Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine
To be published: March 2017
Longhorn Caverns are filled with “loose parts”, nature anomalies that spark creativity in children and fill them with wonder, intrigue, and maybe some history lessons, too. Photo by Emily Moskal
Though not officially designated, Marble Falls might as well qualify as a town-sized nature playscape large enough to catch your kid’s attention. A town of only 6,500 residents, Marble Falls is dense with parks, lakes, playgrounds, and camps.
It’s also home to the founding members of the Texas Hill Country Homeschoolers, Jennifer Jones and Jennifer Newberry, and experiential learning for more than 1,000 students. Their outdoor-oriented, homeschooled kids recognize the town’s play value. Today, they show me Marble Falls through the eyes of their children.
Longhorn Cavern State Park
Our first stop was Longhorn Cavern State Park on Park Road 4S from HWY 281. Longhorn Caverns has a long history: a shelter for Comanches, and during the Civil War, a den to manufacture gunpowder from bat guano, a speakeasy during the 1920s prohibition, later becoming the “only air-conditioned meeting room in Texas”.
The day was chilly and drizzly. We entered the year-round 68-degree cave, where the lights gave a warm glow and cast shadows on the undulating walls of the cave, protected from the falling rain.
“Think about a pecan stuck on the wall,” says our tour guide, Al Gerow, helping us find hibernating females of the second smallest bat in Texas. The eastern pipistrelles looked like little winged pecans as they hung in depressions just larger than their bodies to stay warm.
Longhorn Cavern is a fast water cave; you won’t see many fragile stalactites or stalagmites, but, like the popular slot canyons of Arizona and Utah formed by the thundering Colorado River, you’ll find water-cut curves and sculptures.
The resulting shapes have been named by children since the park’s opening, like passing cloud animals. The youngest boys, Max and Rafino, lay, hands resting behind their head, staring at the oval ceiling of the old gunpowder manufacturing room where swirling marble-like layers reveal the motion of an ancient whirlpool.
We pass the four-legged Queen’s Watchdog sculpture. And like a spiritual tradition, touched the smooth Bear’s Nose for good luck as we pass, as generations of kids have done before.
When the climate started to change and the sea that covered Central Texas more than 70 million years ago started to retreat, magnesium from the sea water deposited, accounting for some of the smoothest, strongest limestone-sister rocks called dolomite. The remarkable quality of the area’s rocks were incorrectly attributed as marble when first discovered, just like “falls”, the town is named for.
We pass through the Viking Prow, Eagle’s Wings, and Devil’s Footstool to the Smokehouse room named after the sausage-shaped stalactites; and Gerow tests the kids, “Who’s on the five dollar bill?”, to see if they can name the profile of a former president etched in stone.
“Like a diamond in the sky,” Jones sang to the youngest as we entered the glittering Hall of Gems, colored by floodlights. We near the end of the hour-and-a-half tour, as the children play penguin-walk and limbo during the bent-over walk of Lombardo Alley.
After the tour, we drive east, passing Inks Lake State Park and the Perissos Vineyard and Winery, to eat at the Hoover Valley Country Store and Café. While eating warm and filling chicken tenders, loaded potatoes, chicken fried steak, and fries, we discussed favorite outdoor spots around Marble Falls.
The oldest of the bunch, Avery, 16, is a newly-fledged yoga instructor who says she learned best through touch. The Hall of Gems, where she could touch the calcite crystals, was her favorite. Rafino, 10, his all-time favorite spot is Chicken Rock at the Devil’s Watering Hole in Inks Lake State Park. Marny, 13, enjoys exploring the lake’s endless coves. The lakeside parks are such a central meeting location for families that nearly all of the friends they know today first met there.
Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center
The next stop on our discovery trip was the Upper Highlands Lakes Nature Center, just north of Inks Lake.
The five-acre outdoor learning center on the Reveille Peak Ranch property is entirely volunteer-run and accessible only by reservation. The nature center customizes day activities for families and school groups alike. Options include angler education, nature scavenger hunts, a lady beetle station, water conservation and garden demonstrations, as well as hands-on display tables, such as a touch station for the visually impaired. Billy Hutson, founding director and president of the center, is our guide to the area’s geology and archaeology.
