.)

Trails weave through prairie and woodland forest, along creeks, into an old oak forest and to the top of a plateau. The land became a National Recreation Trail in 2005.

Hikers cross a creek at the Doeskin Ranch Unit of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Hikers cross a creek at the Doeskin Ranch Unit of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

I’m looking forward to the next REI-Fit City hike, scheduled for Dec. 12 at Pedernales Falls State Park. Want in on the action? Sign up here. The hikes start at 9 a.m. and last about two hours. Cost is $20 for members; $40 for members.

Pam LeBlanc poses with Cody Ackerman, head of the REI Outdoor School in Austin. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Pam LeBlanc poses with Cody Ackerman, head of the REI Outdoor School in Austin. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Here’s the upcoming schedule:

  • Dec. 12 – Pedernales Falls State Park
  • Jan. 9 – St. Edwards Park
  • Feb. 13 – Spring Lake Natural Area in San Marcos

If you go: Doeskin Ranch is on RR 1174. From Austin, take U.S. Highway 183 north to Highway 29. Head west, toward Liberty Hill, then turn south onto RR 1869. Travel about 10 miles, then turn left onto RR 1174. The parking lot is on your left. for more information about the Balcones Canyonlands, go here.

 


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