The spectacular Bright Leaf nature area is open for guided tours on the second Saturday and Sunday mornings of each month
Bright Leaf in Northwest Austin is located on the Balcones Fault Zone. The erosion of the earth's surface that runs from the Red River to the Rio Grande makes the nature preserve a beautiful sight to behold.
After hiking up the single-track path to the top of the horseshoe-shaped ridge, the view of the Colorado River Valley and Lake Austin opens to spectacular dimensions. The Pennybacker Bridge anchors the right corner, and Michael Dell's house peeks from behind the trees on the hilltop on the other side of the lake. Communications towers slice the sky from another hilltop in the distance.
The Balcones Escarpment exposes the limestone layers under our feet and separates the Edwards Plateau from the Coastal Plain. Land once thought too rugged for livestock and too isolated for habitation with soil too thin for crops has sprouted chimneys and back yards.
If you look at a map of Austin, there is a 200-acre blank spot south of RR 2222 and east of the MoPac Expressway. The vacant area stands out among the spiderweb of streets.
From the parking area, Bright Leaf looks like a thick tangle of Ashe juniper, oaks, and underbrush. You have to climb into the spaghetti bowl of vegetation to see the forest for all the trees. "Ashe juniper, or cedar, is the tree that Texans love to hate," says Philip Russell as he leads a group on a tour. The path less traveled seems to be all uphill, but in the humid weekend morning, the smells and sounds of nature seem a million miles away from the city.
The Lucas family bought the first acreage of what became Bright Leaf in the Forties as a country getaway from their Austin home. Georgia Lucas grew up roaming the hills and deer paths with her friends and developed a deep love for the unspoiled forest.
Named after the fall leaves that contrast with the evergreen cedars, Lucas built the isolated property into her own private nature preserve. She acquired the land in 34 real estate transactions spread over 40 years. At 216 acres, Bright Leaf would rank 14th in size among Austin's other parks.
After Lucas' death, the land was donated to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department as a natural area and conference center in 1995. Eleven years later, the state decided it could not afford to manage the property, and ownership reverted to the Austin Community Foundation. According to her wishes, the park is only open to the public by guided tours.
The tours are a mixture of strenuous exercise and natural history lessons. Russell stops the group at one of the pools of spring-fed Dry Creek and states, "This is one of the most unique features in the park and one of the most important." The tiny stream provides water to a variety of animals and birds that make Bright Leaf their home.
As the group walks along the narrow path, Russell points out many of the plants along the way. The twisted-leaf yucca, native only to the Texas Hill Country, is in danger of disappearing due to the overpopulation of deer. He describes the plant as a natural sewing kit, with the spine on the end of the leaves acting as needles and the fibers of the leaves the thread. The root even makes a good soap.
In the wild, he says, one small change to the environment can have unintended consequences. The eradication of screwworms in cattle aided the population of deer. The deer eat the oak saplings which would crowd out the Ashe juniper trees. Even plant life in a back yard miles away can be spread by birds carrying seeds to the park where those seeds grow into invasive plants. "It's a never-ending path once it gets started," Russell says.
Bright Leaf is open for regular guided tours at 9am on the second Saturday and Sunday mornings of each month. Additional hikes can be arranged with prior notice. Hikes go about four miles and last about 2½ hours. Wear sturdy shoes and bring plenty of water. For more details, call 459-7269 or go to www.brightleaf.org.
890th 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.