Cycling around Austin is one of the best ways to get to know the city. The hills in west Austin can be a bit steep and challenging, but most of the hills in central Austin are of the gently rolling variety. So grab your bike, pick a route and get moving. While many streets have dedicated bike lanes, most are not protected, and some stop abruptly at major intersections. Wear a helmet, stay alert and have fun.
Downtown to Lady Bird Lake: Easy
If you’re staying in downtown Austin, this is one of the easiest ways to enjoy some scenery while getting your blood pumping. B-cycle has several easy-to-use bike rental kiosks throughout the city center. They’re fairly basic bikes, but you won’t need anything fancy for this ride. It’s simple to access the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake at Congress Avenue or South 1st Street. The full loop around the lake is 10 miles long, but you can shorten it to 4 miles or less depending on which spot you choose to turn around. There are pedestrian/bicycle bridges at Lamar Boulevard and at the trail’s western terminus at Mopac. There are a few small hills along the trail but no major changes in elevation.
Downtown to the University of Texas Campus: Easy
Starting at 11th and Congress Avenue, the safest route to the University of Texas campus is to head east on 11th, right on Nueces, right on West Martin Luther King and an almost immediate left on Guadalupe Street. This places you at the southern edge of the sprawling UT campus. If you continue a little further north on Guadalupe, you’ll arrive at the area known as The Drag. It’s dotted with coffee shops, restaurants and other stores geared toward students.
Shoal Creek Trail from 15th Street to 29th Street: Easy
Located in the heart of the city, the Shoal Creek Trail is ideal for those who plan to make several stops along the way and maybe even a few side trips. Access the trail near 15th and North Lamar Boulevard. The trail winds northward along Shoal Creek, past upscale subdivisions, sand volleyball courts and an off-leash dog park. While the trail is used by both hikers and walkers, it’s wide enough to accommodate even large crowds.
The creek itself ranges from babbling brook to raging river depending on recent rainfall. Much of the trail is shaded, but there are also open spaces along the way that are ideal for a picnic. There are only a few small hills along the route. If you get hungry or thirsty along the way, you’ll find several quaint restaurants and coffee shops around 29th Street.
Southern Walnut Creek Trail: Easy
The route of choice for nature lovers, the Southern Walnut Creek Trail (5200 Bolm Road at Govalle Park in east Austin) winds through more than seven miles of beautiful scenery. The wide, paved paths make for an easy ride past dense forests, small creeks and the Harvey Penick Golf Course. At a whopping 10 feet wide, the trail is rarely crowded. You can often ride side by side with your biking companion and chat as you ride. This is the best place in Austin to ride on a concrete surface without having to deal with cars. Though it’s not far from a residential neighborhood, most of the trail feels as though you’re in a secluded park far from the hassles of the city. You will pass under three roadways, but you won’t even have to slow down. In case you need one more reason to visit, in springtime, there are even fields of wildflowers along the route.
Downtown to South Congress Avenue: Easy-Moderate
If you stay on Congress Avenue all the way from downtown to the South Congress entertainment district, you’ll have a wide and dedicated bike lane for most of the route. However, it can still be harrowing because the street is always busy, and there are many small side streets that cars can unexpectedly emerge from along the way. The main shopping area starts around West Mary Street. The north-south portion of your journey is almost all downhill. Keep that in mind as you enjoy food and drinks on South Congress. The route back is a little tougher, consisting of a couple of long, gradual climbs.
Rock Hopping at Barton Creek Greenbelt: Moderate
If you have access to a mountain bike, preferably one equipped with shock absorbers, the minimally developed trails at the 1,900-acre Barton Creek Greenbelt are ideal for a moderately challenging ride. Accessible via the Barton Springs Pool parking lot in Zilker Park, the trail heads west into a tree-filled valley dotted with ephemeral streams.
For most of the route, hikers and bikers share the same trail, but the trail splits off eventually so that bikers can have their own space. The trail doesn’t have any major changes in elevation, but it does get very rocky at times. You may have to carry your bike due to rough terrain or water on the trail, depending on recent rainfall. Be sure to bring plenty of water; there are no water fountains or other facilities along the route.
Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve to Pennybacker Bridge: Difficult
Only for expert road warriors, this route is about four miles long, but it’s on the shoulder of a busy highway (Loop 360) and involves serious hills. Starting at Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve (805 North Capital of Texas Highway), head north on 360. After a few difficult climbs, you’ll see the iconic, rust-colored Pennybacker Bridge over Lake Austin. For those who have the requisite fitness level and other skills to stay safe on this ride, the rewards are amazing. Despite the challenging nature of the route, this is one of the most popular rides among serious cyclists in Austin. Some even travel much farther, both south and north, along 360 to enjoy dramatic views of limestone cliffs and tree-covered hillsides.
If you’re up for a bumpy ride, the trails at Emma Long Park offer a variety of challenges. You’ll be riding over rocks of all sizes, from gravel to refrigerator-sized, and steep turns can catch novices off-guard. The trails are in a part of the park that typically isn’t frequented by hikers, so you can usually go all out without worrying about mowing down nature buffs. Several ephemeral streams crisscross the trail, giving you a chance to get muddy and cool off. Most of the trail is shaded, so you can ride in the middle of summer without worrying too much about heat stroke.