7 family-friendly Austin-area hikes perfect for spring

By: Mauri Elbel
May, 2021

Spring’s sunny skies, mild weather and wildflower-fringed trails set a serene scene for exploring the great outdoors. May is prime time to grab the kids (and plenty of snacks and water) and hit the trails. Lucky for Austinites, you don’t have to venture too far to find paths perfect for the whole crew. Below are seven hiking areas featuring short, easy trails even the littlest legs can handle. The best part? They’re all Austin hikes or trails less than an hour away so you can explore a new spot every day of the week.

Barton Creek Greenbelt

Taking a trail mix break on the Greenbelt. Photo by Mauri Elbel.

With more than 12 miles of lush, shaded trails, serene swimming holes (when the rain provides) and soaring limestone cliffs, the Barton Creek Greenbelt, www.austinparks.org/barton-creek-greenbelt, is a true 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 with the tiniest of tots. One of our favorites is Twin Falls, a short and scenic hike that can be accessed via an easy .4-mile hike from the trailhead (3900 Mopac Frontage Rd.) – 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 burn, walk another mile to Sculpture Falls, which is one of the most popular swimming holes along the Greenbelt when the creek is flowing. Gus Fruh (2642 Barton Hills Drive) is a favorite family-friendly swimming hole that only requires a few minutes of walking before kids are splashing in the sunshine.

Know before you go: Go on a weekday and early in the day 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.

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Violet Crown Trail

Wildflowers line portions of the Violet Crown Trail this time of year. Photo by Mauri Elbel.

Upon completion, the Violet Crown Trail, www.violetcrowntrail.com, will be a 30-mile trail winding through Barton Creek Wilderness Park, Sunset Valley, City of Austin Water Quality Protection Lands and into Hays County. Though the regional trail system, which currently runs from Zilker Park to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, is on the path to becoming the longest trail of its kind in Central Texas, it’s great for families because you can enter and exit at multiple trailheads. One particularly smooth and easy trail begins at the intersection of Latta Drive, Convict Hill and Brush Country Road near the Whirlpool Cave. Follow the 1.5-mile one-way (3- mile round-trip) hike all the way to Davis Lane. Because the entire pathway is concrete or crushed granite, it’s doable with strollers or wheelchairs. About a mile in, you can veer to the right into Dick Nichols Park, where there’s a beautiful playground for kids to enjoy, or simply make a hard left to continue on the trail toward Davis Lane.

Know before you go: There’s a parking lot directly across from the trailhead, just east of the intersection on Latta Drive. The Violet Crown Trail, operated by Hill Country Conservancy, is privately maintained and there is no access to drinking water, so bring plenty of water and be  extra vigilant about cleaning up after your kids and pets.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Veer off the trail to swing from the trees at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Photo by Mauri Elbel.

Kids will love trekking along the wildflower-fringed trails at the Wildflower Center, www.wildflower.org, this time of year. Along with cultivated gardens, an arboretum, natural areas and wildlands, a handful of trails weave through these picturesque 284 acres. Whether your crew gallops along the short .25-mile Savanna Meadow Trail meandering through wildflower meadows or sets out on the longer mile-long Arboretum Trail weaving past towering Texas trees and winding through an idyllic shady grove perfect for picnics and swinging from the oaks, any day spent on these trails is a good one. Delight little hikers with another short trek to the nearly 5-acre Luci and Ian Family Garden, where they can play in a native shrub maze, climb into giant birds’ nests made from native grape vines and follow dinosaur footprints along a flowing creek until they make their way to a grotto with a cave and cascading waterfall. When thirst and hunger strike, there are water refuel stations throughout the center and the Wildflower Café serves sandwiches, salads and snacks. Through May 11, take advantage of extended hours on Mondays and Tuesdays until 8 p.m., or plan a night out in nature during Tuesday Twilights, featuring live music from local musicians, visual artists, food trucks and take-and-walk adult beverages.

Know before you go: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is operating with limited capacity, by reservation only and masks are required in all areas.

RELATED: Texas bluebonnets are back! 10 wildflower hotspots

McKinney Falls State Park

Friends take a hike at McKinney Falls State Park. Photo by Mauri Elbel.

If you’re seeking solitude, want to watch wildlife and reconnect in nature without leaving town, head to McKinney Falls State Park, www.tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/mckinney-falls. 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 shady trees and around 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: Make reservations for day passes to guarantee your entry and avoid disappointment.

Westcave Preserve

Westcave Preserve is a collapsed grotto-like Hamilton Pool. Photo by Marshall Foster.

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, www.westcave.org, is tucked in southwest Travis County less than an hour from downtown. Over the decades, the area has been protected, invasive plants have been thoughtfully and intentionally removed to encourage native plant growth and has been largely left alone, resulting in the rare and wild natural beauty that exists today. 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. Preserve offerings are by reservation only – visit the website and click “Get Tickets Now” to book a walk through the grotto or a self-guided stroll through The Uplands, which is peppered with wildflowers this time of year.

Know before you go: Prior to arriving, guests need to self-screen, visitors over 2 must wear a face mask and everyone must maintain at least 10 feet of separation from those outside of their group.

Wimberley’s Blue Hole Regional Park

Hike trails overlooking the cold, clear spring waters of Cypress Creek known as Wimberley’s Blue Hole. Photo by Mauri Elbel.

There are 4.5 miles of easy, winding hike and bike trails found in the 126-acre Blue Hole Regional Park, www.wimberleybluehole.com. The mulch-covered and paved trails weaving through this idyllic park perched on the banks of the spring-fed Cypress Creek 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. And beginning May 1, you can reserve a time slot to plunge from a rope-swing into the cold, clear spring waters of Cypress Creek known as Wimberley’s Blue Hole.

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 post-hike dip, reserve a time slot (9 a.m.-1 p.m. or 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.) ahead of time to swim at Blue Hole at www.cityofwimberley.com.

Pedernales Falls State Park

Just outside of Austin sitting on the banks of the pristine Pedernales River, Pedernales Falls State Park, www.tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/pedernales-falls, boasts 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. 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-tail deer. This state park is also known for spectacular springtime wildflowers so bring your camera.

Know before you go: Make reservations for day passes to guarantee your entry into this popular park.

If You Go

Getting there:

Barton Creek Greenbelt trails are located in south-central Austin. The Violet Crown Trail runs from Zilker to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which is located in southwest Austin. McKinney Falls State Park is about 20 minutes southeast of downtown. Westcave Preserve and Wimberley’s Blue Hole Regional Park are each around 45 minutes from downtown. Pedernales Falls State Park is about an hour from Austin.

What to bring:

Pack a backpack filled with water and snacks – our kids love making their own trail mix (a hearty mix up of Cheerios, almonds, cashews, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds and mini chocolate chips or marshmallows). Be prepared with hiking shoes, a swimsuit or extra clothes, sunscreen, bug spray and Band-Aids.

Pro Tips:

Hit the trails on a weekday or early in the morning to avoid heat and crowds. Take what you bring in back with you and make sure your kids don’t accidentally leave trash behind.

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