Water spills over the lip of a grotto at Westcave Preserve. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

For me, nature works like a salve when Iím stressed out.

So it felt good to spend a few hours at Westcave Preserve this morning, learning about its history, hiking its trails and standing behind a curtain of spraying water in its grotto and looking out at the bottom of a cypress-lined canyon.

Huge cypress trees grow in the canyon at Westcave Preserve. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

The 76-acre preserve, located off of Hamilton Pool Road near Dripping Springs, celebrates its 40-year anniversary this year. Iíd never visited, and walking its trails soothed my soul.

Back in the late 1800s, the land operated as a farm estate for German immigrants. John Covert Watson, who had frequently sneaked onto the property as a young man, purchased it in the 1970s. He planned to use it as a weekend retreat he could share with friends, but quickly realized the communityís love for the place. He decided to protect it, putting together a board and raising the money needed to turn it into a preserve.

He hired John Ahrns as preserve manager, a job he held for 30 years. Ahrns pulled out mounds of trash left by people who ventured onto the property to swim and camp. Thatís against rules now; preserving the unique geologic formation and the plants and animals that live there remain a priority.

Moss and ferns line the grotto, which opens into a canyon. Pam LeBlanc/American Statesman

Today the Lower Colorado River Authority owns the land, but Westcave manages the property and operates educational programs there. The focus? Connecting children to nature.

Ahrnsí daughter, Amber Ahrns Gosselin, now serves as Westcave Preserveís director of land stewardship. She joined me, executive director Molly Stevens and board member Rebecca Benz for the walk. They showed me an education center built in 2003, and then we hiked to an overlook above the Pedernales River, which fronts a section of the property, and down into the canyon.

Why protect this corner of Travis County? Take a look at the subdivisions popping up along the roads surrounding it and itís easy to understand why itís important.

ďWestcave is not only just a treasure because itís a unique geologic formation, but itís a wonderful example of healthy Hill Country land and what happens if you leave a place alone. It recovers,Ē Stevens says.

A quote by conservationist John Muir is carved into a rock at Westcave Preserve. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

About 15,000 people visit Westcave each year, many of them school children on field trips. The preserve offers monthly star parties, along with educational programs about preserving dark night skies, reducing water consumption and more. Researchers are conducting studies on climate, golden-cheek warblers, dragonflies and butterflies here, too.

Westcave preserve offers guided tours for the public at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; cost is $10 for adults, $6 for children and $25 for families. Self-guided hiking on the upland portion of the preserve (not the grotto or canyon) is available Tuesday through Sunday.

For more information go here.