Huston lifts a handled door from the ground, like an entrance to a secret passageway, revealing an ancient hearth.
On this high spot overlooking the water, Native Americans lived, cooking and eating around this campfire. Hutson asks if the kids knew what the subtly arranged rocks were, to which Marny responds, “If I was an archeologist I would know!” They left with an archeological understanding of the land: that the particular assemblage of food-related articles and the depth and sequence in which artifacts were found indicated their age.
We played a hypothetical game of survival. If we were here 4,500 years ago, when these Nolan points were laid at the same time the pyramids were being built, would you use the Nolan point on an atlatl spear-thrower, or would you prefer to hunt with a bow and arrow? What would you hunt with each? Who would last the longest? A gym of sibling rivalry ensued, but would cooperation win the game? The girls role-played hunting bison, while the boys were content with squirrels and snails.
“Anything I catch will be the first thing I cook,” says Max. “I can live off of small animals forever.”
Next stop, we weave through mint-colored lichen and pink granite outcrops to a waterfall, lined by black rocks resembling a lava flow. Hutson says geologists travel from out of state to see the formation—some even shed a tear at the rare find. The garnet-studded Packsaddle Schists are some of the oldest rocks in Texas and the world, created during a mountain-building event older than the Himalayas, and discovered less than a decade ago.
The rocks around Marble Falls are unique, supporting resilient ecosystems and providing an outdoor classroom to students. Touching the oldest rocks in Texas and standing around the same campfire as someone who lived more than 4,000 years ago was a lesson in a difficult concept to grasp, deep time.
Historic Downtown and Johnson Park
To reward and fuel the kids for our next destination, we treated the kids to Choccolatte’s. The husband and wife team, Michele and Steve Parsons, make a fresh, handmade batch of gelato every week. They offer us a sample of gelato and their popular-demand pecan English toffee. Located in historic Old Oak Square on Main Street, the storefront has an old-town look with cast-iron café tables and French-style awnings. Many boutique shops and wineries line the street.
Heads full of spirit and stomachs full of sugar, we head to Johnson Park to horseplay.
Located adjacent to historic downtown on the shores of Lake Marble Falls, Johnson Park was platted by 1887, when the township was founded and used for community events as early as 1888. Just last year it was designed as a Lone Star Legacy Park, the 29th park to receive the designation, and remains the center of town activities and many time-honored events. Johnson Park has hosted the annual Howdy-Roo Chili Cook-Off since 1973 and the LakeFest Drag Boat Race since 1992.
We arrive at Johnson Park and the kids burst out of the sides of the SUVs, beeline to the tire swing — Max and Rafino’s favorite feature – and complete with a perfect mount. They’d obviously done this before.
For the parents, it’s easy to entertain the kids when it seems like there’s an event almost every weekend from March to November, including a monthly skate contest for all ages at the adjacent Falls Creek Skatepark.
The Texas Hill Country Homeschoolers hold their science co-op and book club at Johnson Park, including a workshop on sound and magnets by Jones at the pavilion, kickball and soccer tournaments in the fields, and Avery taught yoga at the park’s amphitheater.
When Newberry retired from the Navy in 2014 and was looking for the best place to move from Oceanside, California, she got a map of Texas, pointed to the most lakes, and landed in the Highland Lakes region.
After a while, the kids came running up to the picnic tables where we sat. Flushed and panting, they reached for their six-inch Chocolatte’s cookies that stretched to the corners of their wide grins.
“The number one draw to Marble Falls for kids of all ages is the number of swimming opportunities in a small town.” Jones says, “You can paddle the whole lake and head to nearby spots like Inks Lake all in one place.”
Kids come to Marble Falls from all over the state to go to popular summer camps like Camp Peniel, Camp of the Hills, and Camp Champions, or to enjoy a day trip to Sweet Berry Farms to pick their own strawberries in spring or pumpkin in fall and rent a canoe at Jolly Rogers Paddle Co.
I came thinking we’d teach them a thing or two about the outdoors, but I think I got schooled. Spend a day in Marble Falls with children, and they’ll be sure to show you the best places.