Whether plunging into a pristine swimming hole, chilling out in a refreshing river, or capturing thrills at a wet and wild waterpark, here are seven spots to beat the heat and collect some memories to bring back home. The best news? They’re all less than an hour and a half from Austin.
Pedernales River Nature Park
When Pedernales Falls State Park reaches capacity, don’t worry –– just head a little farther upstream, where you can jump in the water at Pedernales River Nature Park in Johnson City. At this 222-acre, off-the-radar park operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority, you can swim, stand-up paddleboard, or kayak in an open expanse of dammed-up river known as Lake Johnson City. (Beware the aquatic plants that tickle your toes.) The park also makes a great put-in spot for a more adventurous downstream paddle run. I once pushed my kayak into the river here and paddled for five and a half hours, getting off at private property a few miles before Pedernales Falls State Park. (Don’t attempt this without advance permission from private property owners.) It’s about 15 miles if you go all the way to the park, but it’s a long, slow ride suitable only for experienced paddlers. You can also fish at the park or, for an even more relaxing day, clamber down the bank on the east side of the dam, climb onto some boulders, and spend a few hours just enjoying the Hill Country. LCRA also occasionally hosts special events, like a recent Savor the Outdoors al fresco dinner party for 75, at Pedernales River Nature Park. The park is open sunrise to sunset. There’s a mile-long primitive trail that makes a nice loop if you’re into trail running. And equestrians are allowed. Park amenities include picnic tables, grills, two covered pavilions, restrooms, and benches. The park is located at 404 North U.S. Highway 281 in Johnson City. It’s open for day use only, from sunrise to sunset. Admission is $5 for adults; $2 seniors; $12 for horse and rider; and free ages 12 and under. For more information call 512-473-3366.
– Pam LeBlanc
San Marcos River in Martindale
One of the prettiest, clearest stretches of river in Central Texas, the San Marcos River, unfurls like a blue-green ribbon just south of Austin. Launch your canoe or kayak from Shady Grove Campground in the quaint little town of Martindale. From there, you can paddle about 6 miles to the community of Staples, where you can pull your boat out of the water at Highway 1977, just before you get to the big dam. Depending on water flow, it’ll probably take about two hours of leisurely paddling to make the trip. You’ll have to navigate a few minor rapids not long after you put in, so wear a PFD and bring your canoe-handling skills. Once you’re past that, things mellow out. You’ll pass a leaning tree with boards nailed to its spine. I like to get out there, climb the tree and take a flying leap into the water. And keep an eye out for wildlife. I’ve spotted a bald eagle, wild hogs, white-tailed deer, snakes, raccoons, and coyotes on this stretch of river. Don’t have a canoe? You can rent one from Spencer Canoes right there at Shady Grove. Single-person kayaks are $35. Shady Grove Campground is located at 9515 FM 1979. Day use is $5 per person for up to two people in a vehicle, plus $2.50 for each additional person. Register on the porch at the office and hang your permit on your rear-view mirror. Call 512-357-6113 or go here for more information.
– Pam LeBlanc
Wimberley’s Blue Hole
Any seasoned Texan will agree that there’s no better cure for summertime’s sizzle than rope-swinging into a cold, clear natural body of water. When it comes to plunging into refreshing swimming holes, the bone-chilling waters of Cypress Creek known as Wimberley’s Blue Hole offers the perfect respite from summer’s blaze. Less than an hour from Austin, this idyllic swimming spot is fringed by towering cypress trees, a handful of which feature natural step-like formations ideal for climbing and ropes perfect for swinging into the clear jade waters that remain 75 degrees year-round. Typically, we like to combine our day trip with a visit to Jacob’s Well, located just 10 minutes up the road, but the popular waterhole remains closed for swimming for the foreseeable future. Instead, we’ll plan to linger a little longer at Wimberley’s Blue Hole this summer. Reservations are required to splash into this spring-fed swimming hole, and now is the time to secure your summertime slot –– choose from two four-hour time blocks (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 2 to 6 p.m.) at https://bluehole.checkfront.com/reserve/. Passes are $12 for adults, $6 for seniors and children 4-12 and free for children under 3.
