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  • Molly Gone Wild

24 Hours Outside in Austin, TX

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

city building above a river
The Austin skyline above the Texas Colorado River.

Austin, the state capital of Texas, may be known for its lively and eclectic music scene but its many lakes, parks, and walking trails are what make the city feel unlike any other. In 2021, the Austin Parks & Recreation Department oversaw 330 parks encompassing 19,874 acres of green space and 253 miles of trails. If you’re looking for a taste of what the real Austin feels like, the city’s parks are not to be missed. The parks and trails bustle with runners, bikers, picnickers, dog walkers, and more. They are imbued with history, telling the twisting tales of colonization, land ownership, development, segregation, public service, environmental destruction, and restoration. They are places where both locals and visitors gather to seek refuge, rejuvenation, and community.

Read on for an outdoors-focused itinerary that will introduce you to some of Austin’s finest green spaces and women-owned restaurants.

Where To Stay:

The Carpenter Hotel in South Austin is the ideal starting point for your outdoor adventures. The hotel is nestled in a bustling neighborhood on the edge of Zilker Park with easy access to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail. With the main common spaces set in an old carpenters union hall built in 1948, the hotel is a chic example of how old spaces can be given new life. Reclaimed materials are used throughout, and original doors and windows line the walls of the low brick building that now houses the reception, a cafe, gift shop, and fusion restaurant, Carpenters Hall, that pays homage to Texas’ diverse cultural heritage.

Each of the hotel’s 93 industrial, mid-century chic rooms features a balcony, minibar, and more. The hotel is dog-friendly with no added nightly pet fee.

hotel garden and patio seating
Carpenter Hotel features lush gardens & trendy rooms.

Morning: Quick Cuppa

Start your day with a croissant and coffee from Carpenter Coffee Bar. If the weather is nice, grab a chair in the hotel garden and listen to the birds and squirrels rustling in the leaves. In chilly weather, cozy up in one of the luxurious leather chairs that fill the cafe space. Old records line the wall and a record player features instructions for use, so you can select the soundtrack to start your day.

How To Spend Your Day: Waterfront Wandering

After breakfast, it’s time to explore the great outdoors of Austin. Start your journey by heading north towards downtown, the Colorado River, and the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge. Wander out onto the bridge and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the cityscape, a brightly graffitied railroad trestle, and the murky waters of the Texas Colorado River (note: this is not the same river that traverses the West and flows through the Grand Canyon). Austin gets 100 percent of its municipal water supply from the river, as well as endless recreation opportunities, rich habitat for wildlife, and scenic beauty.

Return to the southern bank of the river and follow the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail to the east. The 10-mile loop trail, named for a previous Austin mayor and his wife, is a haven for walkers, runners, and bikers. If you’re traveling with your dog, be sure to stop at the Auditorium Shores Off-Leash Area for a quick romp. Once your pup has had its fill of playtime, continue along the trail, taking in the sights and sounds of the riparian habitat.

Eventually, you’ll pass under the Congress Avenue Bridge which is known for the large population of Mexican Free-Tailed bats that roost beneath it. If you’d like to watch the bats emerge from their “cave,” consider returning to the bridge at dusk to watch them as they take to the sky in search of their evening meal of bugs. It’s a popular attraction, so arrive early in order to ensure you can find room to watch from the sidewalk.

Further along, you’ll come to Lady Bird Lake, a wide section of river that was created in 1960 when the city constructed it as a cooling pool for a city power plant. Today, the lake provides ample recreation opportunities, as well as flood control. As you stroll the lakeshore, keep an eye out for activity on the water; if the weather is pleasant, you’ll likely spot rowers, kayakers, and paddleboarders as well as birds and fish. Along the edge of the lake, you’ll come upon a system of wide, sturdy boardwalks. This section of the trail meaders the water’s edge, crossing dry land as well as wetland areas. Along the way, you’ll find informative signs about the area’s wildlife as well as an art installation by Ken Little. Keep your eyes peeled for the 36 bronze, western-style belts featuring song lyrics from Texas singers and songwriters that have been integrated into the railings on the boardwalk.

When you reach the Austin Harbor Bridge, cross to the north side and head for Launderette which offers brunch and lunch Friday through Sunday from 11:00am to 2:15pm

Lunch: Women-Owned Goodness

This buzzy women-owned restaurant is located in the Holly Neighborhood of Austin.

Launderette offers colorful, globally-inspired fare, including ample vegetarian options. Fill up on plant-centered dishes like beet hummus and labneh or charred carrots garnished with carrot top chutney. And don’t sleep on their dessert menu - the Devil’s Food Dirt Cake is the grown-up version of an old childhood favorite.

Late Afternoon: Park Hopping

After lunch, grab a scooter or bike and continue your outdoor adventure. Follow the northern riverbank back to the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge where you’ll cross the river again. This time, turn west and make your way towards Barton Creek. Follow the many trails that lead through Zilker Park and around Barton Springs. In the summer, go for a dip in the unique, spring-fed municipal pool. In addition to serving as a popular spot for swimmers and sunbathers, the springs are home to the endangered Barton Springs Salamander and the Texas Blind Salamander. In colder months, consider exploring the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden (admission is $7.00 for adults) or the 31-acre Zilker Botanical Garden. Tickets for the Botanical Garden must be reserved in advance online; admission is $8.00 for non-resident adults.

After you’ve finished exploring, head down to Lou Neff Point to watch twilight descend over the city. The sunset washes the buildings in a pink glow as quiet settles over the river. As night falls, head back to the Carpenter Hotel to freshen up before dinner.

Dinner: Fresh Mex

After a full day of outdoor exploring, you’re sure to have worked up an appetite. Make a reservation to ensure a seat, or be prepared to wait for a table at the ever-popular El Alma. Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas serves up astoundingly fresh and flavorful Mexican-inspired dishes in a cheerful space featuring an outdoor terrace with views of the city. The extensive menu features many vegetarian options. To start, indulge in the rich, golden plátanos machos or the bright guacamole al chipotle. For dinner, fill up on the sweet potato relleno served with a warm, green mole or the vegetable enchilada with perfectly spiced tomato chipotle sauce. If you have room for dessert, give El Alma’s version of banana pudding a go.

Mexican food in to-go boxes
Fresh, colorful dishes from El Alma.

Responsible Travel in Austin, TX

Where to Stay:

Looks for hotels that are locally-owned or focused on environmental sustainability (or both!). The Carpenter Hotel is a good option; parts of it were constructed with reclaimed materials, the rooms provide refillable toiletries, the onsite restaurant offers ample vegetarian options, and bikes are available for touring the city. Other green options include Park Lane Guest House and the W Austin.

Environmental Consciousness:

The Austin area supports a wide variety of ecosystems and species. The Texas Colorado River runs through the heart of the city and numerous creeks, ponds, and springs dot the city. Some species, like the endangered Barton Springs Salamander, are found only within the city limits. For visitors, it is imperative to help keep Austin’s waterways clean and healthy. In addition, the region often struggles with drought so limiting water use is vital.

It is easy to explore Austin on foot or by bike. Whenever possible, opt for these fossil-fuel-free transportation options. When visiting the city’s parks and green spaces, take care to stay on trails, dispose of litter properly, and be respectful of wildlife.

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