A Guide to Austin Area Parks, Trails and Watering Holes

“I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found.”-John Muir
We are so fortunate to live in Central Texas with its unique geologic history that has created some of the most breathtaking scenes I have seen. Combine that with Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, which has acquisitioned over 31, 780 acres of endangered species habitat and we have a wealth of green space in our area, much of which has public access.

You can find beautiful, secluded parks and trails nestled away all over the city and surrounding areas. I’m always on the hunt for the next awesome discovery but it can be quite time consuming, perusing websites and reading reviews on local parks and watering holes. A lot of people have asked me about the places we frequent so I thought I would compile a list of the good, the awesome and the yet to be explored.

I’ve tried my best to label everything like it is listed in google maps so once you’re ready to explore, all you need to do is type the name of the park or trail into your gps and go!

Finding treasures on the greenbelt at Campbell’s Hole.

Our green spaces are all maintained to some degree but I am a big believer in us each doing our part to help preserve them. My children know to stay on the marked trails and pick up after themselves. We leave nothing but footprints and I must ask that if you visit the places below, you do the same. You can always find trash along the greenbelts as there are no entrance fees and many people frequent them so we try and pick up what we can. I make it a game and the boys really enjoy it. Often times we have had others around us pitch in to help. It’s pretty cool.

Draven enlisting the help of a friend to pick up trash at McKinney Falls.

Almost all of the places I included are easy hikes to do with children and many have access to water which is always a winner with my crowd. So without further ado, here is a list of our favorite spots in no particular order. 

Free Greenbelt Access Points, Parks and Trails:

1. Barton Creek Greenbelt – Main entrance on 360 between Mopac and S. Lamar

2. Gus Fruh entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt

3. Campbell’s Hole entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Spyglass access

4. Trail Head entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt, by Austin B-cycle Station

5. Trailhead to Sculpture Falls – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Camp Craft road

6. Twin Falls entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Capital of TX Hwy and Mopac

7. Bull Creek Greenbelt Upper

8. Lower Bull Creek

9. Bull Creek District Park

**A note about Bull Creek – It has been known to sometimes have high fecal content, most likely from dogs. Plenty of people swim in it but we don’t usually because Cullen swallows a lot of water when he swims and Storie’s favorite pastime is tasting river rocks.

10. Five Mile Dam in San Marcos – This park has easy access to the water but not much shade.

Draven getting a close up look at Five Mile Dam.

11. Balcones District Park – A nice park right in Austin with trails that lead to a pretty waterfall, just know you will see graffiti and hear street traffic.

12. Secret Beach (Roy G. Guerro Colorado River Metropolitan Park) – This is a fun little spot that’s tucked away. Here’s a link that tells you exactly how to get to Secret Beach.

Dirt digging and shell collecting at Secret Beach

13. Circle C Park – If you park in the first parking lot and you can walk right down to the water under the bridge or follow the walking trail to the right and take a quick hike before finding the water (this creek dries up in the summer without rain).

Hunting crawfish at Circle C park.

14. Colorado River Wildlife Sanctuary – This trail is heavily wooded so you really feel like you’re exploring in the wilderness and it leads right to the Colorado River. Be sure to wear bug spray and watch out for poison ivy!

An awesome tree formation at the Colorado River Wildlife Preserve.

15. Mount Bonnell – A fun, short little hike uphill with a fantastic view at the top.

16. Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve – Right across the street from Mt. Bonnell you can visit the beautiful grounds of Mayfield Park and hang out with their peacocks.

17. Wild Basin Creative Research Center –Run by St. Edward’s University, the preserve has several self-guided trail maps of the 227 acres. It is home to eight endangered species and 27 species of great concern. There is a $2-$3 suggested donation.

Checking out a scenic view at Wild Basin.

18. Spring Lake Preserve – Located in San Marcos, this lake is fed by more than 200 springs and is absolutely beautiful.

19. Stagecoach Park in Buda – There is no swimming access here but I love the trails and historic landmarks.

A giant stone compass circling a firepit at Stagecoach Park.

20. Austin Nature and Science Center – Housed on 80 acres in Zilker Park, the center has beautiful landscapes, nature exhibits and educational activities. One of our favorite places!

