Stretching from western Austin down to northern San Antonio and continuing southwest toward the Mexican border, the Texas Hill Country is one of the state's most popular regions for families thanks to the plethora of kid-friendly things to do. Whether it's wandering through Garner State Park, tubing down the Frio River, or seeing exotic animals at the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, you're bound to find an activity to suit your family amid the Hill Country's mix of rural and urban gems.
Located on the southern edges of the Texas Hill Country, Garner State Park covers more than 1,400 acres, including a 10-acre stretch along the Frio River. One of the most popular state parks in Texas, Garner State Park offers visitors a variety of outdoor recreational activities including tubing, swimming, camping, hiking, fishing, and canoeing. For many Texans and Texas visitors, a trip to Garner State Park has become an annual summer pilgrimage, and the park offers several ways to beat the July and August heat in the region.
Rising 425 feet above the ground (1,825 feet about sea level), Enchanted Rock is one of the largest natural rock formations in the United States and is one of the most iconic natural attractions in Texas. Located just north of Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock is right in the heart of what once was the Texas "Indian Territory." Through the previous centuries, this large rock formation played an important role in the lives of the Native American tribes that made the Texas Hill Country their home, and it is now designated as a State Natural Area. Hiking is extremely popular at Enchanted Rock. A four-mile trail encompasses several rock formations in the area, while a shorter, steeper foot trail leads to the top of Enchanted Rock. Campsites are available for those wishing to stay overnight.
Housing more than 300 animals from over 100 species, the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary rescues all the animals it keeps in captivity. This dual-purpose facility not only serves as a source of entertainment and education but also as a rescue and rehabilitation center for animals, from big cats to monkeys. The Austin Zoo is home to endangered lions, bears, lemurs, peacocks, and animals native to the state: Texas Longhorns, rat snakes, lizards, and more. If you're lucky, you'll see the staff throwing one of its beloved rescues a birthday party (they're all listed on the calendar, if you want to check ahead of time). The pleasant Hill Country setting adds to the visitor experience and makes it easily accessible from other tourist stops in the capital.
The Texas Highland Lakes are a series of seven lakes located on a stretch of the Colorado River that runs from the city of Austin north about 75 miles. The seven lakes included in the chain are Lake Buchanan, Inks Lake, Lake LBJ, Lake Marble Falls, Lake Travis, Lake Austin, and Lady Bird Lake. There are a variety of outdoor recreational activities at each of these seven lakes, including the 10-mile hike-and-bike trail at Lady Bird Lake, spas on the shores of Lake Austin, jet skiing at Lake Travis, water skiing on Lake Marble Falls, swimming at Lake LBJ, canoeing at Inks Lake, and viewing bald eagles at Lake Buchanan.
Located in southwest Austin's Zilker Park, Barton Springs was formed when the city dammed Barton Creek, creating a spring-fed pool that has become one of the most popular swimming holes in Texas. First opened in 1917, Barton Springs remains an extremely popular spot for residents and visitors alike to cool off from the hot Texas sun. Operated as a public swimming pool, Barton Springs charges a small admission and is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, year-round; however, the natural pool is closed on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for cleaning.
The Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch in northeast San Antonio offers an African-style safari complete with four miles of driving trails throughout the 400-acre property. During the self-guided tour, visitors have the ability to stay in their vehicles while observing over 40 species of animals including giraffes, ostrich, zebras, rhinos, and wildebeest. After the tour, visitors can spend time at the petting zoo, gift shop, or the on-site restaurant.
Found directly across the road from the wildlife ranch, the Natural Bridge Caverns is another great place to take your kids. Known as the largest commercially-operated caverns in the state, Natural Bridge offers several kid-friendly activities including mining for gems at the Mining Company, facing a sky-high obstacle course at the Canopy Challenge, finding your way through a 5,000-square-foot maze, and exploring the naturally-formed limestone caverns on the Discovery or Hidden Passages tours. Since temperatures remain at around 70 degrees in the caverns, they are open daily throughout the year.
The Bavarian-themed Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels is one of the most popular water parks in Texas, boasting both thrill-inducing slides and leisurely attractions like the lazy river. Schlitterbahn uses water from the Comal River, which its located alongside, for the variety of tubes, slides, rides, and pools in the park, keeping the water fresh and cool at around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Schlitterbahn Waterpark is open on weekends in the early spring and fall and daily during the summer months of June, July, and most of August; however, the park is closed during the colder months from late August through early April.
Although known for its wineries, the city of Fredericksburg is also a great place for families to discover the storied past of the state or enjoy the unique natural landscape of central Texas. Located about 80 miles west of Austin, this historic city was originally settled by Germans and has a number of great museums that explore the city's storied past. The Pioneer Museum, for instance, offers kids the chance to wander through historic colonial German homesteads as well as a one-room schoolhouse, log cabin, and other historical exhibits. Meanwhile, the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site lets kids enjoy a living history farmstead meant to replicate the birthplace of the late president.
Winding through limestone bluffs and under enormous cypress trees, the Frio River stretches across 47 miles of south-central Texas, reaching up into the Texas Hill Country in the north. The Frio has long been considered one of the best destinations for families in the state thanks to the variety of resorts, attractions, and activities you'll find along its path. Tubing is a great way to lazily enjoy the river, and you can access it anywhere from Kent to slightly southwest of Concan in Garner State Park.
Austin's hands-on children's museum the Thinkery is a place for toddlers and younger kids to learn about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) through a variety of activities, events, and exhibits. Programs offered by the Thinkery include a Parent's Night Out event where the kids (ages 4 and older) stay in for a science-themed pizza party and the parents go out to any number of restaurants with special affiliate discounts. In another workshop, kids can make wood-burning art and take it home with them. The Thinkery even has some over-21 experiences (i.e. science chats with an open bar and food trucks) for the adult set. This Austin favorite, located inside the Meridith Learning Lab near Mueller Park, is open year-round, seven days a week.
Two of the many things Texas is known for are its cattle ranches and its rodeos, and the Texas Hill Country is home to a number of great rodeo venues and arenas. Tejas Rodeo Company is a hidden gem based in Bulverde, just a few miles northwest of San Antonio, that features a rodeo every Saturday night from March through November as well as a number of special events all year long. Meanwhile, several other smaller towns across the Texas Hill Country only host semi-annual events like Junction's rodeo and dance each August.