With the weather cooling down and an extremely mild Texas winter ahead, it’s the perfect time of year to get out and enjoy the fresh air! There are many parks and natural areas throughout the hill country, but few offer great hiking opportunities and mountain views like those of our distant neighbors to the west. There are a few little gems scattered throughout Central Texas though, and only the best made this list! In no particular order, here are some of the best parks and natural areas for great hiking and even better views of our beautiful hill country. They may not have towering mountain peaks and soaring cliffs, but these spots all offer both challenging and tranquil trails to satisfy your itch for some outdoor adventure, no matter your skill level! Lace up your boots and hit the trail!
1. Barton Creek Greenbelt
Located right in the heart of Austin, the Barton Creek Greenbelt has a range of trails to fit any skill level, from flat walking trails to fairly elevated terrain. Plus there are some great cliffs for climbing in some areas along the greenbelt. Several swimming holes are available for hot, sunny days when the creek is full. There are multiple locations to enter the greenbelt from, but the most convenient spot is at the south end of the Barton Springs Pool parking lot. This is considered the trailhead to the greenbelt and is a great place for beginners or anyone looking for a low-impact, relaxing hike. You can also access the trails from different spots a little further down the street or just off of Loop 360 and Mopac, where you’ll find a little more diversity in the terrain, along with some great swimming holes and climbing spots. Austin being one of the most dog friendly cities in the world, your furry friends are of course welcome, just keep them on the leash at all times!
2. McKinney Falls State Park
The only state park located within the Austin city limits, Mckinney Falls is located less than thirty minutes from Downtown in southeast Austin, along Onion Creek. The park suffered a lot of damage after the Halloween floods of 2013 and the Memorial Day floods of 2015, and the visitor center is still closed due to the flooding. However, the majority of the park is still accessible, and they’re still open daily from 8am – 10pm! When it hasn’t rained and the water isn’t too high, Onion Creek is great for swimming and you don’t need a license to fish from the shore in a Texas state park! The park also features 81 campsites and six newly remodeled cabins. For hiking and biking, the nearly nine miles of trails range from easy and flat like the 2.8 mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail, to moderately difficult hikes with rocky terrain, creek crossings, and beautiful views of Onion and Williamson Creeks. The Homestead Trail is the longest at 3.1 miles, while most other trails are between 1 mile and 1 ½ miles.
3. Garner State Park
Garner State Park is about three hours southwest of Downtown Austin and two hours west of San Antonio. Located along the Frio River, the park has about three miles of river frontage. On warm days, the park is of course a great spot for swimming, floating, and boating on the river, but the beautiful scenery and 11 miles of trails make it worth the journey even on cooler fall and winter days! Explore the 30-foot deep crystal cave or check out the mysterious old rock fence. From Painted Rock Overlook you can see views of the distant summit while you rest on top of the ridge, or catch hill country views from the Campos Trail Overlook. Adventurous and skilled hikers can take the short but steep trek up to the “Old Baldy” summit for amazing panoramic views. The park also has some great camping facilities from simple campsites for pitching your tent to cabins and screened in shelters. In the summertime the park’s concession building hosts a jukebox dance in the evenings, a tradition they’ve carried on since the 1940’s!
4. Lost Maples State Natural Area
Many people believe you have to travel to New England to experience the breathtaking transformation of the fall foliage, but if you head about three hours southwest of Austin to Vanderpool, Texas, you can find the colorful leaves of the Uvalde bigtooth maples in mid October – mid November. Of course this is the best time to check out the park, but it’s a beautiful place no matter what time of year you go! Over ten miles of trails take you past steep canyon walls and across the top of a 2,200 foot cliff along the scenic Sabinal River. An abundance of wildlife and wildflowers add to the already beautiful landscape. The park is also great for bird watching and fishing along the river or in Can Creek. For camping the park offers 30 campsites with water and electricity available, or you can be a true outdoorsman and backpack to one of six primitive campsites. In addition the park hosts numerous events throughout the year, including stargazing with astronomers – without big city lights, the night sky is absolutely mesmerizing!
