The Highland Lakes are seven reservoirs in central Texas formed by dams along the Colorado River. Built from the 1930s to the '60s for flood control and hydroelectric power, the lakes are now the recreational crown jewels of the region. Starting about 70 miles northwest of Austin, the lakes snake southward along the original serpentine course of the river, ending in Austin.
Lady Bird Lake
Running through the heart of Austin, Lady Bird Lake is encircled by a 10-mile hike-and-bike trail that's always buzzing with activity. The lake is the southernmost tip of the Highland Lakes chain. Formerly known as Town Lake, it was renamed in honor of Lady Bird Johnson after her death. She played a major role in transforming the lake and the trail into a vibrant recreational area that still retains much of its original natural beauty. Gas-powered motorboats are prohibited on the lake, so it's mostly populated by kayakers and stand-up paddlers on surfboards. Kayaks, paddle boats and stand-up paddle boards can be rented at the Rowing Dock, on the north shore near Austin High School. On summer evenings, you can watch 1.5 million bats emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge.
Located on the west side of Austin, Lake Austin is surrounded by multimillion-dollar homes perched above limestone cliffs. For a day at a world-class spa, head to Lake Austin Spa and Resort. If you're not swimming in money, you can still enjoy the lake at Emma Long Metropolitan Park, which many locals refer to as simply "city park." It has two boat ramps, volleyball courts, a sandy beach and 66 campsites. On Sunday afternoons in summer, many boaters wind down at the Hula Hut, where they can pull right up to slips attached to the restaurant's pier. It can get crowded, but it's a laid-back place to enjoy a fruity drink and eat Polynesian-influenced Mexican food.
Covering 18,600 acres, Lake Travis offers plenty of room to roam and countless recreational opportunities. The lake was designed primarily for flood control, which means the water level can rise and fall significantly depending on rainfall. If you're looking to get rowdy, or just enjoy quality people-watching, steer your boat to Devil's Cove. Several boats are often tied together to create a kind of floating party. Expect to see speedboats, boats with slides, lots of beer drinking and occasional partial nudity. For a more kid-friendly outing, visit The Oasis restaurant, which features an entire hillside of terraced decks and world-class sunset viewing. The hillside erupts in applause when the sun drops below the horizon.
This narrow, 600-acre lake is excellent for water skiing or otherwise cruising around in a boat. It's the smallest lake in the Highland Lakes chain, and most of the acreage around the lake is privately owned. Hampton Inn on the Lake offers great views of the water, plus free breakfast every morning. Make sure you stop in for a piece of pie at the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls. Southern Living magazine named the restaurant one of the top 10 places for pie in Texas. Chocolate meringue is the best seller, but you also can't go wrong with pecan pie.
Most of the land around Lake LBJ is privately owned, so you may have to fork out a little more cash to enjoy this 6,500-acre lake, particularly if you stay at a fancy place like the Horseshoe Bay Resort. Sunset Point RV park occupies a prime spot along a mile of shoreline. The resort has its own boat ramp, boat slips, and a protected swimming area. Lake LBJ Resort and Marina has a wide variety of accommodations, ranging from 600-square-foot rooms to the 2,200-square-foot LBJ Presidential Suite. They also rent pontoon boats, jet skis, and kayaks.
Inks Lake State Park is the main attraction at this 837-acre lake. Surrounded by beautiful pink granite hills, Inks lake is maintained at a consistent level, so it's not significantly affected by the area's frequent droughts. Deer, turkey, and quail may be spotted throughout the park. Anglers frequently catch bass, crappie, and catfish in Inks Lake. Canoes and paddle boats can be rented at the park store. Accommodations range from primitive campsites to limited use cabins.
The 22,000-acre Lake Buchanan is the northernmost in the Highland Lakes chain. In the cooler months, you may spot bald eagles soaring over the lake. The Vanishing Texas River Cruise is a popular way to tour the lake. It departs from the Canyon of the Eagles Nature Park and Resort. The resort is operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which also runs a campground at Black Rock Park on Lake Buchanan. The lake is well known for its top-notch fishing opportunities, particularly striped bass and catfish. For a more upscale option, you can head to Fall Creek Vineyards on the northwest shore and sample a little Texas wine.