Best Austin parks and gardens
Located in the heart of Austin with 351 acres along the banks of Lady Bird Lake, Zilker Park is the place that captures the spirit of the city. Not only does it host some of our most popular outdoor festivals and concerts (think ACL, Blues on the Green, the annual Kite Festival and Trail of Lights) but it also provides an outdoor amphitheater for community arts organizations such as the Austin Summer Musical and Austin Shakespeare. There are areas for picnics; a miniature train; playgrounds; canoe, kayak and stand-up paddle rentals; soccer fields and a disc golf course within the park. But perhaps the most popular attraction within Zilker Park is Barton Springs, a three-acre, spring-fed public pool that hovers between 68 and 70 degrees. On a scorching day, post up on the springs' grassy area to sunbathe and people watch—and, of course, do a cannonball off the diving board.
Just around the corner from Zilker Park, you’ll find a magical oasis dedicated to the works of renowned American sculptor Charles Umlauf. Umlauf taught at the University of Texas in Austin for 40 years and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1981. In 1991, the city of Austin dedicated four acres to create a garden that showcases dozens of bronze and stone pieces given to the city by Umlauf. Today, these amazing pieces are perfectly set in the shady garden surrounded by native plants, ponds, waterfalls, streams and towering oak trees; be sure to visit the museum on the grounds where you can view a video of Umlauf’s life and works.
Also known as Covert Park, Mount Bonnell has been a tourist attraction since the 1830s. One hundred years later, the land was deeded to Travis County and became a public park before being listed on the National Historic Register in 2015. Rising 785 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point in Austin and offers a gorgeous vista overlooking the city and the rolling hills of Lake Austin. Mount Bonnell is also the perfect place to enjoy spectacular Austin sunsets (you may witness a proposal or two). Be advised that, to reach the top, you must first climb a very long, steep stone staircase—but trust us, the view is worth it.
Located about 25 miles from downtown off Highway 71, nature lovers will revel in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve and its most popular attraction: Hamilton Pool. One of the most stunning sights in Texas, Hamilton Pool is a natural pool that was created when the dome of a massive underground river collapsed thousands of years ago. Designated a nature preserve in 1990 by the Travis County Commission, the oval watering hole is surrounded by limestone outcroppings covered with ferns and hundreds of stalactites. The 50-foot waterfall plunges into the collapsed grotto, and the water flows from the pool down Hamilton Creek and, eventually, into the Pedernales River. There is an entrance fee and reservations are required in the summer.
Just off the Capital Texas Highway, you’ll find 227 acres of native Texas Hill Country habitat. The Wild Basin Preserve is home to many native Texas animals including birds, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and an occasional wildcat sighting. Visitors can hike 2.5 miles of trails from sunrise to sunset—just be sure to make a stop at the Wild Basin Creative Research Center, where exhibits include a microscope station, large topographical interactive map, observation station, educational videos and a bird watching station. Wild Basin offers a variety of educational events and guided hikes, but there are no bikes, pets or picnics allowed.
Designated as the official state botanic garden and arboretum, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center was founded in 1982 by its namesake and former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, and actress Helen Hayes. It was created to establish a National Wildflower Center focused on native wildflowers to help preserve and restore natural beauty to North America and, in particular, to U.S. highways. Today the center consists of 284 acres with native plant landscapes, a 16-acre arboretum, a butterfly garden, a water garden and award-winning buildings scattered throughout the property. Spring is the most popular season here, when the fields are covered with bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, coreopsis and other native spring wildflowers. Check the website for listings of events, classes and other happenings.
Emma Long Metropolitan Park is the only city-owned park that offers camping—and the only one that has a beach. Just off RR2222 and City Park Road lies the hidden gem—well worth the two-mile trek that winds down a wooded road before you arrive at the entrance to the park. Each of the 66 campsites has access to Lake Austin, and there are electric and non-electric sites catering to RV and tent camping. Activities at Emma Long include fishing, hiking, volleyball and basketball, and pets are permitted—but they must be on a leash. There’s a 9.5-mile challenging motor bike trail, plus a boat launch so you can bring your own boat and enjoy a day on the lake.
Onion Creek flows through the McKinney Falls State Park, creating natural waterfalls and limestone pools perfect for fishing and swimming. With nearly nine miles of trails, you can hike, mountain bike or road bike, go bouldering or have a picnic. The park has 81 campsites (all with water and electric hook-ups) and six cabins; for large groups or family reunions, a group recreation hall is available with a full kitchen, seating area and outdoor grill. Coming with the little ones? The park has family programs and events including geocaching, bird watching and a junior ranger certification. Entrance fees are $6 per day for adults, and children 12 and under are free.
The Barton Creek Greenbelt is managed by the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department. Beginning in Zilker Park and ending in the woods of Westlake Hills, the 7.2 miles of trails create an urban oasis and provide opportunities for biking, hiking, swimming, running and rock climbing. There’s a beautiful natural swimming area and stunning limestone cliffs, and plenty of visitors enjoy the greenbelt with their four-legged companions. If there’s enough rainfall, the creek rises to levels that allow for kayaking and tubing.
With 32 square miles to tend to, the Bull Creek Foundation has its hands full when it comes to maintaining Bull Creek District Park. The watershed area includes limestone seeps, waterways, waterfalls, springs, scenic cliffs and diverse archaeological features; just off Capital of Texas Highway, there’s an area rife with dog owners who romp with their pets in the shallow waters. The park has barbeque pits, basketball courts, a fishing pier, volleyball courts, picnic areas and an off-leash dog area, and is also a coveted spot among rock climbers who love to scale the limestone cliffs.