My husband and I met while working as tour guides in Glacier National Park. We spent much of that summer hiking and backpacking through the spectacular mountain wilderness of Montana. We fancied ourselves pretty seasoned hikers and even backpacked on our honeymoon. Fast forward to Texas many years and two kids later and you’ll find that our idea of what constitutes a hike has changed pretty dramatically. Nonetheless, from the time our boys were able to hold up their heads in a Kelty pack, we’ve made exploring off the beaten path a priority for our family. At the first sign of cool(er) weather, you’re sure to find us out on the trail. Here’s a list of my family’s favorite Austin-area hikes, grouped by level of difficulty.
Scenic Strolls in Austin
Blunn Creek Greenbelt This greenbelt, nestled in the Travis Heights neighborhood, connects Little Stacy and Big Stacy parks. Definitely more stroll than hike, it’s still a really enjoyable outing, especially for those of us with smaller kids who don’t appreciate being confined to a stroller. The trail offers a few fun bridges, a tunnel, a moon tower, cool tree markers, and plenty of wide open spaces for running free. Playgrounds and restrooms at both ends of the trail are a definite plus. You can read more about our adventures at this super park here. Free.
Brushy Creek Regional Trail The Brushy Creek Regional Trail is the ‘burbs’ answer to Austin’s popular hike and bike trails. It’s easy to spend an entire day traversing this 6.75-mile path connecting Round Rock to Cedar Park. The path is ideal for walking or biking with kids–especially since it connects an unbelievable six parks! While travelling along Brushy Creek, you’ll encounter lakes, dams, bridges (to go over and under), picnic areas, playgrounds, splash pads, rocks for climbing, and lots of geocaches. My sons’ favorite feature is the historic railroad trestle, which played a pivotal role in procuring granite for the Texas State Capitol. (There’s an historical marker that tells the whole tale.) While the trail is mostly flat, be aware that there are a couple of steep sections, the most intense of which is the climb to the top of the dam. The BCRT does get very busy on weekends, so coaching your kids on how to share the trail safely would be wise before getting started. Free.
Laguna Gloria Strolling the grounds of Laguna Gloria is the perfect way to while away an hour or two. While I imagine myself as Clara Driscoll, surveying my beloved estate, my boys jog around as if they’re on an epic adventure. The path, which follows the shore of Lake Austin, is flat and easy other than the initial descent (by stairs or a long, somewhat steep path) from the parking area. What this trails lacks in length, it makes up for in beauty: outdoor art installations; the occasional peacock; benches with views of the lake; a dock ideal for spotting fish, turtles, ducks, and swans; and a gazebo ripe for all sorts of make believe fun. Plus, Mayfield Park and Preserve next door is a great add-on experience. Free.
Schroeter Park I must confess that I’m partial to this park because we can walk to it from our house. That admission aside, Schroeter is a great hike (using the term very loosely) for beginning walkers and a great spot for kiddos experimenting with riding their bikes off the pavement. There’s a small web of very short, interconnected trails here, all bordered by a wide lawn and a gravel exercise path. The mulch and crushed granite trails wind through the woodsy core of the park, which is dotted with cool rock formations (urban legend has it that there may be a cave under the park), lots of flowers, and abundant prickly pear cactus. The trails are flat and easy but they give the littlest explorers a feeling of independence. Without creeks to fall in or cliffs to tumble off of, this is a spot where I’m comfortable letting my boys roam solo knowing they will, ultimately, find their way out safely–most likely to one of the park’s two playgrounds. Free.
Easy hikes in Austin
Balcones District Park This park is our go-to spot after a heavy rain. A quick and fairly straightforward little romp gets you from the parking lot down to the creekside trail where, after a good rain, there are some terrific waterfalls and fun creek crossings. Even in dry times, there is a tiny, spring-fed pool that’s great for spotting neat bugs and the occasional fish or amphibian. My boys are big fans of the spooky tunnel under Duval Rd. If you know a budding mountain biker, Balcones is an ideal area for getting some easy trail-riding experience too. For those seeking a longer trek, this park connects to several other parks via trail–including the new Big Walnut Creek Greenbelt. Free.
Bull Creek Greenbelt The 4.5-mile Bull Creek trail system offers a lot of versatility, as you can easily adjust the length of your hike according to your access point. The trails are not very well marked, but with the proximity to Loop 360 and the creek you can really only get so lost. Bull Creek is popular for its swimming holes, especially after a heavy rain. (Water quality is often less than ideal; please use caution and common sense. We follow the feet-only rule.) The majority of folks don’t stray far from the parking areas, so the farther you venture from parking, the greater your chances of achieving a quiet walk in the woods. Aside from the various pools and waterfalls, there are some impressive, rocky cliffs along the trail. Although Bull Creek is a designated on-leash area, there are plenty of 4-legged friends roaming free, particularly in the park area off Lakewood Dr. Free.
