You don’t need to have lived downtown for thirty years to see that Austin is rapidly becoming more urbanized.
According to Forbes’ 2015 list, Austin ranks as the number two fastest-growing city in the United States. The race to claim the title of “tallest building in town” is always burning hot, with The Independent, a 685-foot Jenga-style condominium, slated to top The Austonian‘s mere 683-foot frame upon its completion. And Hotel Granduca just announced that it’s bought a sweet little spot along Loop 360.
However, unlike other fast-growing cities in Texas — and thanks to generous nature-lovers like Andrew Zilker and J. E. “Pete” Smith — Austin has largely proved unwilling to sacrifice its natural spaces on the altars of metropolitan progress. For locals and visitors alike who are looking to breathe fresh air and walk off some of that nine-to-five stress, Austin trails come in all varieties. Some are paved and easy, while others are much more rugged and challenging. While each is loved and appreciated, particularly by their neighbors, we have some strong opinions about which ones are best.
Seriously, these Austin trails are so gorgeous and so readily accessible, you’ll feel like you’re being bear hugged by Mother Nature herself. If you’re feeling stressed out, anxious, or just need to burn off some energy, this is where you need to be.
1) Our Favorite Austin Trail By Far Is Barton Creek Greenbelt
The first and most obvious trail network on our list of amazing hiking trails in Austin is the Barton Creek Greenbelt system. Boasting nearly eight miles of crushed gravel and dirt trails along its main trail, the Barton Creek Greenbelt network stretches from the Zilker Hillside Theater‘s and Barton Springs Pool‘s parking lot out west and under Mopac and Loop 360 to the Hill of Life* on Camp Craft Rd. There are also a number of non-loop side trails included in the trail network, some of which lead to beloved swimming holes, such as Twin and Sculpture Falls and Gus Fruh, and rock climbing walls. The greenbelt welcomes cyclists and leashed dogs as well as hikers, so brush up on your trail etiquette before you go!
* Expert Tip: Don’t attempt to mountain bike Hill of Life unless you know what you’re doing.
2) The Austin Trail At Turkey Creek Is A Close Runner Up
If you have dogs who enjoy a good hike, then Turkey Creek Trail is the place to take ’em. This shady nature path winds along a lively creek, beginning in a small parking lot just before the official entrance gate to Emma Long Metropolitan Park along City Park Rd. Turkey Creek is massively popular because it’s the only lengthy off-leash hiking trail in town, so arrive early* and expect to make a lot of new human and canine friends on your adventure — unless, of course, you’re that guy who doesn’t clean up after his dog; then no one will be your friend. Except in cases of severe drought, the creek should provide plenty of water for Fido to drink and cool off in, but Rule #1 on this trail is Bring Your Own Doggie Bags Or Else, people.
* Expert Tip: You can’t park on the sides of City Park Rd, so if you don’t get a spot in the trailhead parking lot, you’re out of luck.
1600 City Park Rd. 512-477-1566. Open daily sunrise to sunset. Dogs off leash OK. Free. Trail Guide.
3) The Outer Loop at Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve Easily Takes Third
Once upon a time, when Loop 360 was still in its planning stages, seven fiery local women hatched a plan to preserve a 227-acre plot of Texas hill country bliss just north of West Lake Hills. Despite many financial setbacks, their persistence prevailed. Now, Travis County and St. Edwards University work side by side to manage Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, whose 2.5 miles of nature trails and educational center are open to the public daily from sunrise to sunset. To catch both the scenic overlook and the waterfall, we recommend that you hike the 2-mile outer loop of trails by following this route, beginning and ending at the preserve’s headquarters:
- Take the North Access trail around HQ for 0.21 miles.
- Turn LEFT on the Arroyo Vista / Easy Access Loop and follow it for 0.14 miles, stopping to admire the view at the Scenic Overlook.
- Continue straight/left on the Triknee Trail for 0.15 miles.
- Continue straight/left on the Possum Trail for 0.14 miles.
- Continue straight/left to view the Pond and then backtrack.
