Austin’s centrally located Zilker Park spans 350 acres and offers more attractions than you could possibly tackle in a single day. The fun never stops in this beloved park, where you’ll find water sports, festivals, live music, free theatre, a spring-fed swimming pool, a dog park, a miniature train, a playground, a free nature center, botanical gardens, a sculpture garden, and more.
Confession: When I moved to Austin with my family, I was so confused by Zilker Park. My husband and I had read that it was a “must-see” destination, so we plugged “Zilker Park” into Google Maps and hopped in the car. We ended up on the “Great Lawn,” which is a big open field bordered by Lou Neff Road. Our boys enjoyed running across the grass and climbing the trees and rocks, and we thought, “Well, that’s it! I guess we’ve seen Zilker!” Not long after, we learned that there’s so much more to Zilker Park. Here are a few of the park’s highlights, that we have since discovered.
Zilker Park 101
I’ll start with the Great Lawn, since that’s the place we first discovered. It’s a big, open field surrounding Rock Island (which is, of course, an island of rocks), and it’s where most of Zilker Park’s large-scale events are held. Here you can find the free Kite Festival, free Blues on the Green concerts, the free-if-you-go-the-first-week Austin Trail of Lights and the only-free-for-kids Austin City Limits Music Festival. On non-festival days, you’ll see plenty of dogs playing frisbee with their humans, and lots of pet-free people there hanging out too. I’ve even seen folks bring hammocks and hang them between the trees in this area. Such a lovely way to spend a day. On the first day we visited, local musicians were practicing guitar on Rock Island, so we enjoyed a free show while our boys climbed the rocks. (How fitting for the Live Music Capital of the World!) You can see the Zilker Zephyr train from this spot, which is eventually what led us to discover more of the park.
The Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail will take you from the Great Lawn to the south side of Barton Springs Road, where you will discover the Zilker Zephyr Train Station, a playground, and a picnic area. You will also find the famous Barton Springs Pool, the Splash! Exhibit, Zilker Hillside Theater, Barking Springs, and more. Confused yet? Let’s break it down.
Where to Park in Zilker Park
There are several parking lots around Zilker Park, which you can find on this map. The parking fee is $5 per car from March to September on weekends and holidays, and you now pay at machines and leave your receipt on the dash. One parking lot is near Barton Springs Pool, and another leads straight to the playground (the playground looks like a little rainbow on the map). The parking lots are fairly small, so arriving early in the day is best.
Zilker Park Playground
The playground is a favorite spot for my boys, where they can climb, slide, and even make music! The giant fire truck is perfect for climbing and adorable photo ops (especially if your little ones are really into firetrucks).
Once you reach the playground, you can turn right and see the Zilker Zephyr just a bit further down. Just past all of that is a public restroom, Barton Springs Pool, the Splash! Exhibit, and the Zilker Hillside Theater. If you turn left when exiting the playground, you will find another bathroom. Just past the bathroom to the right are stairs that lead down to Barton Creek where you can rent canoes or kayaks from Zilker Park Boat Rentals.
We’ve gone canoeing here several times and my boys just love it! They like to “help” row the oars (read: we all get wet) and search for fish, ducks, and sunbathing turtles. You can get some really cool photos while you’re out there on a boat. Just be careful to not drop your camera/phone in the water! For a list of where to rent canoes or kayaks at Lady Bird Lake, go here. You can also find “Barking Springs” nearby in Barton Creek, which is a dog swim area just outside Barton Springs Pool.
Barton Springs Pool
Just beyond the train station and snack bar, you’ll find Barton Springs Pool, the Beverly S. Sheffield Education Center, and the Splash! Exhibit (2201 Barton Springs Road). This free exhibit is inside (air conditioned!) and offers both a fun and educational experience. We especially enjoyed reading water samples from various creeks around town to see which ones have good (or poor) water quality. The Splash! Exhibit is closed on Mondays; open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday, and 12-5 p.m. on Sunday.
A favorite destination for locals and tourists alike is Barton Springs (2201 Barton Springs Road). It’s a huge three-acre underground spring-fed pool with water that consistently stays 68-70 degrees. That sounds great for a super hot, middle of summer day, but it can be pretty cold on most other days, so you may want to bring something to float on. Operating hours and admission fees are listed here (hours and fees vary, so check the link before you go). Take note that no food is allowed, the pool is closed to the public from 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. every Thursday, and that they may close the pool after a major rain, so call this hotline to confirm if it’s open or not: 512-867-3080.
Zilker Hillside Theater
Zilker Hillside Theater, across the parking lot from Barton Springs, is home to fantastic and free shows, all year long! You can see live concerts, Shakespeare, a summer musical and more. I’m super excited for the 2017 summer musical: The Wizard of Oz. Pack a picnic and a blanket when you go!
Zilker for the Holidays
You can take a free spin under the tree when it’s all lit up, then grab a hot chocolate and make your way through the Austin Trail of Lights for some seriously impressive lights displays. It’s one of my favorite things about Austin during holiday season!
UMLAUF Sculpture Garden & Museum
A little further down Barton Springs Road, off Robert E. Lee Road, you will find the Umlauf Sculpture Garden (605 Robert E. Lee Road). This outdoor sculpture gallery is a well-shaded, picturesque garden filled with art is fun for all ages. Read all about it here.
Austin Nature and Science Center
Now, when you cross back over to the north side of Barton Springs Road (remember the Great Lawn?), you will find even more delightful little treasures waiting to be discovered! The free gem is the Austin Nature and Science Center (301 Nature Center Drive). There is so much to do and see here, and there is no admission fee! Dig for dinosaur bones in the large sand pit area, stroll the beautiful grounds, see some live animals, and discover even more inside the museum portion of the center.
Zilker Botanical Garden
Finally, our virtual tour of Zilker Park concludes with the Zilker Botanical Garden (2220 Barton Springs Road). There is so much beauty to take in here, and so much to discover! Enjoy a butterfly garden, a prehistoric garden (dinosaurs!), Pioneer Village, flowers gardens, koi ponds, a Japanese Garden and Tea House, a cactus garden, and even a seasonal Faerie Trail!
As you can see, there’s so much more to Zilker Park than just a big open field! So get out there and have some fun!
PS: Here’s the illustrated map again, if Google just isn’t doing it for you.