Up until recently, Austin, Texas has managed to remain off the well-trodden tourist path. Nearby San Antonio, with its gorgeous River Walk and the Alamo, steals most of the attention that central Texas receives. That’s all set to change, however. Music festivals, especially the insanely popular South By Southwest, have in recent years become synonymous with the growing city of Austin, which calls to mind a sunnier version of Portland, Oregon. Austin’s vibrant art scene helps to “Keep Austin Weird” in spite of gentrification, a blossoming tech industry, and a sharp increase in people moving to the Texas capital from all across the country.
What if crowded music festivals or quirky art exhibits don’t inspire your wanderlust? Is there something else to Austin besides hippies spray-painting old cement blocks and tacky cowboy rodeo bars? You bet. Despite Austin’s relatively flat topography, the city manages to put its natural attractions on the top of the must-see list. Visitors to central Texas may not find Alps-level hiking, but Austin’s fun, nature-oriented attractions have something to offer everybody who needs a break from museums or pollution-filled cities.
I’ve come up with a list of my five favorite parks in Austin’s city limits, and there’s certainly plenty more for visitors to explore or stumble upon. Three of the below attractions are free, and all are kid-friendly. Just make sure to use plenty of sunscreen and bug spray, and don’t forget your sunglasses – this is Texas!
1. Covert Park at Mount Bonnell
Thanks to Austin’s clear blue skies and smog-free, green city center, Covert Park offers visitors a spectacular view of downtown and is the perfect place for first-time visitors to sample Austin’s outdoorsy side. Climb to the top of Mount Bonnell at sunset to enjoy some stellar colors or to check out how Austin’s well-to-do live. You’ll lose track if you try to count the number of luxury vehicles or small motorboats. The residential architecture is uniquely southwestern, with a little Santa Monica flair thrown in, so stylish mansions are plentiful.
2. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
President and Lady Bird Johnson left an indelible mark on the Austin area. Just a few hours outside Austin sits Johnson City, Texas, L.B.J.’s birthplace and a National Historical Site. Don’t have a day to spend gallivanting around central Texas? Share the Johnson’s appreciation for all things nature by visiting the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a remarkable feat of landscaping that can be appreciated at any time of the year. One of the highlights of the center is a series of swings and benches that encourage total relaxation and a chance to enjoy some shade and protection from that hot Texas sun.
3. McKinney Falls State Park
Located in southeast Austin, McKinney Falls State Park makes for a perfect stop for those driving between Austin and San Antonio. Prepare to get your toes wet and explore the park’s vast property, which includes numerous small waterfalls, stunning rock formations, and plenty of places to sent up tent for the night. Dogs are welcome!
4. Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve
Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve makes for an ideal afternoon stroll while soaking in some culture. Thanks to the park’s neighboring sculpture garden (accessible on foot via the park’s main path), visitors can spend time outdoors yet still soak up some contemporary culture. The modernist sculptures, like the one pictured above, are designed as to not interfere or obstruct nature; rather, they work in communion with their surroundings. I wouldn’t advise visiting on a rainy day, as the paths can get muddy, but the park is wonderful for children or those with limited mobility, as the paths are generally flat.
5. University of Texas, Austin
UT Austin offers the best of both worlds – the campus, located in downtown, is undoubtedly urban, but there are plenty of green spaces and tree-lined paths for those who want to forget the city setting for awhile. Since this is a college campus, expect plenty of inexpensive, youth-oriented eateries while attempting to understand the obsession with all things UT Austin. For a city amazingly bereft of professional sports teams, locals and alums alike love UT Austin’s sports program.