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Austin’s Parks: The Heart of the City

We may not think of wide open spaces, rocky cliff faces, gurgling springs or grassy hills when we think of downtown Austin, but these features form some of the best parts of the city and provide every resident and visitor with a perfect place to play, rest and recharge. The undisputed queen of the Austin park system is Town Lake Metropolitan Park, covering both shores of Lady Bird Lake. There’s so much to do it at this one location you’d need a week just to get started. We’ve collected a few ideas to help you make the most of the park system, so lace up your shoes and get outside — spring is almost over!


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Be and Be Seen at Austin’s Best Parks

Austin is an outdoor sort of town. You can find folks taking advantage of our temperate climate year-round, and there are plenty of places for them to do just that. Our park system is one of the finest in the nation — and one of the busiest. When you get a chance to get outdoors, head for one of the many Austin parks that make our home a place most “snow dwellers” long to visit.

Town Lake Metropolitan Park

Straddling both sides of Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake), Town Lake Metropolitan Park includes Zilker Park and the Barton Creek Greenbelt, as well as dozens of smaller parks and recreation areas. This massive park is the true heart of Austin, providing a place for everything from symphonies and firework displays held on Auditorium Shores to holiday celebrations and mammoth concerts like the three-day Austin City Limits festival.

Rowing is a very popular activity here. Kayaks, sculls and paddle boats are available for rent, and classes are offered for all age groups. Joggers can be found 365 days of the year, sweating while enjoying the view from the 10.1 miles of trails surrounding the lake. Swimmers may have the best reason to get down to Town — the Barton Springs Pool. This spring-fed landmark is over 1,000 feet long and maintains a near-constant temperature (68° to 71°) — perfect for cooling off during a hot summer day. Swimming classes are offered, and lap swimming is available year-round.

Barton Creek Greenbelt

Barton Creek is one of Austin’s greatest resources. Flowing from Hays County through downtown Austin and emptying into Lady Bird Lake, this Colorado tributary provides swimming, kayaking and tubing opportunities while giving land lubbers a beautiful place to hike, climb or stroll with the dog (on a leash, of course). The 7.9-mile trail runs through an 809-acre park that features dozens of limestone walls, perfect for climbing by both experts and newbies. Depending on the season, mountain bikers can be seen crisscrossing the stream bed. You can even find occasional spelunkers descending into the dark depths of Airman’s Cave. When there’s water in the creek, a trek through the park becomes a welcoming, wet experience. Swimming holes develop at Sculpture Falls and Twin Falls, and even hiking usually involves wading through water. But if the creek’s dry, you can still take a dip any time of year at Barton Springs Pool, located at the Zilker Park entrance to the Greenbelt.

Zilker Park

Named for A.J. Zilker, who give the land surrounding Barton Springs to the City of Austin in 1918, this 351-acre park is much more than a beautiful bit of land. Over the years, Zilker has become a focal point for Austinites, providing a home for Zilker Botanical Gardens, the Austin Nature and Science Center, the Zilker Hillside Theater, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum and the annual 155-foot tall Zilker Holiday Tree. Visitors can take a ride on the Zilker Zephyr, a miniature train, for a 25-minute tour of the park that provides an overview of all the opportunities available to park visitors. Sports enthusiasts congregate here each week to use the volleyball courts or play on either of the multi-use fields, where you’ll often find all sorts of local teams competing. A nine-hole disc golf course is also available for Frisbee fans.

But this isn’t just a park for the body — the mind has plenty to do here as well. The “Splash” Environmental Exhibit teaches visitors about the Edwards Aquifer using a simulated limestone cave. The Dino Pit Exhibit will give your inner archeologist a chance to dig up replicas of fossils, view many examples of the real thing, and track dinosaurs that once roamed this region. Animal exhibits, including the Birds of Prey and Small Wonders exhibits, demonstrate the diversity of area inhabitants. If plants are more your thing, visit the Taniguchi Japanese Garden and the Hartman Prehistoric Garden. Green thumbs can spend the day touring the rose, cactus, butterfly, herb and floral display gardens.

Don’t fight for the Right of Way — Visit the Veloway

Austin’s a great place for cyclists and rollerbladers, but even on the widest roads with the broadest shoulders, folks on wheels must contend with cars and trucks. Enter the Veloway. This unique park provides a 23-foot-wide, 3.1-mile-long paved track that’s reserved just for folks on bikes and blades. Winding through some beautiful Texas landscapes, the curves and gentle hills of the track appeal to both veteran and novice members of the Austin cycling and inline skating scene. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center sits right next door, so don’t be surprised if streams of color streak across your vision as you power down the road. Recent improvements to the area have made it even more appealing, and construction of the Texas Arboretum on the southern side may just make this the most beautiful place to ride in Central Texas.