Day Trips: Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

A National Wildlife Refuge in our midst

Photos by Gerald E. McLeod

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge gives endangered songbirds a home and preserves a wilderness for humans to enjoy. 

High in the hills overlooking the winding channel of Lake Travis, BCNWR rises and falls like waves covered in old-growth Ashe juniper, oaks, and an occasional wildflower prairie. Encompassing around 27,500 acres, the jigsaw puzzle pieces of the refuge are scattered on the north side of Lake Travis almost to Bertram

The green space was set aside in 1992 to protect the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, black-capped vireo, and other creatures. After populations of the vireo rebounded, the songbird was taken off the endangered list in 2018. 

There are four access points to the refuge. The headquarters is on FM 1431 about five miles west of Lago Vista. Two short trails lead to a turtle pond, photo blind, and chimney swift tower. 

The Warbler Vista and Sunset Deck is off FM 1431 3.5 miles east of the headquarters. The shaded deck offers a view of Lake Travis. Park here to hike the 2.5 miles of trails along the ridge line. 

Doeskin Ranch Trailhead is north of FM 1431 off RR 1147. Four trails begin here for a total of more than five miles.

Shin Oak Observation Deck is on RR 1869 near the intersection with RR 1147, and about 8.5 miles west of Liberty Hill. There are no hiking trails, but it is a nice place to listen for the black-capped vireos' songs. 

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is a great asset within a couple of hours northwest of Austin. During non-pandemic times, the headquarters staff leads bird walks on Friday and Sunday mornings. There is no admittance fee and pets are not allowed. Restrooms are currently closed.

1,501st in a series. Follow “Day Trips & Beyond,” a weekly travel blog, at

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