McKinney Falls in Austin, Texas. photo credit: Leanne Fromm

9 Texas Outdoor Destinations In And Around Austin Best For A Spring Visit

Years ago, in 1993, we drove through Texas on the way from New Jersey to our new home in Phoenix, Arizona. During that trip, all I noticed of the state was a flat and boring landscape filled with oil rigs. We drove hours and hours through the state, and we saw nothing other than oil fields. We passed through Dallas, but the city didn’t seem remotely welcoming enough for us to even stop for a few minutes.

To be fair, we had a mission: we needed to drive to Phoenix as fast as possible, since we were racing a moving truck with our belongings. We had to get there before they did, so they would have a place to drop off our few pieces of furniture.

Still, most of the drive was nice, except the bit through Texas. The state seemed like home to the most boring, desolate landscape I have ever seen or even imagined.

So, when my daughter told me she wanted to move to Houston, I was in shock. Why would anyone in their right mind want to live there, I wondered. But she had friends there, and had an opportunity to move, and I wasn’t going to ask her out of it. Instead, I drove with her.

That drive changed my mind about Texas. The southern part of the state is more beautiful than I remembered. Then again, by the time we got to the desert, I must have thought we were already in Arizona during that long-ago drive.

Visiting Houston proved that the state was more interesting than I imagined. Enormous city parks, museums, a world-class aquarium, and the Space Center proved the city to be more metropolitan than I expected. However, we also realized that visiting the area in August was almost as bad as trying to vacation in Phoenix in summer. So, we timed our next visit, this time to Austin and its vicinity for spring break.

Zilker Botanical Garden. photo credit: Leanne Fromm
Zilker Botanical Garden. Photo by Leanne Fromm

Outdoor Places We Visited in Austin

Weather is perfect in spring an and around Austin in early March. This gave us the opportunity to explore state and city parks before taking a side-trip to San Antonio. Though we seemed to have brought the sunshine with us, and most of the days were a bit warm, they were still pleasant enough for hikes in the woods and near waterways. Even if the trees had no leaves yet.

1. Zilker Botanical Garden

Zilker Botanical Garden photo credit: Leanne Fromm
Zilker Botanical Garden photo credit: Leanne Fromm

Near Downtown Austin, with views of the city skyline visible from it, Zilker Botanical Garden was a fun place to start our first full day in town. We explored the themed gardens, all interconnected with pathways, most of them shaded.

We enjoyed the koi pond in the Taniguchi Japanese Garden, where we started our walk. I stopped at the new bonsai exhibit, or better the beginning of one, a showcase of what is to come. Past the Japanese Garden, we followed the path along a riparian area, to the Pioneer Village. There, we learned about the Swedish settlers of Texas. A Swedish log cabin, vegetable garden, blacksmith shop, and schoolhouse gave us an idea of how these early settler lived in Austin. I didn’t expect to find that so many Swedish people settled in and around Austin.

The prehistoric garden with a dinosaur statue, dinosaur footprints, and a waterfall was filled with families with young children. A butterfly garden, oak grove, and even a cactus garden were other areas of interest.

We visited on a Monday, but it was still very busy, especially midday. It was spring break for most schools though, so this was no surprise. I can see why it’s so popular with families in Austin. An oasis in the center of the city, where families can bring children to learn about their surroundings.

2. Bull Creek Park and Preserve

As desert dwellers, we were drawn to water. So, we walked around neighborhood lakes, but also took a few hours to hike in Bull Creek Park and Preserve. Though this early in spring trees were bare, hiking near a creek was a pleasant experience.

3. Walnut Creek Metro Park

If it was creek we sought, it was easy to find one in the city. On our last day in Austin we hiked along Walnut Creek in Walnut Creek Metro Park. The park offers miles upon miles of trails, in the forest, and near the creek. It was the perfect place to spend a great part of our last day of the trip.

4. Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve

Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve. photo credit: Leanne Fromm
Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve. photo credit: Leanne Fromm

We visited the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, where we seemed to be the only visitors in March. The preserve protects 227 acres of wilderness, offering a great introduction to the native flora and fauna of Austin and its surroundings.

