Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, located to the North West of Austin, is an amazing reserve for bird watching, and hiking with kids. There are a variety of trails, for all abilities and amazing views of Lake Travis. Take your kids out of the city and enjoy the quiet, well marked paths of this National Wildlife Refuge. Read on for a review of Balcones Canyonlands hiking trails!

See the Golden Checked Warbler

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is the birth place of every Golden Checked Warbler! This woodlands are the natural nesting habitat for this migratory bird, which is an endangered species.

The warblers come to the Texas Hill Country to raise their young, and live in the juniper trees. The warblers use the bark from older trees to build their nests which are roughly 4 inches wide.

If you come in the springtime, from March to May, you may be able to hear the songs of the male warbler!

Getting to Balcones Canyonlands from Austin

To get to Balcones Canyonlands from Austin, take the 183A toll road North. Exit to Whitestone Blvd, continue to drive on it as it becomes road 1431. Turn off to the right, heading up the hill on Warbler Vista.

Once in the wildlife refuge, there is a turn off to a gravel road for the lower parking lot to the Quarry Canyon trail. Keep going up the paved road to the Warbler Vista parking lot, or turn off on the gravel road to keep going to Vista Knoll, or further still to Sunset Deck parking lots.

Trails in Balcones Canyonlands

Cactus Rocks Trail

The Cactus Rocks Trail is an easy loop trail that can be combined with the Vista Knoll Trail or the Ridgeline Trail for a longer hike.

Starting at the parking lot, you will cross the road to enter the path. You can immediately take a right. This first half of the trail is very easy and mostly flat. You will be walking with Juniper trees on either side of the trail!

To curve back around to the parking lot, you will take a left descending down a pretty rocky trail. There you will find a bench under a tree. Take a rest before taking another left to loop back around.

This bottom section of the trail is much rockier and more challenging. You will slowly ascend back to the starting point.

There are 16 number rock markers with a warbler painted on them. You can use the guide at the beginning of the trail to learn more about the Warbler and other plants and animals along the trail.

Vista Knoll Trail

To access the Vista Knoll trail, you need to take a section of the Cactus Rocks trail, descending down the forested mountain. Then there is a well marked turn off to the Vista Knoll trail.

The Vista Knoll trail itself is a loop that is not too difficult.

Clear signage along the trails in Balcones Canyonlands NWR

As you head out of the forest onto the ridge line, you are rewarded with a clear view of Lake Travis and the surrounding area. There are benches along the way.

Note that the descent on the way down to Vista Knoll there, means a climb up on the way back.

Ridgeline Trail

Similar to the Cactus Rocks trail, the “top” section of this loop is flat and easy, while the part that is lower on the mountain is more challenging.

You can begin the Ridgeline trail at the Sunset Deck parking lot, or access it from the Cactus Rocks trail if you parked at the Vista Knoll or Warbler Vista Parking lot.

We were able to combine the Cactus Rocks trail and the Ridgeline trail for a hike with our four kids. The youngest walker was 4.5 years old, and she did a great job with it (the baby was in our hiking carrier).

Sunset Deck

The sunset deck has an access point to the Ridgeline Trail. It is a wooden balcony that is shaded with what looks to be a great view at sunset. But it was also pretty great in the middle of the day!

Quarry Canyon Trail and Boulder Trail

The Quarry Canyon trail begins at the lower parking lot. This is a difficult hike up the mountain and then back down if you choose to do it on it’s own.

Alternatively, from the Quarry Canyon trail you can access the Boulder trail, another hike up with a high difficulty level. Taking this route you can connect to the Cactus Rocks trail to the left to loop back around and hike mostly downhill on the Quarry Canyon trail.

Tips for Hiking in Balcones Canyonlands NWR

Balcones is quickly becoming one of our favorite hiking spots near Austin to take the kids! The trails are well marked and signs at the trail heads have informational brochures. All that said, here’s what I would suggest:

  • Bring plenty of water on the trail! Many of the trails are shaded, but not all, and it can get very hot in the summer. You will also be working up a sweat climbing up the mountain so stay hydrated.
  • Bring binoculars! If you are trying to do some bird watching they can be helpful. Also, the view over Lake Travis is very nice!
  • Stay on the trails. Always worth a reminder, especially with kids. This wildlife refuge serves to protect a sensitive habitat.
  • The trails are not suitable for pets, horseback riding, or riding bicycles.
  • Snacks. Bring them for the kids to keep energy up, and make sure to take all your trash with you.
  • You may want to bring a small notebook and pencils for sketching. There are several benches along the way to stop for a rest. Our kids each carry their own small backpack with water, a snack, and any extra gear they decide to carry! They will often choose to bring their observation notebooks!

Alright, that’s all for today folks! More posts about Texas coming up, since we’ve been staying close to home. Check back on Mondays!

Do you have any questions about hiking in the Texas Hill Country with kids? Bird watching?

10 thoughts on “Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge”

  1. Those hikes all look so pretty!! Such an added bonus that there are so many different species of birds around to see. I wish I was talented enough to be able to sketch them in a notebook, that would be so fun!

    1. We weren’t able to see too many birds, but we could definitely hear them. Our kids used their notebooks to sketch twigs and leaves more than anything else. Still fun though!

  2. Looks like a wonderful place to walk some trails. The views are lovely, and I love the little markers with the warblers on. Great tips that I think are worth noting for many trail hikes

    1. I agree, the tips work for hiking anywhere really. I can never decide how many extra details to include, but since it is a wildlife refuge I thought it was important to emphasize good hiking etiquette.

    1. Yes my husband said the same thing- he wishes he had explored more of the hiking trails in the Austin area when he lived here before. We’re making up for it now though!

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