Top 5 Austin Outdoor Adventures

Austin is known for many amazing things: tasty Tex-Mex and lip-smacking barbecue, live music on nearly every corner, buzzy breweries and bars, super-cool neighborhoods and food trucks, food trucks, food trucks. But nature lovers truly find their bliss here with the seemingly endless options for outdoor adventuring.

Wanna play Texas cowboy and dramatically ride a horse off into the sunset? No problem. Looking for a throwback swimming hole complete with rope swing? You’ll find plenty. And in case you didn’t know, there’s lots of scenic hiking and biking trails here, plus rushing waterfalls, too. We’ve rounded up some of the best places around Austin to get your outdoors on, including the incredibly beautiful Texas Hill Country that’s surprisingly close by.

1. LADY BIRD LAKE

Lady Bird Lake.
Photo credit: Visit Austin.

Lady Bird Lake is the epicenter of outdoors action in downtown Austin. The lake is actually a reservoir — created by two dams on the Lower Colorado River — which flows through the city. Motorized boats aren’t permitted, so Lady Bird Lake is the go-to destination for kayakers, canoers and stand-up paddleboarders.

It’s easy to get out on the water. You can rent SUPs, kayaks and canoes from the Rowing DockCongress Avenue Kayaks, Zilker Park Boat Rentals and more. For an insider’s perspective, take a guided kayak or SUP tour of downtown Austin with Austin City Kayak Tours. Both beginners and experienced paddlers are welcome.

Hike or bike along the leafy 10-mile Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake, which skirts along shimmering waters and has picturesque views of Austin’s skyline. Snap a selfie with the memorial statue of Austin music legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, stationed along the route at Auditorium Shores, where he played many concerts during his career. Take a break on the Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake and check out the bronze western-style belts embedded in the railings that are embossed with lyrics from well-known Texas songs.

2. BARTON CREEK GREENBELT

Barton Creek Greenbelt.
Barton Creek Greenbelt.

The Barton Creek Greenbelt boasts nearly 13 miles of trails that snake through a dense forest, and is one of the top-rated hiking spots in Texas. Barton Creek passes Gus Fruh, a swimming hole known for its famed Urban Assault limestone rock wall that’s a favorite of climbers. Venture further and discover Sculpture and Twin Falls, with shallow stream waters that are great for mellow kayaking and tubing. Double your fun with a yoga-and-hike session along the Greenbelt with Sanctuary Yoga.

The Barton Creek Greenbelt is also a great destination for mountain bikers (enter at the Loop 360 main access point), offering varied terrain within a postcard-like landscape of cliffs and shaded groves alongside picturesque Barton Creek.

3. PEDERNALES FALLS STATE PARK

Pedernales Falls State Park. Courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Pedernales Falls State Park. Courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Just 30 miles west of Austin, hike through a stunning Texas Hill Country landscape of limestone cliffs and stone riverbeds along the Pedernales River at Pedernales Falls State Park. Hike or bike the Juniper Ridge Trail, which wends through a shaded mesquite forest and leads to the park’s rushing Pedernales Falls. Capture shots of the Insta-worthy waterfalls, which cascade over 300-million-year-old cliffs, before tubing down the Pedernales River.

Pedernales Falls State Parkwas featured in local director Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film Boyhood, so be sure to strike your best Ethan Hawke pose as you plunge into the depths of the refreshing river. The Pedernales River also offers wild bouldering, with rocky riverbeds and giant limestone slabs scattered from the shoreline to the center of the river.

You’re welcome to hunker down for the night at Pedernales Falls State Park, which has 69 campsites with electricity and water hook-ups, plus a four-person hike-in primitive site and an equestrian group camp. Experienced riders with their own horses can take off on the 10 miles of rugged trails, which feature rocky terrain and steep slopes.

4. SWIMMING HOLES

Barton Springs Pool
Barton Springs Pool.

Nothing says summer in Texas like swimming holes, and the Austin area is home to a lot of them. You can combine swimming with people watching at Barton Springs Pool, located in the middle of the city’s popular Zilker Park. This swimmer’s paradise, fed from underground springs, stays a refreshing 68 degrees year round and features grassy hills for sunbathing.

Swim in an artesian spring just 40 minutes outside of Austin at Jacob’s Well Natural Area. The cool, clear water is surrounded by rocky ledges and shady trees, creating a picture-perfect swimming hole. Jacob’s Well is the second-largest underwater cave in Texas, and the spring releases thousands of gallons of water a day that feeds into the Blanco River. Jacob’s Well does fill up quickly, and reservations are needed to swim. 

Located in rural Texas Hill Country, Hamilton Pool Preserve is a geological wonder. This historic swimming hole was formed by the Hamilton Creek spilling out over limestone outcroppings, creating a dramatic 50-foot waterfall that plunges into a canyon. Reservations are required to enter Hamilton Pool Preserve during the peak months of May through September.

5. PALMETTO STATE PARK

Drive one hour southeast of Austin and you’ll find yourself in the balmy, rainforest-like Palmetto State Park. With its forest of tropical palmetto plants and murky green swamps, Palmetto State Park is the only place of its kind in the state of Texas. Glide along the steady current of the San Marcos River via kayak, canoe or tube as you scour the jungle landscape for the 240 species of exotic birds that inhabit the park.

On land, you can explore several miles of trails by foot or on bike, including the Palmetto Trail that winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos. You don’t need a license to fish from the shore in a Texas state park, so try your luck reeling in a catch from the pier on Oxbow Lake. Spend the night at the Palmetto Campground and plan a barbeque at the pavilion that’s outfitted with an air-conditioned kitchen, right in the heart of the park.

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