Less popular than most other parks in Austin, we found it a great place for solitude in a forest. The trail we took led to the creek, while we could see the waterfall in the distance.

State Parks In Austin’s Vicinity

Several state parks also offer gorgeous outdoor destinations, all close enough for a day trip from the city. We visited a few, though didn’t have the time to explore all the ones we planned. Each of those we visited offered something different, but all had plenty of hiking trails, many along creeks or rivers, even showcasing a few waterfalls.

5. McKinney Falls State Park

McKinney Falls State Park. photo by Leanne Fromm
McKinney Falls State Park. photo credit: Leanne Fromm

So close to town, it is actually within the city limits, this gorgeous park surrounds McKinney Falls, a series of limestone ledges Onion Creek flows through. McKinney Falls State Park features hiking and biking trails, along with fishing, swimming, and camping opportunities.

We hiked to the Lower Falls, walking through an ancient rock shelter, a forest, to Onion Creek and the falls. After spending some time near the water, we crossed the creek and continued through forested areas to the McKinney homestead. The full trail is a loop, though we returned the same way from the homestead, to spend more time at the creek.

We also stoped at the Upper Falls, a much shorter and easier walk, since the falls are just a few feet from the parking lot.

6. Guadalupe River State Park

We spent time at the Guadalupe River State Park, about eighty miles from Austin. I haven’t seen many others, but I feel it is one of the prettiest parks in the state. It must be an extremely popular park in the summer, however, in the spring, before swimming season, we only shared it with a handful of visitors.

We found plenty of trails both in the forest and along the river to follow. While it was busier near the river, the shade of the trees and sound of the rushing river made up for it. Besides, we hiked far enough from the trail head to find a shaded spot to sit under a tree along the water, with only a fisherman nearby.

Armadillo near a trail in Guadalupe River State Park
Armadillo near a trail in Guadalupe River State Park

The park features 13 miles of hiking and biking trails, and none are longer than there miles, or too strenuous. Even those that go uphill for a bit. Since I opted to stay along the river, I missed the armadillo Leanne potted along another trail, in a more secluded area of the park.

7. Palmetto State Park

Palmetto State Park
Along the Palmetto Trail

This park is named after a type of dwarf palms, called palmettos, we hiked through. Besides the palms though, Palmetto State Park, about 60 miles south of Austin, showcases an unexpected tropical environment, thanks to several sources of water, including the San Marcos River.

Though we noticed picnicking and camping opportunities, we only took a hike in the park, on the Palmetto Trail.

8. Inner Space Cavern

Inner Space Cavern
In the Inner Space Cavern

The Inner Space Cavern, about 30 miles north of Austin, gave us an opportunity to explore a unique underground environment.

One of the best-preserved caves in Texas, it opened for visitors in 1966, the year I was born. Visitors have three tours to choose from. The most popular leads through paved, lit path, through the largest rooms. Naturally, we opted for the less popular, but longer tour, where we carried our own lanterns, and walked through narrow passages for about a mile and a half.

Besides gorgeous cave formations, we saw several bats still hibernating inside the cave, one of them so close to the trail, we could have touched it.

9. San Antonio

San Antonio. Riverwalk
On the RiverWalk in San Antonio

Since we were so close to it, we also visited San Antonio, home of the Alamo and several other missions. But the River Walk was the highlight of the trip, with trail through the hearth of the city.

The Texas Landscape Near Austin Exceeded My Expectations

Three decades after my first drive through Texas, I changed my mind about the state. At least in the area surrounding Austin, the Texas landscape is green, and beautiful, with lots of waterways, historical sites, and lively, cosmopolitan cities.

Now, when I think of Texas, I no longer think of the never-ending oil fields and desolate landscape I used to associate the state with. Now, I think of the city parks of Austin, food trucks offering some of the best meals, state parks surrounding waterways and forests. I can see it as a good place to love and visit.

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