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Have you ever noticed those jets west of Loop 1 (MoPac Expressway) between the 35th Street and 45th Street exits?

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Photo of F-4C Phantom II courtesy of http://www.texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org

The jets are a high-visibility marker of the location of Camp Mabry, which also houses the Texas Military Forces Museum, a must-see for anyone interested in history, the armed forces, or military transportation. The museum is free and open to the public Wednesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

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Due to its storied history, Camp Mabry is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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To get to the Texas Military Forces Museum, enter Camp Mabry from 35th Street. You will be required to stop at a security area for visitors, where your driver’s license and vehicle license plate are recorded. These post-9/11 security measures might seem intimidating, but the security guards are friendly and you will soon be on your way. When you reach the first stop sign, take a right. At the second stop sign, take another right. (Also note the Camp Mabry exit to your left at the second stop sign for when it is time to head home.) After you pass the P/X and a running track on your left, you will find the museum on your right.

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Yes, this is the door to the museum: an adventure awaits!

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Inside, you will find a mind-boggling display covering almost 200 years of Texas military history, from militias in Stephen F. Austin’s colony to present day. Exhibits focus on the role of Texas military forces, including militia and volunteer units from the 1800s, Texas Army National Guard from 1903 to present, the Texas Air National Guard, and the Texas Defense Guard/Texas State Guard.

The entrance takes you directly to the Great Hall, which houses large artifacts from horse-drawn wagons to tanks.

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It’s not every day you see an airplane hanging from the ceiling!

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We visited the Lost Battalion Gallery, which tells the story of the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery whose members were taken prisoner March 1, 1942, near the Island of Java in the Dutch East Indies. Most members of the group were forced to work building a railroad between Thailand and Burma, including the famous Bridge Over the River Kwai. Survivors were freed after 42 months in captivity. (Some images within the exhibit may be disturbing to younger children.)

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The exhibits have clear labels and explanations so the purpose and background of everything on display can easily be understood.

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In the Air Guard Gallery, you can take a close look at this jet engine, which weighs 2,455 pounds!

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Your children can climb aboard and check out the seating arrangement for themselves. My 10-year-old son thought this was a tight fit!

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In the 36th Infantry Gallery, you can view detailed dioramas of different battles. This display shows the taking of Velettri, Italy, by the 36th Infantry on May 29, 1944.

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Informative posters help you understand the whole story behind the exhibits.

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It was interesting to see this poster describing the 36th Infantry’s experience liberating a small concentration camp near Landsberg, Germany (a sub-camp of Dachau). The poster states, “If American soldiers had been uncertain why they had been fighting since 1941, they now had an answer they would never forget.”

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There also is a collection of Nazi artifacts, still unnerving decades later.

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My biggest “aha!” moment was seeing these anti-tank obstacles….now I know what those little pieces were in the kids’ army sets!

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Kids fascinated by firefighting vehicles will love this U.S. Army fire truck!

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Did you know that Audie Murphy, the most decorated combat soldier in U.S. history at the time of his death, was a member of the Texas National Guard?

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While the museum has displayed artifacts related to the Texas Revolution for a long time, these new explanations and timelines were very helpful.

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This Tenth Texas Cavalry Regiment flag is from the Civil War.

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We have been visiting the museum for many years, so we were pleasantly surprised to find the new exhibit gallery covering the Cold War to the Global War on Terror.

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You can even see a piece of the Berlin Wall!

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If your kids really don’t want to hear about the Cold War (just try to explain it!), they might be more interested in this display of dime store toy soldiers from the 1930s.

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Unlike most museums, the Texas Military Forces Museum has a significant outdoor component: Armor Row and Artillery Park.

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The kids were happy to stretch their legs and explore the giant military vehicles.

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All of the fascinating artifacts on display had sparked their imaginations, so the boys devised a “battle” of their own behind this barricade.

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The Texas Military Forces Museum is in the process of being renovated and expanded. Whether you’ve been there often in the past or are a first-time visitor, you will find something new to learn about!

THE RUNDOWN:
Austin Active Kids Opinion: An informative and easy outing packed with opportunities to cover important educational and historical topics.
Outing Time: About 1.5 hours
Reminders: If you have not talked to your children about the 9/11 tragedy, think about whether you want to visit the Global War on Terror Gallery. There is a picture of the World Trade Center burning, but it is not graphic. Any discussion of the War on Terror would be incomplete without including 9/11, so plan ahead on how you want to handle this. The track at Camp Mabry is open to the public if you or the kids would like to go for a walk or jog after you visit the museum.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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

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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.”