Parks and Preserves that Require a Small Fee:

1. Krause Springs – Located in Spicewood on 115 acres, it is hands down my favorite place in Texas. There is a breathtaking man-made pool and a natural pool, both fed by springs. If we lived closer, we would most likely be there every day.

The lush falls at Krause Springs.

2. Blue Hole – A beautifully forested swimming hole with rope swings. What’s not to love?

3. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – If I was by myself and it wasn’t 100 degrees, I could walk around here all day long. The center is home to 650 native Texas plant species and has a plethora of nature trails. Their children’s garden is simply dreamy!

Creating in Ladybird’s children’s garden.

4. Westcave Preserve – Guided canyon tours are given to a lush grotto on the weekends or you can schedule a group tour Tuesday-Friday. I love the staff here! You can tell they really enjoy educating their visitors and they offer the coolest adventure packs to check out which include field guides, nature journals, binoculars and more.

Hiking at Westcave Preserve.

5. Hamilton Pool Preserve – Right down the road from Westcave, Hamilton Pool is a breathtaking swimming hole. We typically visit in the spring or fall because it gets so crowded. Note that you must make a reservation to enter now until September 30th.

6. Zilker Botanical Gardens – Located on 26 acres in Zilker park, this place is simply magical. Our favorite gardens are the Japenese Garden and the Prehistoric Garden. 

Checking out tadpoles at Zilker Botanical Gardens.

7. Umlauf Sculpture Gardens – This is a unique outdoor museum centered on the works of Charles Umlauf. Admission is free through August 31 thanks to donors who gave through Amplify Austin!

Working on a scavenger hunt at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden.

8. Barton Springs Pool – A natural spring-fed pool in Zilker park, known by most everyone. We love the free Splash exhibit right by the entrance.

9. McKinney Falls – This is an awesome state park with falls that cascade over super cool limestone formations. It’s a fan favorite!

Jumping from the cliff at McKinney Falls.

10. Landa Park – We recently discovered this park in New Braunfels that has beautiful nature trails and the most spectacular spring-fed pool with the coolest water slides ever. 

Exploring the spring-fed pool at Landa Park.
Below are a few more places I’ve been dying to check out:

1. The Narrows, Blanco TX – The pictures I’ve seen of the formations are simply amazing. Everything I’ve read says it’s quite difficult to get to because the land around it is privately owned but that makes it all the more intriguing…

2. Enchanted Rock, Fredericksburg, TX – I adore the legends about this gigantic pink rock and can’t wait to go hiking with the kids here. I’ve also read that it’s a great place to stargaze.

3. Emma Long Park, Austin, TX – I’ve heard great things about this large park with lots of trees and a big sandy beach. Apparently it even has a motorcycle trail.

4. Pace Bend Park, Spicewood, TX – I honestly can’t believe we haven’t been here yet. This park has tons of scenic views from these amazing limestone cliffs and nine miles of shoreline on Lake Travis. 

For more information, you can check out a full listing of Austin area parks here. Please feel free to share your favorite places in the comments below. We love finding new spots!

Homeschool Planning, Expectations and Child-Led Learning

I’ve been reflecting a lot on our first year of homeschooling and what worked best for us. There were days that went so well and others that went terribly. I have a tendency to force things sometimes, particularly art and handwriting. I have this idea of how things should look and sometimes I forget that I’m working with a 7 and 4 year old…

The two things that could ruin a perfectly good day were – not planning our day out and having unrealistic expectations of my children and myself. As I plan for the upcoming year, I am constantly taking these two things into consideration. 

A few living history books we will read this year. Many more are on my Amazon list or will be checked out from the library.

Last year my oldest, Draven, was in 1st grade and we used Ambleside’s curriculum guide that follows Charlotte Mason’s method of teaching. I have really grown to love the use of what Charlotte Mason describes as living books to teach children a range of subjects from history to geography to science and beyond. Oftentimes you can combine subjects with living books. 

A few months into last school year I made adjustments as some of the books have difficult language for a six year old, and sometimes for his mom as well. This year I’m feeling a bit more adventurous and have created my own syllabus based around living books and tailored to our interests (a copy is at the bottom of this post if you can’t wait). I did keep a few books Ambleside suggested and we are following their bible guideline because I think it’s spot on. 

