A few years ago, I started hearing about the River Place Nature Trail. By some accounts, River Place was touted as one of the best trails in the Austin area. I had to take my crew to see for ourselves.

River Place is a planned community located on the shores of Lake Austin in northwest Austin. The neighborhood has three mostly shady trails which are open dawn to dusk, seven days a week:

  • Panther Hollow Trail, which takes you about ten minutes alongside Panther Hollow Creek, until you can choose to take two of the other trails:
    • Fern Trail, which takes you along Little Fern Creek to River Place Boulevard and
    • Canyons Trail, which is a favorite of trail runners and involves many steps (both up and down) and also ends at a different spot on River Place Boulevard.

If you take Panther Hollow Trail to the end of Canyons Trail and back, you will have hiked 5.5 miles. It’s unlikely many kids would make it the entire way, but it’s easy to elect to do as much as your littles can handle.

To begin the hike, I’d suggest parking on the street near the Boardwalk where the Panther Hollow Trail begins, which is at 8820 Big View Drive. Across the street is Woodlands Park, which is a great place to picnic or play after your hike is done. You can also park in the small parking lot adjacent to the park, where restroom facilities and water fountains are only steps away. I suggest parking across the street, as you may lose your kids to the park, which is nice enough, but not your main goal if you’ve driven to actually hike.

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Woodlands Park has a covered play area, pavilion, soccer fields

Make sure to bring along some water to drink and keep in mind that trash cans are only located at the trailheads and the Park. Many visitors bring furry friends along on the trail, so be prepared for that if you have dog-phobic kiddos.

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Trail across from Woodlands Park

IMG_3104You may want to budget some time to enjoy the Boardwalk and read the interpretive information at the kiosk. You may choose to snap a photo of the trail map to refer to during your hike or take advantage of the free hiking sticks which are provided (with the request that you return yours when you are leaving). You can challenge your kids to spot turtles and fish in the pond, and you may even elect to take a quick seat in the rocking chairs on the Boardwalk. The Panther Hollow hike begins past the chairs at the end of the Boardwalk.

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the boardwalk

As you begin the hike, you quickly feel as though you are being enveloped into a magical forest where you wouldn’t be surprised to see a gnome popping its head around a corner or a fairy hovering nearby. Natural steps help mark elevation changes, and during the spring, you can spy cedar sage and other greenery along the dirt trail. Because of steps all along the path, the trail is not stroller-friendly, and there are times where the trail narrows or there is a drop off to one side, so mothers of toddlers might find the trail a bit stressful.

IMG_3119IMG_3128IMG_3126The abundant shade keeps the trail relatively cool, and there are plenty of spots kids can splash in Panther Hollow Creek. The water is very shallow in most spots, and there are plenty of rocks nearby to throw into the water to get a satisfying kerplunk.

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shallow water for throwing rocks

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Panther Hollow Trail has cliffs with ferns dripping with water.

In about ten minutes, you can decide whether to continue along Panther Hollow Creek on the Canyons Trail or to take the Fern Trail, which requires you to cross the Creek over a well-established series of rocks. The Fern Trail has the most waterfalls, as well as – you guessed it – ferns. The Canyons Trail continues alongside the Creek for some time and eventually ascends to views of the surrounding hills. Nice wooden benches are placed alongside the trails to allow for periodic breaks.

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You’ll come across this map and a decide whether to continue on the Canyon Trail or head onto the Little Fern Trail.

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The Canyon Trail is well-known as a place trail runners can get a great workout.

Keep in mind that the trails do not loop, so you’ll need to decide how far to go, knowing you’ll need to take about the same amount of time to make it back to the Boardwalk. See what animals you can spot – cardinals, lizards, fish and the like. Enjoy the sound of the gurgling water and encourage your kids listen to the sound of the birds chirping. Relish the feeling that you are in some faraway place. After your hike is complete, you may want to explore the waterfront across the street at Woodlands Park, or simply have a snack or picnic lunch as you recount your adventures.IMG_3140Looking for more great trails to visit with the kids? Check out our Top 10 Family Hikes in Austin.

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.