austin public parks

While Auditorium Shores is usually in the news as a concert or festival venue, it’s also a great spot for a family outing with a fantastic view of downtown.


There is a parking lot entrance for Auditorium Shores at 920 West Riverside Drive. If that lot is full, head west on Riverside Drive and look for street parking or a couple of small parking lots.


The entire Auditorium Shores area will be getting a facelift beginning in Fall 2013 and the Fannie Davis Gazebo has already been refurbished.


Under the South 1st Street Bridge (also called the Drake Bridge) is a beach-like area where children can explore among the rocks, shells, and knobby cypress knees (cypress tree roots seen to the right of the rock below).


The kids enjoyed wandering around the lakeshore.


Keep in mind that Auditorium Shores is a leash-free zone for dogs. You will see lots of happy canines playing, running, and jumping into the lake to fetch balls. Our dog had a great time!


This little pier went out over the lake. It was like a magnet for the boys!


We walked west along the trail to the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue.


There was a lot to look at along the shore!


We walked less than 1/4 mile on the trail and crossed Riverside Drive to get to Butler Park. The kids immediately ran straight up Doug Sahm Hill without bothering to follow the leisurely spiraling sidewalk.


At the top of the hill, you will find this stunning view as well as benches so you can rest and take it all in.


There also is a huge map of Texas.


Looking southeast from the top of the hill, you can see Palmer Events Center and this field ready for play time.


To the west is a pond, where you can stroll along and look for fish or turtles.


Directly south of the hill is the Liz Carpenter Fountain, with its jets of water in full force.


It looks like the appeal of the fountain was impossible to resist despite the December chill in the air!


Austin Active Kids Opinion: Unbeatable fun in the city!
Outing Time: 2 hours
Outing Distance: Less than one mile
Reminders: Auditorium Shores has restrooms and a water fountain. Brings snacks, drinks, and a picnic blanket if you plan to stay a while. If you want to check the Liz Carpenter Fountain schedule ahead of time (so you can pack towels and an extra change of clothes), call Austin 3-1-1.
In case your kids still have some energy left, you can take them on a short 1.5 mile loop on the Hike and Bike Trail. From Auditorium Shores, head west on the trail past the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue. Take the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge over the lake and go right once you’re on the north side of the lake. The South 1st Street Bridge will then take you back to Auditorium Shores. If you want to try out some other routes, check out these maps for ideas.
You might want to look up a calendar like this one before you head to Auditorium Shores to make sure there are no major events booked the day you plan to go.


Today we enjoyed one of our favorite outings: Mountain View Park (9000 Middlebie Drive) and Spicewood Valley Trail (accessed across Callanish Park Drive from the park).

Mountain View Park has a fun playscape as well as a pavilion, baseball field, and tennis courts.


We followed this sidewalk toward Callanish Park Drive.


We crossed the street and found the trail entrance, which looks like this:


As soon as you get closer, you can see the trail heading down.


The trail is easy to follow and has rails to help you down the steeper sections.


As you can see, this part of the trail is not stroller-friendly.


Once you get to the bottom of the steep section, the trail is relatively flat.


We turned right at this distinctive rock.


It looks like someone had a cool treehouse here!


We had not visited the trail since Summer 2011, during the historic drought. What a difference a year makes! The boys and I really enjoyed the beautiful landscape.


We went about 1/4 mile and stopped for a while at our favorite spot, where an old dam creates a small waterfall on Bull Creek.


This is one of my 10-year-old son’s favorite fossil hunting spots. He said that all of the leaves on the ground made it harder to find fossils.


The waterfall scene is very relaxing. It’s also a good area for the age-old kids’ past-time of throwing rocks into the water!


If you are patient and observant, you will encounter many interesting things at Spicewood Valley Trail.


Almost right away, the boys found this crawdad in the water.


Next, they discovered a well-camouflaged frog.


The boys were intrigued by this spooky little skull in the creek.


Our dog Eva Green gives Spicewood Valley Trail “two paws up!”


After spending some quality time exploring around the old dam, we continued another 1/4 mile along the trail and then turned around. As we walked, our dog spooked a lizard who dropped his tail when he scrambled away. Eva Green was completely fooled by the twitching dropped tail and the lizard escaped to safety under this leaf.


The boys were amazed by this beautiful moth. If you look closely, you will see that the moth has an unusual blue and orange body under the white and black wings.


Save some energy to get back up the ridge on the return trip!


