Texas blue sky. Fresh air. Bright sunshine. Many of us call Austin home because we can spend so much of our time outdoors. So, grab your loved ones, some water, sunscreen, good walking shoes and snacks and either revisit an old favorite trail or explore someplace new! Here are our picks for the top 10 family-friendly hikes in and around Austin and what you need to know before you go:
1. Mayfield Nature Preserve – 3805 W. 35th St.
Mostly shaded trails wind behind the ponds and gated gardens which surround the historic cottage at Mayfield Park. You will likely hear one of the Preserve’s famous peafowl before you see one. An offshoot of the Lake Trail connects you to the grounds of Laguna Gloria. There is only a slight elevation change. A small creek which empties into nearby Lake Austin feeds the trailside greenery.
- Good to know: If you need to use the restroom, there is a portable toilet. There are water fountains on the grounds. There is no admission charge. If there is an event at Mayfield or Laguna Gloria, parking may be scarce in the small lot and on 35th Street. In some cases, you may not know which fork to take on a trail, but it’s unlikely you will venture far.
- Distance: 1 mile
- Bring: A picnic to enjoy on the tables next to the parking lot and a camera to snap some great shots of your littles by the ponds or communing with the peacocks.
- Leave at home: Pets and any food for the fish, turtles, frogs and peacocks (the animal residents are fed by park staff).
2. Barton Creek Greenbelt – various entrances
The Barton Creek Greenbelt is a favorite for many Austinites. The path starts near Barton Springs Pool and ends in Westlake. There are multiple access points, but one nice place to start is on Spyglass Drive, if only because you can stop at Tacodeli before or after your hike. Depending on where you go, you may see mountain bikers, trail runners, rock climbers, swimmers, dogs, tadpoles and other families out enjoying the trails.
- Good to know: If you plan to visit Twin Falls or Sculpture Falls to swim, take advantage of early risers to head out to beat the crowds, since the parking on the Mopac access road can fill up quickly and trails get congested during nice weather. Water levels vary throughout the Greenbelt, depending on the time of year. During the summer, many spots on the Greenbelt are completely dry. There is no admission charge. There is a restroom at the 360 entrance.
- Distance: 12 miles total
- Bring: Pets are allowed, and many owners let dogs off leash. Do a good deed by bringing along a plastic bag to pick up a few pieces of litter others may have left behind.
3. Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve – 805 North Capital of Texas Highway
Wild Basin is part of the over 30,000-acre Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, a partnership between public and private landholders to protect 8 endangered species, including the Golden-cheeked warbler. The Preserve has six trails which range from almost half a mile to the almost-two-mile Yaupon Loop, which takes you next to a very idyllic waterfall and has a moderate change in incline.
- Good to know: The Preserve is managed by St. Ed’s and is host to periodic stargazing events and hikes. There is slightly less shade at Wild Basin than some of the other hikes on this list, so might be best to skip this one when it’s hot out. There are restroom facilities and there is a parking lot.
- Distance: 2.5 miles
- Bring: A suggested donation of $3/person (cash) which you can deposit in a kiosk near the trailhead.
- Leave at home: Pets, bikes and picnics are prohibited within the preserve to help protect the species which call Wild Basin home.
4. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – 4801 La Crosse Avenue
The Wildflower Center pays homage to native plants and serves as a research center for sustainable landscape design. Five trails rails range from a quarter mile to just over a mile and are usually accessible with a jogging stroller. A favorite stop is in the Texas Arboretum, where you can take a break in the shade of large oak trees on one of the area’s many swings.
- Good to know: The Family Garden is almost five acres of the Center dedicated to encourage children to play in nature. The Wildflower Center hosts events periodically, and during those times the Center can get quite crowded, particularly the parking lot. Restroom facilities and a café are onsite. Admission fees apply.
- Distance: 1 mile
- Bring: A camera to grab some snaps of your crew near the gardens during the Spring months among the wildflowers.
- Leave at home: Pets.
5. McKinney Falls State Park – 5808 McKinney Falls Parkway
When you have some time on your hands or want a place to take your out of town visitors, you might consider McKinney Falls, which is located 13 miles southeast of the Capitol, near the airport. The Park contains almost 9 miles of trails, two of which take you by ruins of one of Stephen F. Austin’s original colonists homesteads and a gristmill. These trails require you to cross Onion Creek, which is relatively low, but can be slippery in spots.
- Good to know: After the area receives rain, some parts of the park or trails may be closed or damaged. There have been several tragic drowning events in recent years, so keep an eye on your kids if you decide to go in the water. You can stay overnight at one of the park’s campsites or cabins. In addition to hiking, you can also swim, fish, mountain or road bike, geocache, picnic or check out the Junior Ranger program or one of the park’s events. There is an admission charge, although children 12 and under are free. Restrooms are located throughout the park. The Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail is stroller friendly.
- Distance: Up to 2.8 miles
- Bring: A bathing suit to cool off after your hike, shoes that can survive a soaking if you traverse the creek and a camera during the Spring months to get the quintessential bluebonnet photo. Leashed pets are allowed on most trails.
