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Photograph: Courtesy City of Austin

The best hidden Austin parks for a secret retreat

Head away from the beaten path and discover secluded gardens, lakeside retreats, sculpture grounds and more hidden parks in Austin

James Wong
Written by
James Wong
Contributor
Cindy Brzostowski
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When it comes to the best things to do in Austin – which includes the best hikes and outdoor activities – it often seems like everyone else in town has the same idea. The crowds during the summer weekends can be heaving, making it problematic to find a quiet patch of grass to park on and enjoy lunch on. Yes, Austin is all about live music events, rooftop bars and fun in the sun, but sometimes even the most social of us need a respite. If that’s the case, then we suggest skipping past Zilker Park, Mount Bonnell and Barton Creek Greenbelt...and wandering off the beaten path.

Whether you’re planning on a romantic date on a picnic blanket, a nap,or just a few uninterrupted hours with a good book, here are some lesser-known natural spots in Bat City that’ll give you that much-needed breathing space to just be.


Recommended: Where to hike in Austin

Best hidden Austin parks

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • North University

Once an electric substation, the aptly named Sparky Park is a small, artsy pocket park in the Central Austin/Hyde Park area. It all came to be when the City of Austin commissioned local artist Berthold Haas to design a wall that would mask the unsightly electrical machinery. The Gaudi-influenced grotto wall is a mosaic made from glass, marbles, seashells, petrified wood and other found materials, and its whimsical design serves as the perfect backdrop for a quirky photoshoot or a nice pit stop on your walk around the neighborhood.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens

Tucked away from Highway 71 and across from the Bee Cave police station, is Bee Cave Sculpture Park, a seven-acre park with a mix of permanent and rotating sculptures ranging from the fanciful to the abstract. Visitors are free to wander the grounds, which include a spring-fed pond, some eclectic art, plus there are tables and chairs available for anyone who wants to set up a picnic. While small, this hidden spot makes for a relaxing retreat, especially if you’re already in the area shopping at the Hill Country Galleria.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Greater Austin

Many locals are familiar with Emma Long Metropolitan Park, but just a bit further west and on the opposite side of the Colorado River, is Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park. This 215-acre serene sanctuary boasts stunning views of the water, short hiking trails and volleyball courts. Unfortunately, swimming isn’t allowed here, but you can still enjoy water activities with the boat ramp and fishing pier. There’s been a great deal of effort to restore this prairie area with native floral and fauna, so keep your eyes peeled for interesting animals and plantlife.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Greater Austin

Sandy Creek Park, located on the northern portion of Lake Travis, is one of the quieter coves in the area. Visitors can swim, hike, camp and fish across its scenic 92 acres. Avian aficionados also have the chance to spot the rare golden-cheeked warbler in its natural habitat. For those who are interested in camping overnight, no reservations are required but spots are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There’s drinking water, restrooms and barbecue pits available, just don’t forget to bring your own firewood.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Spanish Oaks

An entertaining spot for the little ones, Champion Park is in Cedar Park, sandwiched between Brushy Creek Lake Park and the Brushy Creek Greenbelt. The most notable features include a large, covered discovery sandbox (where kids might just dig up some 'dinosaur bones'), a dino-themed playscape, larger climbing boulders and a whale’s tail sprayscape where kids can cool off. Along with its picnic pavilion, Champion Park makes for a great location for a family fun day or a kid’s birthday party.

  • Attractions
  • Beaches
  • Greater Austin

Roy G. Guerrero Park itself isn’t quite so hidden with its large stretch of land that includes baseball fields, volleyball courts, picnic tables and playgrounds. But nestled inside of it is a shallow stretch of the Colorado River that some locals refer to as 'Secret Beach'. To get there, park in the Montopolis Youth Sports Complex lot, keep right on the walking trail and head down the steep hill where you’ll find the sandy 'beach'. While swimming isn’t allowed and the water level can vary, you’ll most likely see people wading in with their shoes and socks off or off-leash dogs running wild in the water.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Downtown

Mills Pond is a tranquil hideaway in the Wells Branch area of Austin. One of the biggest draws here is being able to take a nice, long reflective stroll or going for a run on the trails that circle the pond at the center of the park. The pond also has a fishing pier where you can post up and catch some catfish, bass and crappie, plus a dock where all non-motorized boats are welcome. While there, you’ll probably spot a number of ducks, geese and cranes, which all serve to complete the peaceful setting.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Pleasant Valley

Another lesser-known spot close to Roy G. Guerrero Park is Circle Acres. Interestingly enough, this nature preserve in the Montopolis neighborhood was once a quarry and then a landfill and it has since been restored to an education center for environmental sustainability by the nonprofit Ecology Action of Texas. The near-10 acre site is a unique mix of forest, wetland and grassland environments, making it an urban haven for wildlife. Visitors can enjoy the trails, picnic tables, pavilion and wildlife viewing area.  

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To get on Adventure Island you’ll need to have a Lake Travis Zipline Adventures booking (aka you need to be riding the longest and fastest zip line in Texas), but the trade-off is pretty sweet once you’re done. What not many realize is the ticket actually permits all-day access to their private lakefront property with hammocks, picnic and games areas. You and your sporty pals will kick back and enjoy the space alongside the glittering lake, and there’s even a hidden bar on-site if you forget the cooler.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Rosedale

Ramsey Park is a beloved fixture in the Rosedale neighborhood – and for good reason. Recently renovated, this park is small but mighty; it has everything for a fun family outing, including multipurpose fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, playgrounds, barbecue pits and a swimming pool. Once upon a time, you might have been able to catch a Shakespeare performance put on by the Something for Nothing Theatre Co. in the park's limestone amphitheater, but sadly that's closed for the foreseeable future. If you're planning a visit though, it's always worth double-checking online to see if it's reopened.

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