Austin Active Kids Opinion: One of our favorite outings….it feels like an adventure and there are so many fun things to discover!
Outing Time: About 1.5 hours
Outing Distance: 1.5 miles
Reminders: Mountain View Park has restrooms, a water fountain, picnic tables, and a fun play scape. Bring mosquito spray, water bottles and a trail map if you plan to hike Spicewood Valley Trail. Please note that due to concerns (or lack of information) about the water quality, we do not go swimming in Bull Creek. Unlike our other visits, today we did not see any other people enjoying the trail.
Check out this Austin Explorer article for all of the details about Spicewood Valley Trail. If you want to experience a unique drive when you leave, take Spicewood Springs Road toward Loop 360. You will cross Bull Creek seven times and see lots of pretty sights. You can read about the history of this area in this Community Impact News article and view this Texas historical marker near the intersection of Spicewood Springs Road and Loop 360.

I had noticed the uniquely-named Goat Cave Karst Preserve a few times on maps of South Austin. Today we felt adventurous enough to try something completely new to us so we headed that way. The 9-acre preserve is located at 3900 Deer Lane, between South Mopac (take the Davis Lane exit) and Brodie Lane. Check a map before you go because it is a little confusing if you are not familiar with the area!


We passed the park entrance the first time but easily turned around and found a small parking area across Deer Lane from the preserve. As the photo below illustrates, you have to dash across Deer Lane to enter the park. This is not for the faint of heart: the traffic was pretty heavy and the line of sight was limited. Be cautious!


Once we made it across Deer Lane, it was a breeze to find the trail and view interesting information about the park, including what karst features are and why they are important.


The sign states: “Austin sits above layers of fine-grained limestone formed approximately 100 million years ago. when most of Texas lay at the bottom of a warm shallow sea, teeming with life. Over the millennia, the limestone sea floor rose to become dry ground. Then, rain and surface water dissolved a network of holes and tunnels into the limestone bedrock. Geologists call these cavities ‘solution features.’ Many of these below-ground openings and passageways are connected into a vast subterranean formation stretching from Uvalde to Austin. It forms the ‘plumbing’ of the Edwards Aquifer, a huge natural underground water storage area. ‘Karst’ is the geologist’s term for landscapes formed by this process.”


Karst topography is characterized by sinkholes, sinking streams, and springs. Goat Cave Karst Preserve contains sinkholes and caves typical for the area, specifically (from left to right on the graphic below) Goat Cave (home to a bat colony), Hideout Sink, and Wade Sink.


We started along the path, excited to locate the caves!


We quickly came upon the first and smallest sinkhole, Wade Sink, by taking a short path to the left off of the main trail.


Just a short distance later, we found Hideout Sink.


This one was a lot more exciting, especially when we saw this daddy longlegs nest!


Even though I had read that the main attraction–Goat Cave–was surrounded by a fence, I was nonetheless surprised by the extent to which the fence prevented even a minimal view of Goat Cave.


The City of Austin is serious about its fence! Check out the barbed wire at the top.


I took this picture with the zoom lens of my camera from behind the fence and, as you can see, it’s still not much to look at! This web site has some pictures from inside the cave.


We decided to forge ahead even though we were disappointed by our “view” of Goat Cave. As we walked along the path, we were right next to the barbed wire fence marking the border of the preserve.


We reached the end of the trail, turned around, and headed back to the entrance. Tracing our way back was much easier than our original journey down the trail. No one else was visiting the preserve so it felt quite isolated despite being directly adjacent to houses and busy streets.

Austin Active Kids Opinion: This short outing was interesting and educational but it has some definite downsides, specifically the parking situation and the limited view of the cave.
Outing Time: About 30 – 45 minutes
Outing Distance: Less than 3/4 mile
Reminders: Goat Cave Nature Preserve does not have water fountains or restroom facilities. The trail is not particularly stroller-friendly and the dash across Deer Lane certainly is not. This outing is probably better for older children who are able to have a realistic expectation of what the “caves” will really be like. Austin Explorer described Goat Cave Nature Preserve in this article.

We wanted to take advantage of this afternoon’s “cool” weather (only 90 degrees!), so we headed to Mount Bonnell and Mayfield Park, historic and beautiful public parks located off of 35th Street in West Austin.

Mount Bonnell provides stunning views of Lake Austin, the 360 bridge, and downtown. It is located at 3851 Mount Bonnell Drive, where you will find street parking. Mount Bonnell is a true Austin landmark. This much-beloved spot has won dozens of “Best of Austin” awards from the Austin Chronicle. Interestingly, there is dissension about who the scenic location is named after: George W. Bonnell or First Lt. Joseph Bonnell. For now, the historical marker still recognizes George W. Bonnell.


The park is officially known as Covert Park at Mount Bonnell, thanks to the generous donation of the summit of Mt. Bonnell to the City of Austin by the Covert Family in the 1930s.