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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!

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

THE RUNDOWN:
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.

If you have driven by or walked by Austin City Hall and wondered what it was like inside, you should plan a visit soon. Completed in 2004, Austin City Hall (301 West 2nd Street) is a truly stunning building that will fascinate your kids.

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City Hall is open to the public Monday – Friday between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. There is plentiful parking in the underground parking garage (entered from Lavaca Street). Visitors to City Hall can get their parking stub validated.

We went to City Hall on a Thursday, when the City Council typically meets. We sat in Council Chambers for a few minutes to get a glimpse of our city leaders in action. My kids did not seem to think it was very exciting but they kindly humored me in my attempt to enhance their civic education. There were other children in attendance, visiting with a summer camp or meeting boy scout requirements.

My children were really excited about all of the artwork in The People’s Gallery, a year-long display of more than 150 artworks from Austin-area artists, galleries, museums, and art organizations. It was fun to be surrounded by so much amazing and original art, not just on the walls but on the ceiling above us, too!

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Heaven Positive, Jennifer Chenoweth

I was touched by the memorial exhibition honoring 42 city employees who lost their lives or were killed in the line of duty. It’s an unusual but moving tribute, with little carved figures representing the profession of each individual.

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The painting below might look like just empty pots, but according to the artist’s statement, it’s quite profound: “Throughout history and literature, the idea of the empty vessel appears as a theme based on the human condition, and often refers to the human potential to be filled with knowledge, nourishment, or spirituality. For me, the empty vessel simply signifies the intrinsic framework of possibility.” Wow!

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Empty Vessels II, Hollis Hammonds

After the kids fully investigated the snack vending machine options near the Empty Vessels II painting, we checked out “Austin Past & Present,” a multimedia history of the city of Austin. This display included a timeline of Austin’s history as well as an interactive map of interesting landmarks to explore throughout the city.

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The boys ran up the stairs to the 2nd floor to see what awaited us. They were not disappointed!

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They were pretty much left speechless by these two ladies.

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Blue Mama: Laugh and Blue Mama: Cringe, Claudia Reese

Viewed from the 2nd floor, the plastic caps structure was one of the kids’ favorites! You have to see it in person to believe how tall it is. The shape is designed to resemble bulrushes or cattails (plants that grow around the edges of ponds and lakes).

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Plastic Caps Sculpture, George Sabra

This artwork, Of Earth and Sky, was another favorite. I was not able to get a good photograph, but this piece was so incredible, I did not want to leave it out. It is an angel made out of an old piano!

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Of Earth and Sky, John Sager

After visiting three floors of City Hall (out of four), we went outside to City Hall Plaza. These steps are known for being a live music venue but the kids thought climbing and jumping were the best activities for this final part of our visit!

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THE RUNDOWN:
Austin Active Kids Opinion: The whole family will be impressed by Austin City Hall and it’s likely you’ll all learn something, too!
Outing Time: About 1.5 hours
Reminders: If you want to stop by a City Council meeting when you visit City Hall, check their meeting schedule first. Talk to your kids about behavior expectations ahead of time. For a council meeting, children will need to be able to sit still and speak quietly. The artwork is very appealing to kids, but they will not be able to touch or handle it.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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!

THE RUNDOWN:
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.

When most Austinites hear “Bull Creek Park,” they are likely to think of the popular park at 6701 Lakewood Drive that was devastated by Tropical Storm Hermine in September 2010. The rest of the Bull Creek Greenbelt–a 3.5 mile trail along the banks of the creek–is not as well-known.

We discovered the Bull Creek Greenbelt about 5 years ago and we’ve enjoyed it ever since. Our favorite starting point is Lakewood Drive, just off Loop 360. There is a small gravel parking lot to your left (heading south on Lakewood Drive from 360). This is the view of Bull Creek from the parking lot.

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We walked north on the trail and stayed on the west side of the creek. The trail consists primarily of limestone and it will take you under Loop 360.

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Attentive visitors will be rewarded with sightings of butterflies, lizards, fish, grasshoppers, and many other interesting creatures. I was determined to get a photo of this bright orange dragonfly!

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After about 1/4 mile of walking along the relatively flat and easy-to-navigate limestone adjacent to the creek, you will have to climb a small incline and walk along a ledge (pictured below) to continue on. If you are new to hiking with your family, you may want to consider this your turning-around point. On the other hand, if your family is experienced with rough terrain and the children are all about age 5 or older, you should be able to manage the trail.

