McKinney Roughs between Austin and Bastrop gives area residents more than an opportunity to view the convergence of four distinct ecosystems. Just the preservation and opening to the public of this unusual land would be enough for loud kudos. More than just a nature preserve, the LCRA park is also an incubator for natural history education.
The former 1,625-acre Windmill Ranch includes a riparian area of pristine woods, meadows, and canyons along the Colorado River. An eight-mile hiking and equestrian trail winds through the dense forest where Southern oak and pine trees stretch their furthest west. Breaks in the canopy reveal startling views of the river valley where some of Texas' earliest settlers built their homes.
The hilly area's name comes from the same Thomas K. McKinney who knew Stephen F. Austin and once lived at the present site of McKinney Falls State Park. The Wise Family worked the ranch for more than 100 years until the 1950s. The downturn in the Central Texas real estate market in the 1980s saved this unique tract of land from the developer's bulldozer.
The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) sold other less ecologically significant properties they owned for the three parcels of unique habitat. Four of Texas' 10 ecological zones mix here. The land is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals. Using existing cuts in the forest, the trails go past three box canyons, along two miles of riverfront property, and through the westernmost habitat of the loblolly pine.
McKinney Roughs is to be used for recreation, research, and education, says Betsy Carpenter, Environmental Center Director. The parallel tracks of the ribbon road lead from TX71 to the new classrooms and offices at one of two trail heads. Built to resemble a turn-of-the-century farm, the compound of buildings also houses the Children's Trust Fund of Texas, a new state agency. The circular metal end to the Learning Center that resembles a silo is an exhibit space.
The Learning Center is the headquarters for an educational zone where all ages of students can discover and enjoy nature, Carpenter says. She calls it the "cradle-to-the-grave approach to environmental education." First the school trains the teacher to integrate ecological education into the general subjects. We use all of the subjects in the way we live, she says, so they include all of the classroom curriculums in studying nature.
The intradisciplinary environmental education then passes through a four-tier program from pre-kindergarten to high school. Along the way, the students learn to be more observant of nature, why so many things live in the area, and to identify the uniqueness of the region.
"This isn't a field trip, it's a learning experience," Carpenter said. If the classes come out to hike and look around, then they have to pay the $3 entrance fee. Teachers must first submit a lesson plan for the class to use the facility. A local high school English teacher includes a visit to McKinney Roughs in her class' study of literature and communities. Graduate students use the facilities to study the plant and animal diversity.
For students who have graduated to the school of life, the center offers environmental workshops on a variety of subjects from nature photography toforestry. Future Skills Classes will cover archeology, Native Americans, composting, and hold stargazing parties. The calendar of the spring classes on weekends and evenings comes out this week.
Carpenter says the Learning Center, open since last fall, "wants to be on the cutting edge of environmental education." The research facilities will be writing school curricula to be used in classrooms around the country. It will eventually be linked to other facilities to share information. A gravel quarry on the property was sold with the stipulation that the user must fit into the facility's ecological vision. Ringed by trails, 1,100 acres of the property are being left as a nature preserve.
Land that was altered by the ranching operation will be turned over to recreation uses. A second entrance off Pope Bend Road at the old Windmill Ranch will be used as a campground offering public accommodations. Planned for completion by the fall of this year, the fields and pecan orchards will be have an RV park, cabins, pavilion, and amphitheater.
A trip to McKinney Roughs can be as in-depth a study in nature as you want it to be. "We want to remove barriers from all special populations from enjoying the area," Carpenter says. A 1.5-mile trail from the Learning Center is ADA-approved and is a good way to get a quick overview of the park.
On the backcountry trails, hikers and horseback riders get a good sense of what frontier settlers first found when they ventured west. Dogs on leashes are welcome in the park, but owners are asked to pick up after them. Smoking is not allowed in the park. The classrooms and meeting rooms are available to rent for seminars.
McKinney Roughs is 13 miles east of Austin and seven miles west of Bastrop off TX71. Entry fees start at $3 for adults and $1 for children. The trails are open Tuesday through Saturday, 9am-5pm. Visitors need to check in at the headquarters for a trail guide and information before using the trails. For more information or a listing of upcoming workshops, call the Learning Center at 303-5073.
Coming up this weekend ...
Barn to Yarn, a fiber arts festival at the Pioneer Museum in Fredericksburg, will feature a kissing contest with Chopp the llama among other demonstration and attractions, Jan. 30. 512/440-1025.
Jazz Festival at Cypress Creek Cafe in Wimberley includes a great lineup of music plus the Taste of the Town gourmet food sampling,
Jan. 29-31. 512/847-3909.
Coming up ...
Romance of the Hill Country: Butterflies and Native Flora at the Wildseed Farms Market Center seven miles east of Fredericksburg on US290 presents a seminar on backyard gardening. For reservations, call 830/990-1393.
Mardi Gras in Galveston has become one of the prime parties in the state, Feb. 5-16. 409/765-7834 or http://www.galvestontourism.com.
Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is now available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, P.O. Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704. 401th in a Series. Collect them all.