My kids practically raced up the stairs! They could not wait to get to the top.


As you can see, the main viewing area has stonework you can sit on as a well as a fence for safety.


Here is the amazing view of the 360 bridge.


We went over to a lonely little picnic table. Just as I was wondering why this particular spot without any shade had been singled out for picnics, I looked east and saw this view.


The kids followed a trail down the hill and we easily found our way back up.


We went to the northern side of the park where, as you can see, there is no more wrought iron fence! Make sure your kids understand that the bluff is dangerous and that they should be cautious.


This section of the trail had a small rope fencing off the bluff but you can see how close the edge is.


After surviving our “walk on the edge,” the boys had fun hopping along these big rocks.


We then drove less than five minutes to Mayfield Park (3505 West 35th Street), where you will find an enchanted place populated by peacocks and surrounded by beautiful gardens.


My sons were intrigued from the moment we parked the car. They couldn’t wait to go explore the grounds.


The property was originally purchased by Allison Mayfield in 1909 as a summer and weekend retreat. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mayfield Park was donated to the City of Austin in 1971 by Mary Mayfield Gutsch. The park includes this historic cottage, gardens, lily ponds, and a 21-acre nature preserve. (We did try to go in the cottage, but all of the doors were locked.)


There were many beautiful peacocks on the Mayfield Park grounds, which is a popular spot for weddings and outdoor photography. Amazingly, these peacocks are descended from peacocks given as a gift to the Mayfield-Gutsch family in 1935!


My youngest son had hopes of finding a frog in the lily ponds but he didn’t have any luck.


We had many creative ideas about what this curious stone building might be but we did not guess “pigeon cote.”


I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to photograph this beautiful water lily!


After we thoroughly investigated the gardens and lily ponds, we headed to the nature preserve’s trails.


While there were several trail markers, we were not successful in figuring out our location on the trails so we just wandered around. Because the nature preserve is only 21 acres, we did not get lost. It was very quiet and relaxing.


This creek must be amazing when the water is flowing! We are already planning to return after we get some rain.


This bluff area was very beautiful. My 6-year-old son really liked this tree growing out of a rock.


As we got ready to leave, we saw this chimney swift tower, a nesting and roosting site for chimney swift birds. What will they think of next?


Austin Active Kids Opinion: A great “duet” of fun outdoor activities!
Outing Time: About 1.5 hours to visit both Mount Bonnell and Mayfield Park.
Reminders: If you have children under age 5, you might want to have at least one other adult with you to help you monitor the kids at Mt. Bonnell due to the high bluff. Also, Mt. Bonnell is not stroller-friendly so the only way to get up that hill is leg power. Mayfield Park is a much easier outing for young children, although the trails in the nature preserve are a little rough and might have some spots that are tough for a stroller. Both Mt. Bonnell and Mayfield Park had quite a few visitors on the Saturday afternoon we were there. It was certainly not overcrowded but you will encounter plenty of other people. There are no restroom facilities at Mt. Bonnell and Mayfield Park has a port-o-potty.
This article in the Handbook of Texas Online has an interesting historical sketch of Mount Bonnell. Our friends at Free Fun in Austin have visited Mt. Bonnell, too.

Barton Springs Pool is sometimes referred to as the “soul” of Austin and a visit to this delightful 3-acre natural swimming pool will definitely show you why! The cool 68-degree water fed by underground springs is utterly refreshing and draws a wide assortment of Austin’s citizenry.

The pool is located inside Zilker Park at 2201 Barton Springs Road. There is a parking lot on the west side of the pool (accessible from Barton Springs Road) that is free unless a special event is underway. Another entrance is located near the baseball fields on Robert E. Lee Road (near the intersection with Barton Springs Road) where parking is always free.

If you enter from within Zilker Park, you are welcomed to the pool by Philospher’s Rock, representing celebrated writers J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedicheck, who in years’ past met frequently near the pool for literary and philosophical discussions.


Barton Springs has a colorful history. The area was first settled in 1837 by William “Uncle Billy” Barton and it has attracted visitors craving its cool waters since then. The land was later purchased by Andrew Zilker, who deeded it to the City of Austin in 1918 and 1931. You can read more about Barton Springs Pool’s history and ecological significance on this web site.


Pool admission prices are very reasonable. It’s important to note ahead of time that dogs, food, drinks, glass objects, and coolers are not allowed. You can bring in water bottles with a re-sealable lid in your pool bag. If you want to pack a picnic to enjoy after swimming, you can leave it in your vehicle or just outside the gates of the pool.


