day trips

photograph by Gerald E. McLeod

The Fort Worth Nature Center is the largest city-owned and -operated facility of its kind in the United States and quite possibly the world. The 3,500-acre preserve encompasses five distinct ecosystems and habitats for hundreds of native animals and birds.

Acquired by the city in February 1964, the 360-acre Greer Islands in the upper reaches of Lake Worth on the West Fork of the Trinity River were the beginning of an ambitious and ongoing project. As leases began to expire along the northwestern bank of the lake, the city began buying the properties before the landscape could be changed forever.

With the help of the national government, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the local Audubon Society, and private endowments, the park has become a showpiece of ecological preservation. Service organizations have built more than 25 miles of trails through the park.

The staff provides educational programs, including many targeted towards at-risk
teenagers. The city built a 900-foot boardwalk over a marsh and riverbank that is comparable to the boardwalks at Sea Rim State Park and the Big Thicket National Forest.

"People who like to hike and see lots of ecosystems really enjoy it here," said Carol Vallejo, assistant naturalist at the Nature Center. The park includes river marsh, hardwood forest, prairie grassland, and crosstimbers forest within its boundaries. Without a map, it is easy to get lost on the trails, she said.

Maps of the 12 trails are available at the Hardwicke Interpretive Center. The hikes range from the paved Limestone Ledge Trail around a field of wildflowers to the three-mile Canyon Ridge Trail that goes from a canyon to a ridge top with a view of the river.

The Riverbottom Trail, which includes the boardwalk, is one of the most popular trails in the park because it is teeming with wildlife and unusual vegetation. Vallejo said it is cooler along the river and that you might see a beaver, water snake, or waterfowl. "Some people just enjoy the solitude," she said. The boardwalk also has a covered pavilion with built-in benches.

The boardwalk goes over the swampy waters of the lake covered with lily pads. Only inches above the water's surface, and often under water after heavy rains, the wooden walkway opens an ecosystem that normally would only be accessible by boat. During last year's drought, the staff found plants and flowers growing along the banks which they had never seen before. "From year to year [the preserve] changes," Vallejo said.

On Saturdays in the spring and fall, the staff takes visitors on canoe hikes through the marsh ($12/adults, $6/children). The best places to launch a canoe are from one of three parking lots along Shoreline Drive, which runs through the park.

North Central Texas is on a major flyway for migrating birds. Hundreds of different kinds of birds use the refuge as a fueling stop and home, making it one of the most popular birdwatching areas in Texas. Because it has been a sanctuary for more than 30 years, Greer Island has become a great place for a variety of birds.

One of the most enjoyable areas in the Hardwicke Center is the birdwatching window looking out over a garden stocked with bird feeders. "It's not very elaborate, but we try to stock it with all different kinds of feed to attract a lot of different kinds of birds," Vallejo said.

The visitor center also has educational exhibits that explain the wildlife and ecosystems in the park. The small gift shop next door sells nature-themed souvenirs and T-shirts.

In the Kids' Room, visitors come face to face with a hog-nosed snake, a six-foot bull snake, a variety of turtles, and a hive of bees. Outside, the center keeps a hawk, a great horned owl, and an opossum.

Probably the most famous resident of the refuge is the Goatman, half goat, half man, who has been scaring local teenagers for generations. Stories have circulated about the monster who inhabits the thick forest along the lake and drops from trees on top of passing cars in the thick darkness of night. The elusive creature has the strength to rip car roofs from their moorings and throw truck tires long distances. A favorite Saturday night pastime for high school students is to take a younger member of their group for a late-night drive. When the road gets its darkest, someone reaches their hand out the window and slaps the top of the car with a bang.

The Fort Worth Nature Center is 10 miles north of downtown off TX199. Admission is free and the center is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9am-5pm, and Sunday, noon-5pm. For more information, call 817/237-1111.

Coming up this weekend...

Watermelon Thump in Luling includes a market, food, seed-spitting contest, eating contests, parades, and a rodeo, June 26-28. 210/875-3214.

Single Parent Camp-Out at Rancho Richey Refuge gives parents a chance to enjoy the outdoors with their children, June 27-29. 444-4550 or

County Fair and Rodeo in Burnet combines the traditional rural fair with some new twists at the fairgrounds on US281 south of town, June 27-28. 512/756-5463.

Coming up...

Willie Nelson's 4th of July Celebration at Luckenbach brings Willie and the boys back to the quaint Hill Country village, July 4. 512/264-1489.

Women of the American West at the Cowboy Artists of America Museum in Kerrville depicts in various media the daily lives of the hardy souls who won the west, July 1-15. 210/896-2553.

Day Trips, Vol.1, a book of the first 100 day trips from this column, updated and expanded, is available for $6.95, plus $3.05 for shipping and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, 1712 E. Riverside, Box 156, Austin, TX 78741.

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