6. Hamilton Pool Preserve – 24300 Hamilton Pool Rd.
Hamilton Pool is one of the most photographed sites in Central Texas, and for good reason. After descending down a rocky, ¼ mile trail, visitors are treated to a stunning site of a 50-foot waterfall cascading over a collapsed limestone grotto into a natural swimming hole. Although this feature attracts visitors far and wide, often leading to the park reaching capacity quite early in the morning during the warmer months, the Preserve can be much less crowded during other times of year. Many visitors don’t realize that there is a second trail which follows the creek until it ends at the Pedernales River, which is also quite nice. If you arrive at the Preserve early enough, head to the swimming hole first, and then try the trail heading the opposite way which begins near the restrooms at the bottom of the hill, after the parking lot.
- Good to know: Since the Preserve can be closed for swimming after rains, there is a number to call that is updated by 9 a.m. which you can call to check the status, if you have your heart set on that: (512) 264-2740. Admission fees apply. (Per new changes, reservations will be required to enter Hamilton Pool Preserve starting May 15, 2016 through September 30, 2016. Click here for details about making reservations.) There are no lifeguards on duty. There is no drinking water or concessions, but there are restroom facilities at the parking lot and also where the trail splits into two.
- Distance: 0.6 mile River Trail and 0.25 trail to swimming hole
- Bring: Cash or checks are the only forms of payment accepted for entrance fees. Wear your bathing suit so you can cool off in the pool or river. There are some picnic tables in the preserve.
- Leave at home: Pets, fishing equipment and bikes.
7. Bull Creek District Trail – 6713 Lakewood Dr.
Although not as frequented as the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Bull Creek has lots of spots to enjoy the great outdoors. One of the best access points is from Bull Creek District Park, an on-leash dog park. After taking a detour to climb on the boulders at the edge of the park which the smaller parking lot, next to the water, head to the opposite end of the park and cross the creek to find the trailhead. Before you cross, hike next to the water to find the grotto with ferns growing across it and water dripping down. Also notice the wagon track grooves in the limestone creekbed, which were formed when settlers used the route to bring goods to market in the 1800s.
- Good to know: There is a parking lot and no admission charge. There are restroom facilities and a water fountain. Although you will see plenty of people swimming, studies have shown that the Creek has high levels of fecal contamination, so you may want to stick to wading. Although Bull Creek is an on-leash dog park, many owners allow their pets to roam free.
- Distance: 0.9 miles, although there is a larger Greenbelt with trails which line the Creek.
- Bring: Your dog and a picnic to enjoy on one of the shaded picnic tables.
8. River Place Fern Trail – 3 separate entrances
The River Place neighborhood has its own trails which are mostly shady and beautiful. Many fitness enthusiasts take on the trail as a challenge, as it gradually ascends to a nice view at the end of Canyon Trail. The trail begins at Panther Hollow with a short boardwalk (and nice rocking chairs!) and lake and continues with the highest elevation change in the Austin area. You can either turn onto Fern Trail, after Panther Hollow (8820 Big View Drive) or enter Fern Trail at the trailhead at 3916 River Place Boulevard. As you might guess, Fern Hollow has lots of waterfalls and ferns growing alongside the creek.
- Good to know: There is a playground at Woodland Park where you can park for the hike. There is some Colorado River frontage as well down the hill from the park. There are restroom facilities at the park and there is no admission charge.
- Distance: 5.5 miles with a steep change in elevation
- Bring: A picnic to enjoy before or after at the park. You may also catch ducks at the pond near the start of Panther Hollow to feed. Dogs are also welcome on the trail.
9. Emma Long Metro Park Turkey Creek Trail – 2100 City Park Rd.
This trail is perhaps best known as a place to take your furry four-footed friends just outside of Emma Long Park. This trail is mostly shaded, so nice for the warmer months. The trail can be crowded on weekends, so parking can be a challenge. You will cross the creek at several points. There is a fern wall between the 1.25 and 1.5 mile markers.
- Good to know: Emma Long is an official off-leash dog area. There is no admission charge since this is outside of Emma Long, but you will need to pay an admission fee (cash NOT accepted) if you’d like to enter the park. There are no restroom facilities.
- Distance: 1.92 miles
- Bring: Your dog.
10. Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park – 614 N Commons Ford Rd.
Commons Ford was once known as Rescaca Ranch and has been largely unchanged since the park’s 215 acres were purchased by the city of Austin from developers in the early 1980s. Visitors can hike from the park entrance along a creek to Lake Austin to a large open field with a boathouse and a volleyball court. You can fish, enjoy a picnic, pick pecans in season and enjoy a lakeside view. There are also historic buildings close to the park entrance. You can also hike to a few waterfalls when the creeks are not dry.
- Good to know: Although the park is not very developed, there is a ranch house with a swimming pool that is available for rental. There are no restroom facilities. There is a parking lot and no admission charge. The allure of Commons Ford is that it is relatively calm and quiet, and it’s generally very uncrowded.
- Distance: 2 miles
- Bring: Your dog, a picnic, a blanket and a volleyball.
Do you have other trails that you love to explore? Let us know in the comments below!
About the author: A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole Basham uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau’s words, her mission is to “suck out all the marrow of life”, or in her son’s words, to cultivate in him a love of adventures.