While referred to as a “pool”–which might bring to mind a rectangular, chlorinated swimming pool with a level cement bottom–Barton Springs is a natural body of water. The rock surface on the bottom can be slippery! Water shoes will help you stay steady.


In keeping with the natural state of the water, you will see plants and fish in Barton Springs.


Nothing you can tell your kids (or yourself) will adequately prepare them (or you) for the chill you encounter when you step into the springs! You will hear lots of squeals of people acclimating to the water if you stand near the pool entry areas.


These ramps help you get used to the water slowly if you are not the “jump in and get it over with” type.


The southern end of the pool is shallow and a bit warmer. This is where younger children like to play and explore.


My son and I decided this looked a lot like a Bigfoot print in the limestone near the shallow end.


We also found this fossil that had a pearly shell.


This is the view looking north across the pool toward downtown. It does not do justice to the size of the pool!


In addition to being cold, the water is amazingly clear.


Unfortunately, we did not see any Barton Springs Salamanders.


The eastern bank of Barton Springs Pool is a popular spot for relaxing and getting some sun.


On the northern edge of the pool, you can see Barton Creek Spillway, an area that is accessible without an admission fee. It’s a popular place for wading and bringing along pets.


After our poolside walk, we relaxed in the cool shade of this magnificent pecan tree.


All of the swimming and walking worked up our appetites, so we capped off our visit with a stop at the Zilker Cafe for drinks and snacks.


Visiting Barton Springs is a great way to spend a summer afternoon (or really any of our hot Austin days that last well into the fall). Like many Austinites before them, your children will be dazzled by the waters of Barton Springs Pool.

Austin Active Kids Opinion: An afternoon at Barton Springs Pool is an unforgettable and essential part of any Austin childhood.
Outing Time: About 2.5 hours
Reminders: Bring sunscreen, towels, floats, rafts, balls, and water bottles with re-sealable lids. Remember, you cannot take in food, glass containers, or coolers.
The pool is closed Thursdays 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for maintenance and it can also close due to water quality or safety issues if there has been significant rainfall. Check the City of Austin’s Barton Springs Pool web site for hours or other announcements.
It’s always a good idea to check event listings for festivals or other activities that might be going on in the Zilker Park area that will cause traffic headaches or limit access to Barton Springs Pool. The Austin Chronicle calendar and the Austin 360 calendar are good starting points.

Of Note: Many community groups work to improve and protect Barton Springs Pool. This includes Friends of Barton Springs Pool (which conducts monthly cleanings and advocates for the pool) and Austin Heritage Tree Foundation and Barton Springs Tree Stewards (which help care for the extraordinary trees around the pool).

Tucked between Oltorf Street and St. Edward’s University is Blunn Creek Nature Preserve at 1200 St. Edward’s Drive, Austin, 78704. These undeveloped 38 acres will make you feel like you have stumbled into a forgotten woods in the middle of the city. The preserve does not have a parking lot and it’s easy to miss this sign, which reflects the rugged state of the preserve.


Almost immediately upon entering the trail, you are surrounded by the natural landscape.


There are a lot of trail markers to help guide you but a map would have been handy nonetheless!


We quickly arrived at the first overlook: a bluff from which you can view the preserve and the creek below. The overlook is scenic but there is not a guardrail and the bluff is steep. Be cautious and watch your children closely if you take the short path to this first overlook area.

While walking in Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, it’s easy to forget how close you are to the city. One short detour on the wrong path took us directly to a neighborhood street.


We reached the first creek crossing and the kids enjoyed hopping across the rocks to get to the other side.


About 1/3 of the mile in, we came upon this enormous oak tree. What a sight!


Shortly afterward, we arrived at the volcanic overlook, the second overlook on the trail. Did you know that millions of years ago not only was the Austin area an ocean but there were massive active volcanoes underwater? See for yourself at Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, where you can stand on top of the extinct volcano. As described on the sign below, “With each new eruption, the mound grew upward but probably never reached the ocean’s surface. When the eruptions finally ended, mollusks and other marine animals thrived in the relatively shallow water over the summit, depositing layer upon layer of limey shells. These layers became a type of rock known as limestone.”


We wondered if the red line in this rock could be lava from an ancient volcano? Even if we end up learning it’s just sandstone or granite, we like the story about lava better!


This part of the trail is informally called the volcanic overlook because from here you have a beautiful view of St. Edward’s University (which is built on top of a hill that is also an extinct volcano).


Before the hike, the children had heard me talking about the extinct volcano along the trail and it built up their expectations about what we would find. What you actually see is a circular area of unusual-looking rock high up on a hill. It’s probably not what most children conjure in their imagination when they hear “volcano.” If you plan to visit Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, it’s probably a good idea to make sure your kids have a realistic idea of what they will find there.

