Hey, kids! Take a hike
Don't miss these fun trails and parks this spring
Spring’s sunny skies, mild temperatures and vibrant wildflowers are begging us to get outside and explore. If you’re not traveling anywhere for spring break, now is the perfect time to grab the kids (and plenty of snacks) and escape to nature. From in-town treks to nearby adventures, here are five spots that feature short, easy trails ideal for hiking with little ones — all within an hour of Austin.
Barton Creek greenbelt
Located in the heart of Austin, the greenbelt is a locally loved gem relished by hikers, mountain bikers, rock climbers, runners and a fair share of their four-legged friends. Boasting more than 12 miles of lush, shaded trails, serene swimming holes, splashing areas and soaring limestone cliffs, the greenbelt is a backyard oasis for every nature-loving Austinite. The main trail spans more than 7 miles beginning near Barton Springs Pool and ending in Westlake, but if you’re hiking with kids, there are a handful of short and relatively easy trails that will allow you to enjoy some of the prettiest spots without tiring out little legs. One of our favorites is Twin Falls, a scenic swimming area that can be accessed via an easy .4-mile hike from the trailhead located on frontage road of S. Mopac (3918 S. MoPac Expy) — the entire hike is less than a mile roundtrip, and when the weather is warm and the creek is full, there are shallow areas to splash in and a refreshing swimming hole to plunge into.
The Hill of Life, located at the Trails End access point (Camp Craft Road), is a serious elevation challenge with a steep descent and ascent depending on the direction you are going, but it’s doable for older kids and younger ones, too, if you take it slow and hold hands, since it’s only a half-mile downhill hike to the first swimming area. If your kids still have energy to burn, walk another mile to Sculpture Falls, which is one of the most popular swimming holes along the greenbelt. Gus Fruh is a favorite family-friendly swimming hole — the trailhead can be accessed via Barton Hills Drive, so it only requires a few minutes of walking before kids are splashing in the sunshine.
Know before you go: Go on a weekday to avoid the crowds. The greenbelt is heavily dependent on the rain — it is prone to flash-flooding and drought, so check water levels and flow rates before you go at atxgreenbelt.com.
McKinney Falls State Park
If you’re seeking solitude and want to watch wildlife and reconnect in nature without leaving town, head to McKinney Falls State Park. While this nearby state park features nearly 9 miles of hiking and biking trails, they are all short, ranging between a half-mile and 3 miles. One of our favorites is the 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail, which parallels Onion Creek and winds through the shady trees and around the camping areas. Because the trail features a hard surface, it’s great for families wanting a stroller-friendly hike. Pack a picnic and some poles — kids will love fishing for largemouth bass, catfish and sunfish here, and you don’t need a fishing license to fish within the boundaries of a Texas state park.
Know before you go: McKinney Falls State Park has a high volume of visitors on pretty weekends and holidays, and it closes when it reaches capacity. The good news? You can purchase “Save the Day” passes to guarantee entry and avoid disappointment at the new Texas State Park reservation system: texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com.
Imagine an unspoiled paradise where you can wander below a gorgeous collapsed grotto, traipse through a lush, moss-cloaked canyon as butterflies flutter above and enter a secluded shallow cave while watching a spectacular 40-foot waterfall plunge into an emerald pool below. It might sound like a scene from a fairy tale, but this breathtaking 76-acre hidden gem known as Westcave Preserve exists just outside Austin. If you’re wondering why you haven’t been here, it’s probably due to the fact that the ecosystem is so delicate that it’s only accessed via guided tour. “It’s a very precious landscape with a range of endangered plants, wildlife and venomous snakes,” says Molly Stevens, executive director Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center, who added that in the 43 years of operation, there hasn’t been a single snake bite. The area has been protected and invasive plants have been thoughtfully and intentionally removed to encourage native plant growth, resulting in the rare and wild natural beauty that exists today.
While Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center offers Guided Canyon Tours to the general public on Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. in the spring and 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. in the summer, special weekday tours will be offered during spring break. From March 19 through March 22, guided tours take place at 10 a.m., 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. The 1-mile, round-trip hike lasts about 90 minutes and is perfect for kids of all ages ($15 adult, $7 child ages 4-17, free for 3 and under). Tour fees include access to the Uplands, where you can take self-guided hikes along two 1-mile easy, flat trails that wind through the Hill Country landscape, which is currently bursting with wildflowers and bluebonnets. For more information, visit westcave.org.
Know before you go: Tours are limited to the first 30 people to register in-person, and the preserve operates on a first-come, first-served basis, so show up as early as possible as they fill up quickly. If you miss the tour, you can still purchase access to the Uplands and hike those trails on your own ($7 per adult, $4 per child ages 4-17, free for 3 and under).
Wimberley’s Blue Hole Regional Park
While you won’t be able to plunge from a rope swing into the cold, clear spring-fed waters of Cypress Creek known as Wimberley’s Blue Hole until May, you can still enjoy the 4.5 miles of easy, winding hike and bike trails found in the 126-acre Blue Hole Regional Park. The mulch-covered and paved trails weaving through this idyllic park are short, shaded and perfect for little ones. Go for a brief escape from the city or stay and play for the day — it only requires a few minutes of walking along the trails leading from the parking area to reach outdoor fun the whole family will enjoy. There’s a playscape, basketball and volleyball courts and sprawling soccer fields to burn off extra energy.
Know before you go: Pack a picnic and bring your own balls to enjoy shooting hoops, scoring goals or tossing the football back and forth in this picturesque park. If you’re planning a summer trip, reserve a time slot (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.) ahead of time to swim at Blue Hole at cityofwimberley.com.
Pedernales Falls State Park
Just outside of Austin, sitting on the banks of the pristine Pedernales River, this state park is an adventurer’s paradise. Pedernales Falls State Park boasts more than 5,200 acres of hills blanketed in juniper and oak woodlands, geologically fascinating rock formations, dramatic overlooks and miles upon miles of trails ranging from challenging hikes like the nearly 9-mile Juniper Ridge Trail and the 5.5-mile scenic Loop Trail to easy, short treks tiny tots can tackle. One of our favorites is Twin Falls Nature Trail, a half-mile, less-than-half-hour rugged trail leading to one of the prettiest views in the park: Twin Falls, a lush spring-fed hidden gem. Warfle’s Trail is even shorter (only .4 miles) and easier, traveling through a creek bed where kids can look for wildlife or spot animal tracks along the route. Kids will also love meandering the mile-long Pedernales Falls Trail System, which winds through and overlooks the dramatic landscape and unique geology of this Hill Country haven.
Know before you go: Hike during the early mornings or late evenings to increase your chances of spotting some of the critters who call this state park home including rabbits, armadillos and white-tailed deer. Pedernales Falls States Park is also known for spectacular wildflowers during the springtime, so bring your camera.
Trail tips for trekking with tots
• Bring a backpack filled with water thermoses and snacks. Our kids love making their own trail mix — a homemade toss-up of cereal, almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts, dried cranberries, raisins, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chocolate chips and mini-marshmallows.
• Be prepared with hiking shoes, a swimsuit or extra clothes, sunscreen, bug spray and Band-Aids.
• Take what you bring in back with you and make sure your kids don’t accidentally leave trash behind.
• Go on a weekday or early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
• Bring hiking buddies. Nothing keeps complaints at bay and makes the trek more fun than hiking with friends.