Great Hills Park Discovering this trail was the first time I felt any excitement about living in the far reaches of NW Austin. I couldn’t believe such a scenic little enclave was hidden just minutes from the bustling Arboretum area. This mostly flat trail follows a creek as it meanders along a greenbelt backing up to houses. As such, you can sometimes see houses and hear barking dogs, lawnmowers, etc. Often it seems to me that the only people who utilize this area are those in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it. The trail has great water features, many of which are spring-fed. We’ve seen frogs, fish, tadpoles, leeches, crawfish, and a multitude of cool bugs at the fish pond. Other favorite spots include a wooden bridge (great for stomping) and an enormous boulder (great for climbing). Another plus for my kiddos is the playground at one end of the trail, which can be used as a motivational tool when they start to lag behind. Free.
Spicewood Valley Trail If you weren’t specifically looking for this trail, I’d venture to say that you’d never find it. Beginning across the street from Mountain View Park, the unmarked trail drops immediately, and steeply, via switchbacks and a stone staircase. What seems a bit treacherous at first calms once you reach the bottom, where a super cool doughnut rock waits at the T in the trail. There are no signs or markers here; we usually take the longer, flatter option to the right. As the trail loosely parallels the creek, there are some cool relics of the days when the area was ranchland. The highlight of this hike is an old, man-made dam with a sometimes-waterfall and a lovely pool. We always sit for a spell in this peaceful spot, watching the fish and plunking rocks into the water. From the dam, you can continue along the creekside trail or cross the dam and tackle a more challenging uphill stretch that eventually ends at Canyon Vista Middle School. Despite being adjacent to houses, the SVT is surprisingly quiet and we’ve rarely encountered other hikers there. Free.
Moderate hikes in Austin
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge – Warbler Vista Getting to BCNWR is no quick endeavor but I guarantee it’s worth the effort. This Internationally Important Bird Area hosts an incredible 245 different species of birds, including the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. Balcones Canyonlands has a variety of terrain with enough trails that you can tailor a longer or shorter hike based on the abilities of your group. The Vista Knoll hike is perfect for our crew–just tough enough to satisfy the grownups but not so difficult that the youngsters complain. The vista is breathtaking (I imagine it was even more so when Lake Travis was at pre-drought levels) and it’s a whole lot of fun to split into two groups and try to spot each other from far across the valley. In addition to Warbler Vista, CNWR has another section called Doeskin Ranch, which features a handicapped accessible trail. No pets. Free.
Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve A network of eight interconnected trails winds through Wild Basin. The trails are very well marked and well maintained but the terrain can be tough so it’s important to plan your route before starting out. Parts of Wild Basin are secluded and shaded; others are wide open to views (and noise) from Loop 360. Our go-to route route is down to the waterfall, where there are several shady benches for resting, then up and over to the scenic overlook. Because Wild Basin is a wilderness preserve, no pets, bikes, or picnics are allowed in the park and nothing can be removed. Admission is a suggested donation of $3 for adults and $2 for seniors and children 5-12 years old.
Bonus (not free) hike
Westcave Preserve I saved my absolute favorite for last. Westcave Preserve is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever visited. It’s made all the more magical by the fact that, during the course of a fairly short hike, I feel like I’ve been transported to another time and place. What begins as a pretty typical, flat walk through ash junipers drops abruptly (and quite steeply) into a canyon filled with enormous cypress trees and unbelievably lush, green ferns. It wouldn’t seem the least bit out of place for a dinosaur to stroll past on the trail. It’s that otherworldly. The climax of the hike is the arrival at the cave, pool, and grotto. Wildlife is abundant in the area; we’ve seen fish, a Summer Tanager, copperheads, and even heard a Golden-cheeked Warbler. The only way to see Westcave is by guided hike but it’s totally worth it. This limited access keeps the park feeling much wilder than its neighbor Hamilton Pool. The guides we’ve encountered have been enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and happy to engage with my kids. Do note that the hike may be difficult for anyone with a short attention span. Despite covering a relatively short distance, the hike takes a solid two hours and everyone is required to stay with the group at all times. $10 per adult; $5 per child (ages 4-12 years); $25 max per family (immediate family only). Price includes access to Westcave’s new self-guided Upland Trails System.