- Turn LEFT on the Creek Trail and follow it for 0.18 miles.
- Continue straight/left on the Madrone / Yaupon Trail for 0.61 miles, stopping to admire the Waterfall.
- Continue straight/left on the Falls Trail for 0.1 miles.
- Turn LEFT on the Laurel Trail and follow it for 0.11 miles.
- Turn LEFT on the Arroyo Vista / Easy Access Loop and follow it for 0.14 miles.
- Continue straight/left on the South Access trail and follow it back to headquarters.
* Expert Tip: Be on the lookout for rare and endangered native birds, such as the Golden-cheeked warbler.
4) But You Can’t Go Wrong With River Place Nature Trail
If you’re looking for a challenging yet beautiful local hike, River Place Nature Trail is exactly what you need. Complete with waterfalls and pools, ferns and moss, rock shelves, and the largest elevation change of any trail in the Austin area, River Place is a 5.5-mile trail network consisting of three distinct routes: Fern Trail, The Canyons Trail, and Panther Hollow Trail. Each of the three routes has its own trailhead, which can be found at the addresses below. For a shorter hike, park near the Fern trailhead and hike towards either The Canyons or Panther Hollow and back. If you want to hike the full 5.5 miles, start at either The Canyons or the Panther Hollow trailhead.
- Fern Trail — 3916 River Place Blvd
- The Canyons Trail — 4740 River Place Blvd
- Panther Hollow Trail — 8820 Big View Dr
River Place received a huge makeover in 2013 and 2014, after some seriously heated controversy between the City of Austin and River Place MUD rendered large chunks of the popular trail inaccessible to the public off and on for roughly six years. Now that everything is squared away, Friends of River Place Trail is currently developing updated trail maps, which they plan to publish on their website in May.
* Expert Tip: Local Grand Canyon aspirants train on River Place Nature Trail.
5) And There’s Nothing To Hate At The Bull Creek Greenbelt Trail
Bull Creek — in all of its limestone-lined gorgeousness — is a tributary of the Colorado River that runs along North Capital of Texas Highway and does pretty well for itself where small waterfalls are concerned. The Bull Creek Greenbelt Trail stretches from Bull Creek District Park northeast up to Old Spicewood Springs Road. Due to numerous river crossings, it can be difficult to follow the entire 4.5-mile trail from start to finish, but this helpful guide by Austin Explorer should help you stay on track. If you plan to explore Bull Creek on a hot day, be sure to stop for a swim at Hidden Falls!
* Expert tip: Beat the heat this summer at any of Austin’s amazing natural swimming holes.
Bull Creek District Park: 6701 Lakewood Dr. 512-974-6700. Open daily sunrise to sunset. Bikes, dogs on leash OK. Free. Trail Guide.
6) Homestead and Flint Rock Loop at McKinney Falls State Park Is Gorgeous Year ‘Round
Did you know that Austin has its very own state park? Texas Parks & Wildlife founded McKinney Falls State Park back in 1976, after J. E. “Pete” Smith, whose grandfather bought the land when the McKinneys fell on hard times, gifted 682 acres of ranch land to the state. Short of boating and horseback riding, McKinney Falls has it all. The park boasts 90 primitive and developed campsites and cabins, several retreat facilities, two natural swimming holes with waterfalls, opportunities for picnicking, geocaching, leef peeing, birdwatching, and fishing, and nearly 10 miles of hiking and biking trails. There’s even a 500 year-old tree growing along Onion Creek!
For maximum adventure potential and the best overview of the park, we recommend hiking the 2.8-mile Homestead Trail and the 2.25-mile Flint Rock Trail as one 5-mile loop. To do this, park in the Lower Falls lot and hike down to the water. You’ll find the well-marked Homestead trailhead east of the main swimming area and this is where you will begin and end your adventure.
* Expert tip: Hike quietly in the early morning to boost your chances of encountering wildlife on the trail.
7) And Who Can Forget The Walnut Creek Park Trail Network?
Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park commands some serious wilderness acreage in North Austin and frankly, its rugged and hilly 15-mile trail network is pretty sweet. Besides offering a decent challenge to mountain bikers, Walnut Creek’s trails offer, as Austin Explorer aptly puts it, “more trails and side paths crossing the nooks and crannies of the park landscape than you will probably ever be able to explore.” Study the trail map and plan a loop route for mileage or explore the trails randomly until you’re exhausted — either way, you’re guaranteed to get your fill of nature at Walnut Creek, despite being surrounded by several of the busiest streets in town!
* Expert tip: Pack plenty of water and snacks, as it’s easy to get turned around in this trail network.
8) Hill Trail At St. Edwards Park Is Also A Classic
With 80 acres to its name, St. Edwards Park might not be the biggest natural space in Austin, but it’s certainly one of the prettiest. Located along Spicewood Springs Rd and Bull Creek, this little park contains an impressive 3 miles of trails, including an especially steep 2-mile loop track known as the Hill Trail. To find the trailhead, travel two miles west down Spicewood Springs Rd and park in the pullout by the white mailbox. From there, follow the “Trailhead” marker down to Bull Creek and cross along stepping stones. Then, let the fun begin! Be sure to stop at the “Overlook” waypoint to breathe, have a little lunch, and admire the view.
9) San Gabriel River Trail’s Goodwater Loop Is Also A Strong Contender
Clocking in at a whopping 28 miles, Lake Georgetown’s Goodwater Loop is easily Austin’s longest and most impressive hiking trail, perfect for the aspiring backpacker to test their mettle. Circling around the entirety of Lake Georgetown, the Goodwater Loop cuts through dense forests and prairie grasslands, leading the hiker to encounter many a scenic overlook, spring, creek crossing, and waterfall. Three of the more notable landmarks along the hike are ferny Crockett Gardens Knight Spring and Falls, the City of Georgetown Challenge Course, and the Hunt Hollow Wildlife Management Area, which is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for hunting. The USACE also cultivates the land to encourage habitation by endangered bird species like the Black-capped vireo.
Unless you plan on hiking short there-and-back segments of the Goodwater Loop, consider parking at one particular trailhead and asking a friend or family member to pick you up at one of the later trailheads. The six trailheads are approximately located at the following addresses:
- Booty’s Road Park: 1631 Bootys Crossing Rd
- Cedar Breaks Park: 2100 Cedar Breaks Rd
- Overlook & Headquarters: 500 Lake Overlook Rd
- Jim Hogg Park: 1154 Jim Hogg Rd
- Russell Park: 2101 CR 262
- Tejas Park: 4560 CR 258
10) But No List Is Complete Without Shoal Creek Greenbelt Trail
Though not a particularly secluded hike, the 5-mile Shoal Creek Greenbelt Trail deserves mention in this list because its very existence proves that, without a doubt, it’s possible to experience nature in the middle of a city whose community members care enough to protect it. Known by outdoorsy types as perhaps the best way to forego crowds when traveling north-south downtown. The trail stretches from Shoal Beach at Lady Bird Lake to W 38th St near Randalls Pharmacy and Seider Springs Park, alternating between concrete and dirt track and between urban and natural scenery. The trailheads are clearly marked at both starting points, but allot some time to find parking and get oriented.
2631 Shoal Creek Blvd. 512-477-1566. Open daily sunrise to sunset. Bikes, dogs on leash OK. Free. Trail Guide.
Think you have exhausted all that Austin has to offer in terms of hiking trails? Venturing father beyond Austin city limits will bring you even more opportunities to explore the Texas Hill Country on foot. Roughly one hour west of the Capitol, you’ll find great swimming and hiking at Hamilton Pool and Pedernales Falls State Park. Head one hour northwest and you’ll hit Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, which boasts nearly seven miles of secluded trails. Keep on going and you’ll find Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, which is renowned for its half-mile Summit hike, in particular.
However, it’s definitely in your best interest to give each of these ten beautiful Austin hikes a chance. Some of them are so secluded and peaceful that you may totally forget you’re in the middle of a city!
Featured photo: Flickr user Ben Seidelman, creative commons licensed.