– Mauri Elbel
Cypress Falls in Wimberley
No swimming reservations? No worries when the day’s dipping destination is Cypress Falls, sitting a stone’s throw from Wimberley’s Blue Hole. A dam on Cypress Creek created the natural spring-fed swimming hole, which makes for a tranquil spot to swim, float or paddle around (swimming wristbands are free for kids under 4, $6 for kids 5-12 and $8 for adults). There are also canoes, kayaks, standup paddleboards, and tubes available for rent if you don’t bring your own. Cypress Falls swimming hole, hemmed in by a beautiful backdrop of boulders and cliffs, is located on the largest portion of Cypress Creek, and you can often spot a couple of goats grazing on the lush little islands floating in the middle of the swimming area. The swimming hole is open daily throughout the summer from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but there’s also a lodge on the property for overnight guests and a tavern that serves up craft beers, cold drinks and live music. And in my opinion, there’s no better way to end a scorching day in the Hill Country than by floating in an inner tube with an ice-cold beer in your hand, listening to live music and watching the setting sun sparkling over the water. More at thelodgeatcypressfalls.com/swimminghole.
–– Mauri Elbel
Comal and Guadalupe Rivers in New Braunfels
When the temperature rises, this German town sitting just south of Austin with two pristine rivers winding through it provides the perfect place to cool off. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of riding the Guadalupe River’s rapids or the chill vibe you get when lounging in a sunbaked inner tube while your limbs dangle in the ice cold emerald waters of the clear and calm Comal River, you are missing out on a quintessential summertime experience. I grew up in this town and spent many summer days splashing in the Guadalupe, an ever-changing river with rapids that fluctuate with the release rate of water from Canyon Dam, and the Comal, a spring-fed and more leisurely river until you reach the Tube Chute (sure to please rapid-hungry river-goers). Whichever river you choose, you’re in for some of the most fantastic floating to be found in the Lone Star state. Avoid crowds by planning a weekday trip outside of busy weekends and holidays. A multitude of outfitters skirt both rivers, renting everything from tubes with or without bottoms to rafts and inflatable canoes. Find tubing information and outfitter options at www.playinnewbraunfels.com/tube-in-new-braunfels.
–– Mauri Elbel
Typhoon Texas, Pflugerville
Natural swimming holes are an incredible way to make a splash in the summer, but if you’ve got daredevils in your party, consider a day at the park – the water park, that is. Typhoon Texas, located just 40 minutes away in Pflugerville, offers all the thrills and chills of a big water park without the commitment of driving out of town. Expect a bevy of attractions, including the Gully Washer children’s playland (including an 800-gallon water bucket that douses the entire space!); Tidal Wave Bay wave pool; and the Lone Star Racers head-first competitive waterslide. Our favorite part? The Challenge Course, which features three levels and 45 challenges that are sure to test and delight your favorite Ninja Warrior enthusiast. Another bonus? Ticket prices here are more affordable than many other Texas water parks, starting at $22.99. The park also hosts a variety of special events throughout the summer, including a concert series. Heading to the Houston area? There’s a second Typhoon Texas in Katy. More at typhoontexas.com/austin.
–– Kristin Finan
Aquatica San Antonio
Sure, you know about SeaWorld San Antonio, but did you know that on the same grounds sits a stunning and sprawling water park that’s home to a wide variety of splashy attractions? Highlights here include Ihu’s Breakaway Falls, the tallest drop slide in Texas; the Walhalla Wave, which features a zero-gravity wall; the Riptide Race, a zooming dueling coaster; and the 450-foot Kiwi Curl body slide. And you can’t beat the fun of Stingray Falls, where four-person rafts zip families through a variety of twists and turns and then face-to-face with stingrays – yes, real stingrays – inside an underwater grotto. The best part? A portion of all tickets sold at Aquatica and SeaWorld San Antonio go to benefit animal conservation efforts. Note: Tickets to each park are sold separately. Learn more at https://aquatica.com/san-antonio.
–– Kristin Finan