Read aloud literature selections for Draven. The third book from the left is My Side of the Mountain, one of my husband’s favorite childhood books.

We won’t follow the syllabus exactly every week but it will be used asmore of a guideline so we don’t leave anything important out and stay on track for the year. We may not even get to everything because sometimes we end up spending longer on a book or subject matter or discover something else that interests us. This is where child-led learning comes in and where it’s important for me to keep my expectations in check. While I’ve created our curriculum around my children’s current interests, I’ve also left room for things that spark new interests and am willing to deviate a little from our original plan. So keep in mind as I share my syllabus, that it is a working document and will most likely be edited several times as our interests develop. My plan is to share resources, successes and failures throughout the year. 

Independent reading for Draven based on current interests.

Our day starts around 7:30 with breakfast. I typically read a few poems aloud while they eat. We don’t analyze anything at this time, just read and enjoy the words. We also work on memorization before leaving the table. For September we will be reciting The Lord’s Prayer, The Pledge of Allegience and Karate Concepts 1-4 (something they must memorize for belt tests at their karate school). After breakfast we move to the backyard or living room to practice yoga. My kids love doing yoga with me and especially enjoy meditating. This doesn’t last longer than 10 minutes and it’s a great way to get focused for the day. They may practice their karate forms at this time as well. We always end our yoga time with prayer and daily intentions. 

Give Your Child the World has over 600 book recommendations from around the world. We will be studing a continent each month using these books and also working through our Pin It Maps curriculum.

The majority of our work is done between 8:30 and 12. Draven will work on math independently after a little instruction (we use Math Mammoth) and I will give Cullen his reading lesson (we are working through Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons). I realize it’s early to teach reading (Cullen is 4) but he is very interested so we will through the lessons as long as he stays engaged. I will read aloud several stories for both boys and we will work on a map project (using Pin It Maps) or watercolor painting. We use Waldorf’s wet on wet water coloring technique. It’s quite easy and always turns out beautiful (expectations friends).

Examples of Draven’s original books, narrations and science diagrams from last year.

The kids will then have a bit of free time to play while I get lunch ready. After lunch, the paintings are dry and we use them as base for Draven to write his narration and Cullen to write letters and simple words. They create beautiful backgrounds for their work. If you’re unfamiliar with narration, it is simply the retelling of a story back in your own words. This is our writing, grammar and spelling rolled into one activity. Last year, I had Draven tell me each narration after a story while I wrote it down. I read it back to him and we made changes together before he copied it onto his paper. As he copied, we focused mainly on handwriting and punctuation. This year he will be writing his narrations from memory which is much more difficult but will allow us to go deeper with grammar and sentence structure.  After the boys are done writing, they will add an illustration to go with their story.
A few of our favorite science resources. The open book on the bottom left is Cellular Biology by Super Smart Science Series. I highly recommend these books! The boys also enjoy working through the Awesome Science Experiments and playing with their circuit board.

After narrations are complete, the boys may work on a science project, craft project, or Spanish, which is done Online through Foreign Languages for Kids by Kids. This is their only source of technology in our school day and a treat they look forward to.
Read aloud selections for Cullen. The top right book is The Jesus Storybook Bible which has the sweetest stories and most beautiful illustrations. My other favorite is Over the Hills and Far Away, a collection of nursery rhymes from around the world.

Mixed in throughout the day, the boys are helping with household chores and their baby sister. Cullen may play with Storie while Draven and I read a difficult book and Draven may read books with Storie while Cullen and I practice sounding out words. 

Several of our nature study resources. Much of our free play will be centered outside in the garden or on nature walks. The brown nature journals are by Molskin. We use colored pencils to draw and label plants and animals.

We are so fortunate to be involved in a wonderful co-op this year that meets every Monday for additional literature, art and science studies. We also attend classes at our local library and parks, lead a Wild Explorers Club, regularly go on field trips, train in karate and Draven will begin guitar lessons this fall.

Below is our syllabus for September which outlines our core reading, written work, memorization and all other activities. I also created a weekly schedule to reference until we get back into the flow of regular school days. I’m happy to send one or both in excel form if you comment below with your email. Currently, I’m researching Waldorf methods for Cullen and Storie and plan on sharing our daily rhythm soon. Happy homeschooling friends!