5. Pace Bend Park
Nestled within a bend of the Colorado River, Pace Bend Park is less than an hour from downtown Austin and offers some of the best views of Lake Travis, with nine miles of shoreline. Hike along the cliffs and if it’s a hot day, take a leap into the cool blue waters of Lake Travis below! On the eastern side of the park you will find sandy beaches perfect for camping along the water, while the cliffs rise to the west. There are also Mountain biking trails and trails that wind through the interior of the park, where you might spot a whitetail deer, fox, or dozens of different species of birds within the wildlife preserve. The park is open for day use from sunrise until twilight and open 24 hours a day for overnight camping. Entry fees are per vehicle, so load up your car with the whole family or a group of friends for a fun day or weekend of outdoor adventures!
6. Colorado Bend State Park
Colorado Bend State Park is further up the Colorado river, another hour northwest past Pace Bend Park. The park is 5,328 acres and offers 32 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Trails along the river showcase stunning views of the surrounding cliffs, while the Spicewood Springs trail winds across pools and waterfalls fed by the springs up to the canyon where you will be met with more beautiful views. The park’s most popular hike leads up to the 70 foot Gorman Falls along rocky terrain. Park Rangers also offer guided tours of the falls and wild caves. Being along the Colorado river also makes the park the perfect spot for fishing, canoeing, or taking a dip after a long hike.
7. Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center
With plenty of hiking trails, a cave to explore, a serene waterfall, and a fully staffed education center, Westcave is more than just your average park. The preserve offers guided canyon and cave tours, night time tours, bird walks, and “star parties” where visitors can tour the sky through telescopes with the help of local astronomers. For no frills hiking you can head to the Uplands, 45-acres of unimproved hiking trails that wind through the savanna full of Live Oaks and Ashe Juniper trees. Spring and fall are the perfect time to go, when the savanna wildflowers are in full bloom. You can access the Upland trails Tuesday – Friday from 10am – 2pm and Saturday & Sunday from 9:30am – 4pm for just $7 per person. All guided tours are $15 per person.
8. Enchanted Rock Natural Area
Located 18 miles north of Fredericksburg and just under two hours northwest of Downtown Austin, Enchanted Rock is worth the trek outside the city. Climbing the pink granite dome for some of the most amazing views of the surrounding hill country will definitely be the highlight of your visit, but the rock formations and wildlife surrounding the dome are just as breathtaking! Explore the area and learn of the many legends and folktales that have long been told about the magical rock. While the 11 miles of hiking trails will surely keep you busy, the area has much more to offer including camping, rock climbing, bird watching, stargazing, and more. The park is open daily from 8am to 10pm and all trails close to hikers 30 minutes before sunset. October – January the park is closed Sunday – Friday once per month for hunting and it’s also their busiest time of year so plan your trip accordingly!
9. Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
Originally built to protect the habitats of Golden-Cheeked Warblers, Black-Capped Vireos, and many other native bird species, the Balcones Canyonlands Refuge has transformed over the years into the perfect, peaceful getaway spot for a weekend excursion. The park offers nearly seven miles of trails that wind through rough terrain and open meadows, and an abundance of wildlife including the birds the refuge protects along with migrating monarchs, gray fox, white-tailed deer, feral hogs, turkey, and doves. Seasonal hunting opportunities are available to hunters through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Drawn Hunts program. The park also offers numerous special events throughout the year, including a Christmas Bird Count coming up in December!
10. Wolf Mountain Trail in Pedernales Falls State Park
Located just an hour west of Downtown Austin in Johnson City, Pedernales Falls State Park is a tranquil spot, surrounded by trees and shrubbery and rolling hills with rocky terrain, where the Pedernales River flows over and around limestone slabs. It’s the perfect spot for a day or weekend camping trip, with swimming, fishing, bird watching, horseback riding, mountain biking, and of course hiking. The park offers miles and miles of great hiking, but is most famous for the Wolf Mountain Trail. Home to the “prairie wolf,” this is a challenging six mile trail that wraps around Tobacco and Wolf Mountains. Along the way hikers cross over Bee Creek and hike alongside the creeks steep canyon walls. About halfway up the trail, hikers will come across the Jones Spring and the ruins of an old stone settler’s house. This is the perfect spot to stop and rest, since the trail gets a lot more steep as it goes on! The trail doesn’t make it all the way up to the summit of Wolf Mountain, so for some of the best views follow the Pedernales River waypoint to the falls once you get to the end of the Wolf Mountain Trail.