While Zilker Park is the city’s most popular weekend destination, it can get extremely crowded at the height of summer. Smaller parks and sprawling greenbelts around town are often better choices when all you want is a lazy afternoon in the sun. Whatever you desire in your park day, Austin can deliver. Read on for our picks of the best parks in the city.
The gem of Austin’s parks system, Zilker Park is 350 acres of forested areas, open spaces and trails. If you’re bringing a dog with you, head to the 46-acre Great Lawn near the western edge of the park along the MoPac highway. You and your dog may have to share the space with soccer players, picnickers and Frisbee hurlers. Located on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, the area offers lush grass and just a few trees. If your dog is part billy goat, it may enjoy climbing the solitary rock formation in the middle of the lawn.
Located next to Lady Bird Lake, Vic Mathias Shores (formerly Auditorium Shores) is mostly open space dotted with a few trees. Every evening, the 5-acre park is overrun by dozens of playful pooches and their owners. The leash-free area includes part of the lake, giving dogs easy access to a quick cool-down. Situated on a gradual slope, the park has three terraced levels that are each bordered by 2-foot-high limestone rocks. The rocks serve as seating for humans and as launching pads for doggy surprise attacks.
Mueller Lake Park
As part of one of Austin’s first master-planned developments, Mueller Lake Park may give Zilker a run for its money at some point. The 30-acre park has a 6-acre lake, 5 miles of trails and the most extravagant playscape most kids have ever seen. The park’s amphitheater is a community meeting place, hosting concerts and festivals. An old restored airplane hangar is used for the weekly farmer’s market at the park.
A green space that meanders along a creek, Little Stacy Park is located in the uber-hip Travis Heights neighborhood. The park features two tennis courts, five picnic tables, a volleyball court, a baseball/kickball field and a well-equipped playground. A community swimming pool anchors the northern end of the park.
The full name is Beverly S. Sheffield Northwest District Park, but locals know it simply as Northwest Park. Tucked away inside the Allandale neighborhood, the park has a large swimming pool, four tennis courts, two basketball courts, a fishing pier and 47 picnic tables. The scenic pond attracts ducks and also plays a valuable role as a flood-control reservoir.
Located in the historic Hyde Park neighborhood, Shipe Park covers only 2 acres, but the site is revered and well cared for by longtime residents. It has two tennis courts, a small swimming pool and plenty of shade trees. The playground area has a soft surface to protect rambunctious kiddos.
Located in far south Austin, Dick Nichols is a sprawling park, encompassing 152 acres. There’s a splash pad for the little ones, a swimming pool, two tennis courts, three volleyball courts and a paved bike trail. At sunset, you may occasionally see a few of the neighborhood deer wandering through the park.
Surrounded on three sides by water, Red Bud Isle is an ideal place to let dogs roam without a leash. The 13-acre park is basically one big, wide loop trail with a scrubby forest in the middle. Million-dollar mansions overlook the park, allowing a glimpse into the world of Austin’s rich folk. The park is also an excellent launching point for kayaks and canoes, but you’ll have to bring your own. It’s an easy paddle on the portion of the lake that surrounds the park.
While it’s primarily a day-use park, Emma Long also has a few campsites. Most people come to swim, picnic and play in the park’s abundant open space. For dog owners, the Turkey Creek trail within the park is leash-free and tons of fun for the pups. The 2.5-mile trail winds along — and through — a shallow creek. Occasionally, there are also larger swimming holes along the way, depending on how much rain has fallen recently. The curvy trail gets narrow at points, hemmed in by heavy brush and boulders, so it’s easy to lose sight of a wandering dog. You may want to put the leash back on in these areas.
The park is a long, narrow 76-acre greenbelt along both sides of Shoal Creek. The leash-free area is located in the Pease Park portion of the greenbelt, between 24th and 29th Street. Parts of the trail are made up of large, rough-hewn boulders that can be hazardous to dog paws and human ankles, but most of the trail is simply hard-packed dirt. Thanks to the abundant shade provided by sprawling oak trees, it’s a pleasant walk even when the temperatures hit the mid-90s.
A part of Veterans Memorial Park, Cedar Bark Park stretches across 5 acres and includes a pond, drinking fountains and even showers for your canine companions. The only downside to all the wide-open space is the lack of shade. There are a couple of shaded benches, and volunteers have planted several trees that will eventually provide shade. For now, bring plenty of water for yourself and don't forget the sunscreen. Dogs are free to roam off-leash in two fenced-in areas, one for big dogs and the other for pups under 30 pounds. There are also marked walking trails within the park for those who might want to walk with their pet amid the frolicking dogs. For dogs who aren’t accustomed to the off-leash experience, a walk around the park on leash is a good way of introducing them to all the new stimuli. A small pier provides the perfect launching pad into the pond for adventurous pooches. Much of the park’s surface is dirt and gravel, so you will most likely have a dog covered in mud before the visit is over. The park doesn't have an attendant or a referee, so visitors are expected to police themselves and keep their dogs in sight at all times. No food or dog treats are allowed in the park, but some dog owners violate that rule from time to time, which can lead to doggy brawls. Park users are also expected to clean up after their dogs, but watch your step — not everyone scoops their poop. Plenty of poop-bag dispensers and trash cans are available for responsible dog parents. Fully equipped restrooms are available for the humans.