While we really enjoyed this hike, it was mid-afternoon and very hot. We also had only one bottle of water per person and that was not enough to continue the hike for the full distance (1.5 miles). We cut the hike short at the volcanic overlook–skipping the northern section of the preserve–and headed south back toward the car. Because we did not walk through the northern part, we missed the third overlook: a view of downtown Austin.

Some online articles briefly mentioned that the Blunn Creek Nature Preserve area includes an ancient coral reef. When we saw this rock full of fossils near the trail, we wondered if this was an example of a fossilized coral reef.


Blunn Creek is a relatively small creek but that did not stop my son and his friend from trying to find a crawdad under a rock.


A restoration project is underway at the preserve, with the goal of removing non-native invasive species like ligustrum and chinaberry. The preserve will really be something to see once it’s returned to its authentic state!


As we were leaving, we saw this Texas spiny lizard (with a nub for a tail) climbing a tree. If you are familiar with Texas spiny lizards, you know how fast they are so capturing this shot was pretty amazing.


We plan to return in cooler weather with ample water bottle reserves to tackle the full trail. It certainly felt like more than 38 acres and we did not even walk the whole trail. Just the southern section we covered this August afternoon was well worth the visit!

Austin Active Kids Opinion: This small amount of acreage packs a mighty punch but it’s better suited for families with hiking experience and children ages 5 and up.
Outing Distance: About 3/4 mile
Outing Time: A little over one hour
Reminders: Take a LOT of water to drink. There are no water fountains or public restroom facilities. While there are many trail markers, some of the paths are not labeled and it can be kind of confusing on your first visit. It seems that most of the trails loop back together and eventually you will find your way. You can use your smart phone’s map and compass to help keep you going in the right direction. Michael Barnes of the Austin American-Statesman wrote about the preserve in an Untold Austin column and you can read more details in this Austin Explorer description.

I saw this article about Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park a couple of months ago and put this far South Austin park on my list of new places to visit with the kids. The park totals 344 acres and has trails, a disc golf course, playground, picnic tables, barbecue pits, and restrooms. Adjacent to the park is a private radio-controlled airplane airport. Your children might spot a tiny plane zooming through the air as you drive to the park.


The park is named after Mary Moore Searight, who donated most of the land for the park to the city in the mid-1980s, and whose family had a significant ranching operation at the site.

The park’s entrance at 907 Slaughter Lane is easy to miss. We didn’t see it when we first drove by so we had to circle back and then drive down the park’s long driveway. From the parking lot, we walked east down a sidewalk to a little gazebo. According to the sign, this was the foundation of the original Searight home.


We walked back toward the playground and past the restrooms to access the trail.


Early in our hike, we crossed Slaughter Creek. While we could see water to our left and right, the crossing area itself just had a few puddles.


The primary trail consisted of gravel and broken-up asphalt but there were many secondary trails and paths. We stuck to the main trail. About 1/4 mile into our walk, we came upon a clear fork in the trail and went left.

My children were greatly entertained by the physical fitness stations scattered along the trail.


We were intrigued by the wooden hitching posts along the path but, alas, we did not see anyone riding horses in the park.


The “fork” we had chosen ended up taking us on a big loop, about 1 – 1 1/4 miles long. In other words, when we completed the loop it returned us to the original fork. About halfway through the loop, we came across this “field of dreams” soccer field. We were completely mystified until we walked on a bit farther and saw that the park abuts a neighborhood whose residents can access the field without walking over 1/2 mile!


Next we saw a similarly-isolated baseball back stop. I later learned that if we had continued straight past the back stop (instead of following the main trail) we would have been able to access Slaughter Creek again, including the park’s fishing pier! Due to the heat and hike length (almost a mile at this point and we still had the return trip to make) we were not feeling adventurous enough to explore these additional trails. In fact, even our dog needed to take a breather on a park bench.


We were at the park from about 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. on a Saturday morning. There were a few other park visitors but it was not crowded at all. Some people were exercising on the loop trail and we even saw a few bike riders. It might be interesting to return in cooler weather (and possibly bring along a printed-out map) to take another shot at finding the fishing pier!

Austin Active Kids Opinion: With a little bit of planning ahead, you will get a lot out of a visit to this unique and uncrowded park!
Outing Time: About 1.5 hours
Outing Distance: About 1.75 miles total
Reminders: While there is a water fountain near the parking lot and playground, you need to bring your own water for when you hike the trail. There is some shade but it is not constant. Be prepared with plenty of water and take breaks to cool off. You can read more about Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park in this Austin Explorer article.