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If you are able to proceed, a lovely surprise is just up the path! About 1/3 mile from our original starting point, we came upon this tiny yet charming waterfall.

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We spent some time examining the area around the waterfall.

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Cool, clear water gathered in little pools. The waterfall setting was shady and refreshing.

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We continued hiking along the creek until our total distance covered was just under 1/2 mile. After a water break, we made the return trip to our starting point. We crossed the creek and explored the other side briefly.

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The Bull Creek Greenbelt presents a paradox for visiting families: the area is at its loveliest when there has been enough rain to replenish the creek and limestone seeps and springs yet the very presence of all of this water makes the limestone very slippery. Wear sturdy shoes, pay attention to your footing, and stay focused on the hike (in other words, avoid distractions like cell phones).

The trail had very few visitors when we were there (late morning on a Friday). If solitude is not your cup of tea, you might want to plan an early evening or weekend visit. You can read more details about the Bull Creek Greenbelt in this Austin Explorer description.

THE RUNDOWN:
Austin Active Kids Opinion: If you can handle a slightly challenging trail that is off the beaten path, you will find a lot to explore at the Bull Creek Greenbelt!
Outing Time: About 1 hour
Outing Distance: Less than 1 mile
Reminders: The City of Austin will post signs if there are water quality issues. We see people swimming almost every time we visit but we prefer to find other locations for recreational swimming for safety reasons. The children will occasionally wade or splash but we do not wear bathing suits or otherwise treat it as a “swimming outing.”

If you think the Hike and Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake is only for kids who can still fit in a jogging stroller, think again! This beautiful trail is the perfect venue for an easy nature hike.

We parked along the street on Stephen F. Austin Drive, on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake near Austin High School. We walked toward Mopac Expressway to get to the Johnson Creek Trailhead.

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The lake shore is accessible at this part of the trail. My kids have named it “Town Lake Beach” and they think it’s a fun place to explore!

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Johnson Creek Trailhead has recently been renovated and it looks fabulous!

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Lady Bird Lake will provide many opportunities for you to appreciate nature, even though it’s in the middle of the city. We headed east on the trail and quickly spotted this lovely dragonfly.

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My 6 year old discovered this toad in a hollowed-out tree trunk.

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We had to stop and catch our breath after the toad excitement.

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As we passed the Texas Rowing Center, we noticed this sign identifying a Clay Pit Bucket Tower, a vestige of the brick-making plant located here in the early 1900s.

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Our turnaround point was an overlook area less than a 1/2 mile from Johnson Creek Trailhead. It was a nice spot to take in the scenery.

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At the overlook, there is an illustrative drawing of birds you might see around the lake. We saw a few of these while we were there!

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When we were ready to go, we returned to the trail and headed west to our starting point at Johnson Creek Trailhead. We packed a lot of fun into a one-hour stroll!

THE RUNDOWN:
Austin Active Kids Opinion: A laid-back adventure for curious kids
Outing Time: About 1 hour
Outing Distance: Less than 1 mile
Reminders: Remind your children about trail etiquette: stay to the right and watch out for bikes. You will probably be moving along more slowly than most of the people exercising, so help your kids avoid obstructing other trail users.

Summer is definitely here! The heat was getting to us so we decided to check out the Pease Park Splash Pad (1100 Kingsbury Street, Austin, 78705).

Not only is Pease Park historic, it is also home to Austin’s famous Eeyore’s Birthday Party.

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There were many other kids playing on the splash pad to escape the afternoon heat but there was still plenty of room for everyone.

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This water feature seemed to be the most popular: all of the kids wanted to play under the “umbrella” of water.

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After getting cooled off, we went down to the banks of Shoal Creek for some fossil hunting.

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It was a little too hot in the afternoon for the playscape, but we will return one morning to climb and slide!

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If you would like to add a little hiking to your splashing and playing, you can access the Shoal Creek Hike and Bike Trail at Pease Park. This trail goes all the way north to 38th Street.

THE RUNDOWN:
Austin Active Kids Opinion: Easy way to have some fun in the sun
Outing Time: About 1 1/2 hours
Reminders: There is not a lot of shade near the playscape or splash pad so you might want to plan this outing for the morning hours. Or, a shorter-than-usual outing for the afternoon is another option. If the splash pad water is not running when you arrive, look for the button on top of the purple pillar.