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Natural Treasure

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Westcave Preserve

Photo by Addie B.

By John Hallowell

If there is anyone out there who still thinks Texas is all flat and dry, a visit to Westcave Preserve would be a certain cure. And even readers of this myth-busting magazine (who already know the Hill Country better than that) will be impressed by the spectacular sights in this cool, sheltered canyon, formed by the gradual collapse of an immense limestone cave in southwestern Travis County – just 40 minutes from downtown Austin.

The centerpiece of this natural wonderland is definitely the waterfall at the end of the half-mile-long trail, where spring-fed Heinz Branch Creek tumbles abruptly into a 40-foot-deep gorge, forming a crystal-clear pool and providing moisture for an amazing variety of plant and animal life along the twisting canyon that leads to the nearby Pedernales River. But the hike along the steep and winding trail features all sorts of natural wonders in this unique, natural terrarium.

It hasn’t always looked this good. As its fame spread in the sixties, careless partiers nearly ruined the fragile eco-system, trampling vegetation, smashing cave formations and leaving piles of garbage while an absentee owner neglected his prize property. By 1973, the whole canyon was trashed.

But that year, the property was purchased by Austin architect John Covert Watson, who hired environmental activist John Ahrns to manage the property. Ahrns spent the next ten years cleaning up the property, fending off trespassers and arranging public tours. In 1983, the property was purchased by the LCRA, who leases it to the Westcave Preserve Foundation (of which Watson is a director, and Ahrns is manager) for $1 per year. The preserve is available for pre-scheduled group tours during the week and open to the public for tours (but just 30 visitors at a time) at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sundays.

Westcave Preserve

Photo by westcave.org.

The drive to Westcave is a pleasure in itself. Half-way between Round Mountain and Bee Cave on Hamilton Pool Road (just west of the Pedernales River Bridge), the preserve is surrounded by typically beautiful Hill Country terrain. When you arrive at the preserve (watch for the sign; it’s easy to miss), you’ll be struck first by the impressive (but not obtrusive; it fits its surroundings well) 3,000-sq-ft environmental learning center. Every element of the center teaches a practical environmental lesson, and there are composting toilets, a rainwater harvesting system, solar power panels and a unique network of water-filled pipes that use the constant underground temperature to heat and cool the building. It also features a solar observatory.

But this is just the first installment, and visitors are soon drawn to the trail, which meanders along a bluff overlooking the Pedernales River before twisting sharply downhill into the canyon. The trail drops forty feet, and the temperature (on a hot day) drops twenty degrees, as live oaks and cedars rapidly give way to a row of enormous bald cypress trees along the creek, and lush, tropical-looking vegetation lines both sides of the trail. Across a foot-bridge and around a bend waits the most spectacular sight of all: a 40-foot waterfall, cascading over moss-covered rocks into an emerald pool.

Westcave Preserve is a natural treasure, and a wonderful destination for folks of all ages who enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. If anyone ever again tries to tell you that Texas is flat and dry, just refer them to www.westcave.org.