6 Fantastic Outdoor Activities in Austin in the Spring
Besides its music scene and exceptional cuisine, Austin is also known for its wide open spaces. And when it comes to the outdoors, there’s no better time to explore the city than spring, when the weather is perfect and the vegetation comes alive.
Warm enough to be enjoyable, but not too hot to be uncomfortable, spring in Austin offers the best time for hiking in the woods and near waterways in and around the city. Hiking and biking trails criss-cross the city and provide excellent opportunities to enjoy perfect weather and beautiful natural surroundings.
Here are our favorite fantastic things to do outdoors in Austin in the spring.
1. Explore Austin’s natural history at the Zilker Botanical Garden
Near downtown Austin, with views of the city skyline, the Zilker Botanical Garden is a fun place to explore and learn about Austin’s natural history. Nestled in Zilker Metropolitan Park, the Botanical Garden features heritage holm oaks and several themed gardens, connected by shaded pathways.
During our visit, spring offered the perfect weather and background to explore the gardens, with several trees and flowers in bloom.
We started our tour at the Pioneer Village, featuring a log cabin, blacksmith shop and school, giving us a glimpse into the life of the early Swedish settlers.
The walkway trail led to the Japanese village of Taniguchi, with a koi pond, bonsai display, teahouse, and great views of the Austin skyline.
Centered around a dinosaur statue, the prehistoric garden features a waterfall and dinosaur footprints. A butterfly garden, an oak grove and a cactus garden were other areas of interest.
Pro tip: So close to the city center, the gardens are very popular, especially by families with children. Try to schedule your visit on a weekday morning, if possible. We visited on a Monday, but it was still busy, especially at lunchtime.
2. Spend an afternoon at McKinney Falls State Park
Within the city limits of Austin, you will find a beautiful state park surrounding McKinney Falls. Extremely popular in the summer when most visitors spend their time swimming at Onion Creek, a spring visit offers the perfect time to hike and enjoy the park without the crowds.
The main attraction of McKinney Falls State Park is a series of limestone ledges over which Onion Creek flows, creating the waterfalls. The park offers hiking and biking trails, as well as fishing, swimming, and camping opportunities.
The hike to the lower falls – and beyond to the ruins of the McKinney Homestead – was my favorite in this park. The trail takes you through an old rock shelter, through a forest, to Onion Creek and the falls. After crossing the creek, the trail continues through wooded areas to McKinney Homestead, a limestone home once owned by Thomas F. McKinney, now abandoned to the elements. The entire trail is a loop, although we returned to the farm to spend more time at the creek.
The upper falls, a few feet from the parking lot, are easier to access and offer more open space to spend time by the creek.
3. Hike Walnut Creek Metro Park
The 293-acre Walnut Creek Metro Park offers miles and miles of trails, paved and unpaved, in North Austin.
You’ll find five easy hiking trails with little or no elevation gain, ranging from 1 to 3 miles in length. It only takes half an hour to hike the popular 1.3 mile trail. However, it can be an ideal starting point for exploring the park as it connects to several other trails for longer hiking adventures.
Some trails cross the creek or run along its banks, offering a great outing in nature. Besides the paths, the park offers pleasant walks in wooded areas where you can feel miles away from the city; paved bike paths and unpaved BMX tracks; play ground; and sports complexes.
However, especially in the spring, my favorite spots were the unpaved trails in the wooded areas, along the creek.
4. Hike along Bull Creek in the district park that bears its name
The 47-acre Bull Creek District Park, with multiple entrances through town, follows Bull Creek and features beautiful limestone outcrops, several springs, waterfalls in the creek, and wooded areas along its banks.
The full Bull Creek Trail is 3.8 miles long and popular year-round. However, a mid-week visit in the spring when the water is still too cold for swimming allowed us to enjoy some solitude along several sections of the trail.
We used the Lakewood Drive entrance, walked through a forest, followed the creek, then crossed it and followed it to the other side. Spring was especially nice to hike this trail, watching the new buds sprout on the tree branches and the waterfalls babbling in the creek.
We noticed the small waterfalls throughout the park. In fact, I found out that Bull Creek was called Cascade Creek until the 1860s when they renamed it, either for the last buffaloes roaming the area or for the introduced longhorn cattle. Waterfalls help add more oxygen to the stream, which helps wildlife (especially fish) thrive.
Besides the trails along the creek, the park offers picnic opportunities under the shade of mature oak trees.
5. Learn about the native flora and fauna at the Wild Basin Wildlife Reserve
The Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve provides a great introduction to the native flora and fauna of Austin and its surroundings. An island within the city, it protects 227 acres of wilderness and provides valuable habitat for rare and vulnerable species, including the endangered golden cheeked warbler.
Open for hiking daily from sunrise to sunset, the reserve offers approximately 3 miles of designated hiking trails through the forest, either to a waterfall or to the creek.
Spring is the best time to discover this reserve, before the heat of summer and when the vegetation comes back to life. Less popular than most other Austin parks, the Preserve offers a great place to find some solitude. when we hiked it in mid March we seemed to be the only visitors.
Pro tips: Everything in the reserve is protected, so visitors are expected to always stay on designated trails. On weekdays, you can just drive to the reserve and walk around; on weekends and holidays, you may need to reserve and pay a day-use fee.
6. Enjoy an al fresco meal at a food truck park
Austin is famous for its food truck scene, and it’s well worth exploring while enjoying an alfresco meal. Often installed in so-called food truck parks around several picnic tables, they offer various ethnic meals. Everyone can choose their favorite and enjoy it together on a picnic.
During our visit to Austin, we had lunch at several of these food truck parks around town. It makes going out with friends or family members who prefer different foods easy and convenient.
I noticed families with kids stopping in often, where the parents could order Thai food and the kids could get tacos from the next truck and burgers from another. Then the whole family sat down at a picnic table and ate their meals together.
Convenience isn’t the only thing that makes these establishments Austin’s favorite restaurants. Meals are always outstanding, both at old favorites and at new trucks popping up around every corner. We’ve had some of our best meals served by a food truck in Austin.
Bonus outdoor activities outside of Austin
Surrounded by several state parks, Austin offers great outings just outside of the city for outdoor enthusiasts. Here are just two activities we enjoyed at state parks outside of town.
Explore Guadalupe River State Park
About an hour’s drive from Austin, Guadalupe River State Park is popular for water activities. Busiest in the summer when people from Austin and San Antonio come here to swim and enjoy other water activities, I have found spring to be the perfect time to visit this park.
Still too cold for most people to swim, the Guadalupe River in the spring provides a beautiful backdrop for several hiking trails.
I enjoyed a leisurely hike along the river, popular even in the spring, with people picnicking along the banks – some even swimming at midday when it was warmer. We did another hike, this one away from the river where we only encountered a few other hikers and enjoyed the solitude on long stretches of the trail. It was so quiet. My daughter actually spotted an armadillo along the trail.
Learn about the unique variety of palm trees at Palmetto State Park
Palmetto State Park, about an hour’s drive from Austin, is home to a saw palmetto forest that gives it its name. This unusual region has a tropical feel, with a great diversity of plant and animal life. It doesn’t seem to belong in Texas.
Palm trees surround the park’s swamp, found in its western and northern areas. Besides hiking trails among these palm trees, the park offers opportunities for picnicking, camping, and river activities.
The San Marcos River and Oxbow Lake both offer kayaking, paddle boating and fishing opportunities. In the spring, the most enjoyable activity was hiking among the palm trees as the weather was still cool enough for pleasant hikes but not warm enough for water activities.