The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, April 4, 2003, Columns

The Warren Skaaren Environmental Learning Center at Westcave Preserve in southwestern Travis County provides an indoor classroom for one of the area's most unique outdoor educational facilities. Officially opened at ceremonies on March 22, the new building blends into the environment while utilizing low-impact design features.

"The plans evolved over time," says John Ahrns, director of the preserve. "It was inspired by the [Civilian Conservation Corps]-built park facilities. The building is user-friendly and looks like it was meant to be used."

The center is named for the late Warren Skaaren, the screenwriter of Beetlejuice (1988) and Batman (1989). He also worked on the movies Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II.

Designed by Robert Jackson Architects of Austin, the combination visitor center and classroom is constructed of white limestone walls that are reminiscent of New Mexican pueblos. Surrounded by a forest of oak trees on a bluff above the Pedernales River, the building's curved tin roof gives a cathedrallike feature to the structure.

It was at the Santa Maria Degli Angeli Church in Rome where Jackson came across the perfect addition to the building. A meridian line etched 300 years ago into the floor of the church charted the exact time of Easter. A hole in the center of the learning center's roof lets in a ray of sunlight to track the sun's movement. A 20th-century addition to the line added a solar cell that powers a bell that rings when the sunlight hits the spot at noon each day.

"The facility is so nice and so unique," Ahrns says, "I can't believe that I got nearly everything I asked for. We had a really gifted architect." The contractors who worked on the building took a personal interest in the project, he says. For instance, the builder put extra energy in placing fossils in the wall in a way that was both creative and functional for teaching.

The building was designed in an environmentally friendly manner to take advantage of its surroundings. The 3,000-square-foot room utilizes ground-source heating and cooling. A rainwater collection system captures water for irrigation. Wastewater is filtered using a restored wetland pond. Of all the features, the giant solar panel that supplies much of the preserve's electrical needs is the most obvious.

As beautiful as the new building is, it pales in comparison to the natural wonder of the 40-foot waterfall that feeds a pool and creek in the canyon below. The preserve gets its name from a small cave behind the waterfall where ferns sprout from the cracks in the rock walls and wet rock formations look like fresh mounds of molten plastic.

The hike up the canyon to the waterfall takes a narrow path that winds through the thick growth of trees, flowers, and shrubs. When Ahrns, a former National Park Service employee, arrived at Westcave in 1974, the natural wonder was a tired and neglected park. A favorite swimming hole for college students from Austin, the stream was littered with trash and the vegetation was trampled.

After struggling under heavy debt for nearly 10 years, the preserve was purchased by the Lower Colorado River Authority for use as a field lab. Ahrns and volunteers conduct more than 250 tours for area schoolchildren during the year and 400 public tours. The environment offers a unique opportunity to teach geology, water cycles, flora, fauna, and cultural history lessons. A group of students from Texas A&M recently completed a survey of the canyon's plants and insects.

Along with the new visitor center and classroom, the preserve also got a new headquarters building. A neighbor funded the construction of a new residence on the property for Ahrns and his family. "It was kind of sad to see the old mobile home go," Ahrns says. His two children were raised in the temporary housing and many fond memories remain. "The cat wouldn't even come into the new house," he says with a laugh.

Westcave Preserve is about 35 miles southwest of downtown Austin off TX 71 on Hamilton Pool Road. The waterfall is open for public tours on Saturday and Sunday at 10am, noon, 2pm, and 4pm. Groups are limited to the first 30 arrivals and reservations are not accepted. For more information, call the preserve at 830/825-3442 or visit their Web site at

617th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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