The winter break is a great time to get out and enjoy protected natural areas around Austin – beautiful lands acquired through local conservation efforts. Grab the family or a friend, and take an energetic ramble through a nearby park or preserve. Where allowed, take along a picnic, the dog, a fishing pole, or rent a canoe – and don't forget the binoculars. The more Central Texans appreciate and enjoy our environment au naturel, the more motivated we become as a community to protect it. – K.G.
All free unless noted. Recommended by Kevin Anderson, of the city's Center for Environmental Research, for a river-rambling December:
Features: 1,100 acres with rolling box canyons, diverse ecosystems, and abundant wildlife. Two miles of Colorado River frontage, with access for canoeing, kayaking, and rafting. (Guided five-mile river trips for groups of 12 or more are available by request; fee.) Fifteen miles of hiking and equestrian trails; interactive exhibit hall, with native critters; 1,300-gallon aquarium with river fish.
Location: On Highway 71, 13.2 miles east of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 8am-5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm; closed major holidays
Fees: $3 adults, $1 kids to hike; $10 equestrian fee (BYO horse)
Contact: 512/303-5073, www.lcra.org/parks/developed_parks/mckinney_roughs.html
Features: The best bird-watching site along the Colorado River (lots of ducks on the lagoons now); see website for birding info. Ask about the Austin Christmas Bird Count! Five miles of trails, including a scenic three-mile river trail.
Location: North of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, off FM 973
Hours: Dawn to dark, seven days a week
Contact: 972-1960, www.hornsbybend.org
Features: A favorite spot for picnicking in open grassy areas amid large oaks and pecans, near the Colorado River banks. Fishing, canoe, and boat-ramp access. 135 acres of Blackland Prairie terrain; two miles of hike-and-bike trails through woods. Grills, water, playgrounds. Dogs off leash okay.
Hours: 9am-6pm daily; no entrance fees
Location: 20-30 minute drive from Central Austin; driving directions on website
Contact: 512/854-PARK (7275), www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/webberville.asp
Features: Close-in urban oasis, a 363-acre city park with an easy, barely populated 2.4-mile hike-and-bike-trail extension leading to the river. Bluff overlook of island, migratory birds and cranes. Dogs and bikes okay. Bring trash bags, and help tidy the trail! (Park to be improved with 2006 bond funds.)
Location: Trail head at rear of Krieg Softball Complex parking lot, on Pleasant Valley Main entrance: 8200 Grove Dr.
Hours: Daylight (no phone or website)
Features: A five-mile, self-guided tour of the Lower Colorado River corridor, with return shuttle service. Picnic, sunbathe, fish, play your guitar, bird-watch, or walk sandy beaches looking for treasures.
Location: Webberville (15 miles out MLK/FM 969)
Cost: Canoes $30, kayaks $20, fully equipped (ages 7 and up)
Hours: Call to make arrangements.
Contact: 512/276-7767 or 512/461-7139, www.cookscanoes.com
Conservation areas acquired with Trust for Public Land assistance:
Mary Moore Searight Park, 218 acres
Barton Creek Wilderness Park, 992 acres
Northeastern Regional Park, 64 acres
Bauerle Ranch, 304 acres
Walnut Creek Trail and Watershed, 206 acres
Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, 580 acres
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, 2,300 acres
Travis Co. parks and nature preserve directory, with location maps: www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/pdf_files/county.pdf
Austin Water Utility Wildlands, including Balcones Canyonlands Preserve: www.ci.austin.tx.us/water/wildland
City of Austin Park directory, with GIS parks viewer: www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/parks.htm
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