Austin is fortunate to have tons of green space, hike-and-bike trails and swimming holes. Here are some of the best spots in and around town.
1. Barton Springs
The 3-acre, spring-fed pool stays at a constant temperature of 68 degrees year-round. It’s by far the best place to be in the middle of summer, whether you want to cool off, swim laps, snorkel or enjoy fantastic people watching.
An ideal site for a romantic picnic, Mount Bonnell overlooks Lake Austin and has a panoramic view of downtown. You’ll climb up a long staircase, though, before you can enjoy the scenery. Over 770 feet high, the hill is one of the tallest in central Texas.
3. Lady Bird Lake
Just south of downtown, Lady Bird Lake is the recreational hub of the city. For on-the-water fun, you can rent canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and, for the romantics at heart, a paddleboat in the shape of a giant swan. A trail goes around the entire lake, but you can take a shorter route by crossing the lake at Lamar Boulevard and S. 1st Street.
4. Zilker Park
With 350 acres to roam, you can play Frisbee on the Great Lawn, feed ducks along Barton Creek or visit the Austin Nature Center and its kid-friendly Dino Pit. Zilker is also home to the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival.
5. Barton Creek Greenbelt
The greenbelt is a minimally developed trail that starts at Zilker Park and meanders through 800 acres in west Austin. After heavy rains, several swimming holes develop along Barton Creek. The area also has a number of sheer limestone cliffs that are popular among rock climbers.
6. Emma Long Metropolitan Park
The park can get a little rowdy on summer weekends, but it’s still a great place for a group picnic. You can lounge along the lakefront, play volleyball or take a hike on the dog-friendly Turkey Creek trail. The lake isn’t very wide at this point, but the small swimming area is protected from passing boat traffic.
7. Congress Avenue Bridge Bats
The city’s most popular tourist attraction never fails to disappoint. Even if you’ve seen them before, you can see the 1.5 million bats from a different vantage point, such as in a kayak or on a party boat. Most people gather on the sidewalk along the Congress Avenue Bridge. You can also bring a blanket and relax on the hillside next to the bridge.
8. Zilker Botanical Garden
The peaceful Japanese garden is my favorite spot. It features ponds brimming with koi fish, little walking bridges and exotic flora. In spring, the butterfly garden is a favorite among the wee ones. Colorful flowers and butterflies are a feast for the senses.
A group of minimally developed parks, the Balcones Canyonland Preserve requires registration in advance on its website for guided hikes. One of the most pristine tracts of land in Austin, the parks are home to the rare golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo.
10. Cedar Bark Park
A part of Veterans Memorial Park, the Cedar Bark Park stretches across five acres and includes a pond, drinking fountains and even showers for your canine companions. Dogs are free to roam off-leash in two fenced-in areas, one for big dogs and the other for pooches 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 that 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 ideal launching pad into the pond for adventurous pups. 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 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. 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.