For a chance to forget that you are in Central Texas for a minute and think that you are in a lush mossy-green hidden garden, visit Westcave Preserve and Grotto, located 45 minutes west of downtown Austin. For parents, it promises an excellent adventurous and educational day out with kids.
The Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center has a very uplifting history. Attracted by a natural cave, a thick canopy of cedar, juniper, oak and spruce trees and the flowing Pedernales river, this land was overrun by campers and hikers. With all the littering and trampling over natural vegetation, it was being loved to death. Then the land was acquired by the visionary John Covert Watson and this was the beginning of the birth of Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center. Under the stewardship of Watson, nature was allowed to heal and thrive, and a not-for-profit organization that provides ticketed entry to the land was born.
The Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center consists of the Westcave Grotto and the Westcave Uplands, and we visited each on separate visits.
Westcave Grotto: The word Grotto is evocative of a mysterious fairy tale cave and the Westcave Grotto was exactly that. At our assigned tour start time, the friendly and knowledgeable tour guide provided a brief history of the Grotto and the geological forces that created it. My rock-loving 7 year old daughter loved seeing real fossils of a fern and a fish on a rock that had remained submerged in water for a great length of time. We then proceeded down a easy trail to a creek. The vegetation became more dense and lush, and the tour guide continued with some interesting facts about the trees that we were seeing, and the how to identify poison ivy.
We soon crossed a little bridge and reached a small clearing where we could see the grotto, the pond in front of it, and the small waterfall falling from the top of the Grotto into the pond. Framing the Grotto and the pond were lovely cascading lush green ferns.
We made into the Grotto and saw the waterfalls, really a trickle in the summer, fall in front of us, and also stalactites and stalagmites in the grotto. (One handy rule to tell them apart – stalactites hold on “tight” to the ceiling; stalagmites “might” make you trip on the floor!)
But the Grotto was not the only cool feature here. Next to the Grotto was a small cave as well. We climbed into it and saw more stalactites and stalagmites, and learned from our tour guide that for a hole or opening to be a “cave”, it should be able to hold at least 2 people, and some part of the cave should receive no natural right. While Austin’s Congress bridge plays host one of the largest colonies of bats, our tour guide showed us signs of bats only resting in the cave occasionally but not living there.
Throughout the hike we heard loud chirping of birds. We also saw lizards in different hues slithering by. But by far the coolest fauna we saw on this like was a water snake – the yellow moccasin! It was taking a deep nap under a rock. These are venomous but usually steer clear of humans and don’t bother unless bothered. I will admit, a snake slithering on a hike is a hard pass for me, but seeing this one from a safe distance was pretty cool.
The whole adventure – walk to the grotto and cake, exploration and the walk back took about an hour and a half. The hike is easy and manageable with toddlers but is not stroller or wheelchair friendly.
The Westcave Uplands: If you visit the Westcave Preserve when the wildflowers are blooming in late Spring, I would highly recommend adding the Westcave Uplands to your trip as well. This generally happens somewhere in the month of May. In fact, ask the tour guide if the wildflowers are in bloom, and then buy the tickets if they are.
On one of our two visits to the Preserve the wildflowers were in bloom, and the uplands, which is large protected savanna was a delight. It was a profusion of flowers and butterflies easily navigable through well maintained trails.
This grassland is also great for bird watchers as there are designated silent areas where you can quietly observe the birds attracted to a clearing by different bird feeders. We saw a housefinch and a spotted towhee.
However, if the spring wildflowers have withered into the summer, I would not recommend visiting the grassland as dry grass nary any flowers is plentiful everywhere else in Texas.
As of today, reservations are still needed to enter the grotto and the uplands. For the grotto, which is the big draw, the slots get booked about two months in advance on their website. At $ 20 per adult and $ 7 per child for the grotto, and $ 5 per person for the uplands, the entrance is not cheap, but totally worth it!