Whether you find yourself in the heart of Austin or in neighboring towns, nature is never far away. Thousands of acres within the city limits are set aside for greenbelts, and Austin is surrounded by state parks. Pack up plenty of water, sunscreen and snacks, and go explore central Texas.
The park’s main hiking trail winds along the lake and past a bird blind and waterfall, offering an ideal spot for a break at the Devil’s Waterhole scenic overlook. Unlike many lakes in central Texas, Inks Lake remains around the same level regardless of rainfall. That means it’s a prime destination for boaters, anglers, and swimmers. The pink granite throughout the park makes an excellent backdrop for photos. If you’re out early in the morning, you might even get a shot of the park’s resident wild turkeys.
An easy half-mile stroll, the trail goes past limestone cliffs that curve up and over the trail in some portions. These natural overhangs were used as shelters for thousands of years by Native Americans. Other sights along the way include small streams and towering bald cypress trees. If you’re lucky, you may spot the colorful painted bunting and other songbirds. However, you’re more likely to see raccoons, armadillos, and deer.
The centerpiece of the park is a swimming hole with a waterfall. The flow varies greatly depending on recent rainfall. Occasionally, park rangers prohibit swimming when the swimming hole turns into whitewater.
Located within the popular Emma Long Metropolitan Park on Lake Austin, the 2.5-mile Turkey Creek Trail winds back and forth through dense trees and over a creek. Dogs are allowed off-leash on the trail, so be prepared for lots of slobbery greetings along the way. After your hike, you can cool off with a swim in Lake Austin.
Located in the far-west portion of the Barton Creek Greenbelt, the Hill of Life trail starts at the top of a hill overlooking Barton Creek. At over six miles long, this is a fairly strenuous hike, but you’ll enjoy great scenery along the way. Waterfalls of varying sizes can be seen throughout the hike. Sculpture Falls isn’t a high waterfall, but it’s still very photogenic. The water tumbles through massive limestone boulders that have been carved up by the water.
Easily accessible via the parking lot next to Barton Springs Pool, the greenbelt encompasses more than 800 acres of minimally developed land. The trails are well marked, except for portions of the trail that are made up of large boulders. Sheer limestone cliffs loom over parts of the trail, attracting novice and experienced rock climbers alike. The swimming holes along the trail come and go with the seasonal rains, but you can almost always find a place to cool off.
The main attraction is the massive hunk of pink granite at the center of the park. Climbing the slick surface can be a little trickier than it appears, especially after a rain. Following a zigzag pattern will help you keep your footing. While most people simply walk up the hill, some rock climbers do it the hard way, climbing up the steep rock face on one edge. Native Americans once saw the dome as a mystical place, perhaps because it makes mysterious noises at night as the rock cools down. The quaint German town of Fredericksburg is a short drive away.
With the preserve’s network of interconnected trails, it’s easy to go in circles at Wild Basin, but you’ll always be surrounded by great scenery. The Madrone Trail is only a little more than a half-mile long, but it has several changes in elevation and meanders past a small waterfall. There’s a restroom at the main office, but don’t expect many other amenities. Also, dogs are not allowed. The self-guided trail map provides a wealth of information about the park’s huge variety of plants and trees. Formerly the site of a shallow sea, the park has interesting rock formations around every corner.
The 5.5-mile Loop Overlook Trail offers amazing opportunities for viewing the river, hills, and wildlife. The Pedernales River becomes a beast after heavy rains. During these periods, swimming is prohibited, but the cascading falls are a beautiful sight. Instead of one big waterfall, there are several stairstep falls rushing over beige limestone boulders. Coyotes, rabbits and roadrunners are common in the park, and you may even stumble upon a skunk or two.
An ideal destination for a blazing hot day, the River Place Fern Trail meanders through ferns and past a series of small waterfalls. The Canyons Trail will remind you that you’re not too far from civilization, offering a view of the River Place Country Club golf course. The most challenging trail in the park is the Panther Hollow Trail, which requires some serious hill climbing. Although constantly threatened by development, this park in an upscale neighborhood has survived due to the commitment of a few good volunteers. After you see what a special park this is, you may be inclined to join the cause to preserve it for future generations.
A six-mile stretch of the planned 30-mile trail opened in 2015. The trail links up with the Barton Creek Greenbelt and offers similar scenery, including limestone cliffs, ephemeral creeks, and periodic open meadows. Ultimately, the trail’s supporters hope to connect several smaller greenbelts and parks and make it possible to travel by trail from Zilker Park to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in southwest Austin.
A devastating wildfire in 2011 destroyed much of the park’s signature pine trees, but the trail around Lake Mina offers a chance to see nature making its comeback. Seedlings are sprouting around the lake, and ducks and other wildlife are returning to the park. You may also spot the endangered Houston toad around the lake. Even if you’re only here for a day, take some time to check out the historic cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. They are among the few historic treasures in the park that survived the fire. The park abounds with wildflowers in the spring. To help you cool off after a hike, the park also has a swimming pool.