Wednesday, May 25, 2011


When I think of bottomlands, I think of the south, the romantic, idealized south, as in the Indigo Girls Southland in Springtime.  I think of lush, tall hardwood forests surrounding a meandering river that is barely contained in the flood season and changes course every 100 years or so, remapping the layout of the bottomland as it does so.  I think of the Big Thicket forests of east Texas and the floodplain forests along the Neches River that I have read about but have yet to visit.  I think of cypress-lined bayous and old river channels and swampy floodplains fed by tributary streams.  I think of the diverse old cathedral forests that grew on this continent before we cut them down and dammed the rivers that fed them.

Closer to home, the streams run intermittently and the rivers, like the Pedernales, that manage to flow year-round flow through rocky, limestone landscapes where hardwood trees, like cypress and sycamore and pecan, are restricted to the banks of the rivers.  Where the rivers are big enough to have created bottomlands, that land has long been cleared for farming or development and that river has been dammed to create reservoir lakes.  I understand why rivers are dammed – for electricity, for water, for flood control, and for recreation – but I still dream of a world without dams, a world where the rivers flow free.  I try to imagine downtown Austin before the dams were built along the Colorado River.  What if, instead of Lady Bird Lake, we had several blocks of forested greenbelt surrounding the original, natural river?

In reality the bottomland forests of central Texas, long a rarity in this area, functioning as small refuges for plants and animals existing on the western or southern edges of their ranges, are all but gone.  So I was pleasantly surprised the Saturday before last when Lee and I went for a hike and found ourselves descending through a slope forest into a bottomland forest on the banks of the Colorado River, just fifteen miles downstream from Austin.  We were hiking in the McKinney Roughs Nature Park, an LCRA park on Highway 71 that is thirteen miles east of the airport.  This was our third attempt to visit the park (hikers, beware, the park is closed on holidays and does not open until noon on Sundays), so it was with relief that we drove through the open gates, paid for our hiking passes ($4 per person), and got our map of the eighteen miles of trails in the park.

Colorado River from the Bluff Trail Overlook

We followed the McKinney Roughs Bluffs and Bottoms Hike, as outlined in the guidebook, and found that, even with our park map, it was extremely helpful to have the guidebook with us given the sheer number of trail junctions along the way.  We started from the visitor center onto the Ridge Trail, which cuts through woodland typical of our area, a mix of cedar (Ashe juniper), cedar elm, Spanish oak, and mesquite interspersed with cactus-filled fields.  I was surprised to notice that many of the Spanish oak trees were just leafing out, in the middle of May.  Perhaps the thunderstorms the week before had finally convinced the trees to leaf out for another summer.  I also noticed Blackjack Oak, a tree that is uncommon in the Austin metro area, in the mix of trees.  Blackjack Oak is common in the Lost Pines area of Bastrop county and, indeed, the McKinney Roughs park contains the westernmost chunk of that pine forest. 

But this time we were heading for the river and its floodplain, and for the Giant Pecan Tree growing in the bottomland forest.  Once we descended into the floodplain, we saw few other hikers but several groups of horseback riders.  And, of course, we saw lots of trees.  Tall trees.  In fact, I can say without qualification that we walked through a forest, which is rare in this area.  We have tree-lined creeks and cedar-oak woodlands and live oak savannas and cedar shrublands, but we really don't have many full-on forests close to Austin.  In central Texas, my motivation for hiking, rather than getting out in the woods, has become getting out in the bushes.  I love this area, but sometimes this native Oregonian needs to feel the full height of trees towering overhead.

The floodplain forest was a mix of cottonwood, hackberry, box elder, mulberry, sycamore, and pecan trees, hardwoods that are common along waterways in the eastern US.  The trees were tall and thick-trunked and, indeed, did tower overhead.  For me, the highlight of the trail was feeling immersed in a forest, not just surrounded by a group of trees but truly in the midst of a forest in a place where forest seemed to be thriving.  Though we did have backtrack to find the main attraction – the park map was a greater help than the guidebook in this – we eventually found the Giant Pecan Tree and spent a few minutes gazing up into its branches and trying to take a representative photo.  Unfortunately, though the tree is the biggest in the park and almost twelve feet in circumference, I was too busy trying to capture the canopy overhead to take a shot of the wide trunk.  Oops!  The good news is that the 150-year-old tree looks healthy overhead.

From the pecan tree, we headed back to the visitor center by following the Park Ho signs (seriously).  Along the way we spotted a few armadillos and were able to watch one of them as it dug up an ant mound and snacked on the ant larvae, totally unaware of our presence the whole time.  By the time we got back to the parking area, we had hiked several miles and felt exercised for the day.  While we did find the Giant Pecan Tree, we hadn't walked through the pine forest, or viewed the river from Meditation Point, or stepped into the river from the Riverside Trail.  So I guess we will have to return to McKinney Roughs on another day, in another season, for another walk in the bottomland forest.

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