Man's best friend makes a convenient excuse for getting outdoors. 'I'm more likely to go hiking with my dog than I am alone,' says author Melissa Gaskill, who literally wrote the book on the subject, 'Best Hikes With Dogs: Texas Hill Country and Coast.' 'They provide companionship and convey a sense of safety.'
Tasked with sitting a friend's adorable rescue dog — which, like many of the mutts at the Town Lake Animal Shelter, is a pit bull terrier mix — my girlfriend, Lindy, and I took the opportunity to hike some of Austin's most scenic and dog-friendly trails. Although Austin offers many options for outdoor exploration, including the entirely off-leash Turkey Creek Trail in Emma Long Metropolitan Park and the easily accessible Barton Creek Greenbelt, we opted for two less-traveled parks to the west and east of town, plus one hiking trail meandering through a very urban setting.
Milton Reimers Ranch Park
Beloved by rock climbers and mountain bikers for its overhanging cliff walls and miles of singletracks, Milton Reimers Ranch Park lures hikers as well with three continuous miles of open space fronting the Pedernales River. The nearly 2,500-acre spread, 23 miles southwest of Austin on Hamilton Pool Road (just a couple miles from the swimming hole itself), opened in 2006 after Travis County voters approved a bond measure for the park land's acquisition.
Because of its relative youth, many of the parks hiking trails remain unmarked. On the day I visit, the on-duty staffer provides a map and outlines a route along the Pedernales. (She also offers Louie a treat.) Access to the park is $8 per car.
Louie, Lindy and I unload in the main lot before heading out on the trail bordering the edge of a deep gorge (dubbed Sex Canyon, tee hee) in which much of the rock climbing is located. A mile or so down the ledge lined with scrub grass and cactus we come across the Pedernales, flowing 100 feet below. Visible in the distance is the domed chapel of the Alamo movie set located on adjoining property still owned by the Reimers. The set, built for the 2004 film featuring Dennis Quaid, is currently closed to the public.
After another mile, we descend to the river and let Louie romp in the water. (Dogs are allowed off-leash only while swimming.) Another trail paralleling the river's edge brings us back to the climber's canyon, where the ecology transforms into a semitropical oasis. Giant cedars rise from the limestone bed of a creek cutting through the gorge, and leafy ferns fan out across the trail. Louie scrambles up rocky embankments and past stalagmites rising from the floor of a cave. We emerge from the canyon squinting as sunlight splashes across our faces. Our car sits just a few steps away.
McKinney Roughs Nature Park
Louie and I wander for 45 minutes through an ever-changing ecology of East Texas piney woods, rocky Central Texas plateau and the eerie remnants of oak trees blackened by a forest fire before arriving at the first overlook of the Colorado River valley. I soak in the view of lush green pastures bordered by craggy river bluffs, while Louie chomps at a rawhide treat. Then, we descend a series of switchbacks on the Pine Ridge Trail that will lead us to the Colorado's banks.
Located 19 miles east of Austin on Texas 71, McKinney Roughs Nature Park, which is owned and operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority, contains 18 miles of prime hiking trails scattered across 1,100 acres. The wide, well-groomed paths cater to a variety of users, including horseback riders (hikers always yield to equestrians) and people with disabilities. The park's often-steep terrain is offset with terraced steps up many of the hills. Comfortable benches stationed at the numerous viewpoints mandate frequent breaks.
'The wildlife is abundant, including recent sightings of a bobcat, so keep your dog on-leash,' the manager of the park's Natural Science Center, Carolyn Nelson, tells me when I check in and pay the $4 hiking fee. Photos on the wall outside the center confirm the presence of a large, black and gold feline predator. Later, after arriving at the river, Louie takes a dip and we continue on the route Nelson outlined for us, a five-mile tour of McKinney Roughs' greatest hits. On the Bluff Trail Loop, Louie peers out from a series of overlooks showcasing the aqua-tinted Colorado snaking along below.
We return to the park headquarters along the Woodland Trail, a crushed gravel path that drops down to the valley floor before gradually climbing back out. Louie pounces after a butterfly that flutters from the bushes. We never do spot the bobcat.
Bull Creek Greenbelt
The first time, we cross Bull Creek timidly. Tiptoeing between slippery rocks as Louie splashes brazenly through the icy water, then waits impatiently on the other side. Soon, we realize enjoying the splendor of Bull Creek's multiple rushing falls and crystal clear pools means wading through the creek and happily trudging on with sopping wet shoes.
The Bull Creek Greenbelt trail runs three miles point-to-point from Old Spicewood Springs Road, where it ducks under the Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360), to Bull Creek District Park. While the popular off-leash dog park will close this month for six to eight months to ease bacteria levels in the creek — insert stern reminder to pick up your pooch's poop — the trail will remain open for on-leash hiking with dogs.
'Volunteers from the Bull Creek Foundation just added improvements such as stone fortifications along erosion-prone parts of the trail. It's in prime condition,' says Charlie McCabe, president of the nonprofit Austin Parks Foundation, an affiliate of the Bull Creek group.
After navigating the outbound portion of our hike (hint: stick to the marked paths; avoid side trails) and late for brunch, we up the pace for the return trip. Louie sniffs the way ahead, slowing only to let us sidestep a couple mud bogs where the trail passes under Loop 360. A final forging of Bull Creek proves fortuitous, allowing us to wash our now dirt-caked feet and clean Louie before sticking him back in the car.
An expert's guide to hiking with dogs
Shari Elkins, an instructor at the Lee Mannix Center for Canine Behavior, avidly hikes in and around Austin with her four dogs. On Wednesday, Elkins will host an Introduction to Hiking with Dogs and Pack Dog training session, which is recommended prior to enrolling in her Hikes with Dogs series that starts Dec. 2. Below, Elkins offers her expert opinion on the best physical and behavior traits for canine hiking companions:
'All dogs can hike. I've trained every type of dog on the planet to hike, and that certainly includes Chihuahuas. Muscular breeds between 35 and 80 pounds tend to do the best over longer distances. They can also be taught to wear packs in order to carry their own food and water, even some of your gear.
'Working dogs like border collies and malamutes are built to work for us, and they approach hiking like it's a job. Retrievers, a category that includes poodles, also make great hikers. Pit bulls do really well, as they have a lot of stamina and agility.
'I train most dogs to wear a pack. That way they know when it's on, certain rules are in effect. I train them not to swim unless they're allowed and to stay within a certain distance of the owner, so they don't take off after the wildlife. While hiking, they're not allowed to meet other dogs they encounter on the trail, as those interactions can be unpredictable. I tell them "on by" which means to keep moving without saying hello.
'It's important to always pick up our dog's poop and keep them well behaved. If we don't respect the outdoors as dog owners, we'll lose our privileges to use it.'
— Ian Dille
Introduction to Hiking with Dogs and Pack Dog Training
3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday Commons Ford Park. 614 Commons Ford Road. Pre-registration required. $20. 626-2763. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Milton Reimers Ranch Park
23610 Hamilton Pool Road
$8 a car
McKinney Roughs Nature Park
1884 Texas 71 West, Cedar Creek, 78612
Bull Creek Greenbelt
7806 N. Capital of Texas Highway