Deep in the Heart of Austin

The Texas capital is undeniably the most creative of the state's cities—and easily one of the best places to mountain bike, hike, swim, climb, fish, and channel your inner Lance Armstrong. Here we break down the top ten adventures awaiting you.
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Austin skyline with trees in the foreground.
TEXAS GOES GREEN: Austin's foliage-dense skyline  (Jeremy Woodhouse/Photodisc/Getty)

Known as a city within a park, it's little wonder that Austin, Texas, enjoys a reputation as one of America's fittest cities. Regardless of where the mercury rests, travelers will find year-round opportunities to flex their active muscles in and around the state's red-hot capital. Here, we profile our ten favorite.

10. Hiking and Camping at Pedernales Falls State Park
The surreal-looking limestone slide that gives this 5,200-acre state park 35 miles west of Austin its name is worth the drive alone. With dozens of miles of trails—including a sturdy climb along the flanks of Wolf Mountain—riverside beaches, swimming holes, and boating access, there are plenty of places to explore besides the popular falls. (Be forewarned that flash flooding can occur on the riverbed, so keep an eye out for rising water and check the weather report.) Wildlife-watching is another popular draw, with coyotes, armadillos, and more than 150 species of birds in residence. But it's the 300-million-year-old geological formations and the famously picturesque falls that promise to entrance time and again. $5 per person day-use; $3 per person for overnight stay, plus $10 to $20 per campsite. (830.868.7304)

9. Mountain Biking at Rocky Hill Ranch
Located amid the Lost Pines of Texas about 40 miles east of Austin, this private mountain-bike ranch is a longtime favorite of riders looking for a mini-vacation or change of scenery. A system of winding loops cuts through the forest, alternating swooping singletrack and a series of climbs that will make your thighs beg for mercy. For those who are not up for the full course, there are convenient bailouts across the property, so whether it's a ride of six miles or 26, you can set your own pace; although novices will want to keep their eyes out for the well-marked, technical descents. Be sure to carry plenty of water, tools, and a patch kit. With new management on board, some of these logistics have yet to be worked out. After the ride, stop by the saloon (great burgers, free music on Fridays). $8 per rider, per day. (512.718.8822)

8. Birdwatching in Hornsby Bend
Central Texas is a flyway for all manner of feathered friends, and Austin is known for its varied and diverse migratory species. So while a sewage treatment plant might seem a strange place to stake out for birds, no birder will want to bypass the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant. These settling ponds offer a chance to see more than 370 potential species—an experienced birder might spot 50 in a four-hour stretch—including waterfowl and shorebirds, songbirds, woodpeckers, and raptors, as well as other wildlife. A scenic 3.5-mile path along the Colorado River offers prime viewing for osprey, bald eagles, and the like. A free bird survey takes place the second Saturday of every month. The Center for Environmental Research at Hornsby Bend is nine miles east of Austin on FM 973 off Highway 71.

7. Fly-Fishing on the Guadalupe
Halfway between San Antonio and Austin, the Guadalupe River below Canyon Dam is the southernmost trout fishery in the States. The cold-water fish have been stocked in the river since the 1960s, creating a small but trenchant, permanent population of hard-fighting rainbow (and the occasional brown) trout. For year-round angling, it's best to stick with the public access spots just below the tailrace, where the water stays cold, rarely reaching above 65 degrees. Downstream, you'll find riffle runs over exposed limestone alternating with deep, murky pools where the big fish lay in wait. Between December and April, Texas Parks and Wildlife works with Trout Unlimited to stock upwards of 15,000 hatchery-raised rainbows each year. A freshwater fishing license is required; available at most area tackle shops. Get advice or arrange a guide through New Braunfels's Gruene Outfitters (830.625.4440).

6. Paddling the San Marcos
When most Texas rivers dry out, the San Marcos, about 45 miles from Austin, keeps on flowing, offering trips of up to 20 miles with options for shorter floats. Sights include epic pools of cool green water beneath ancient cypress branches, a smattering of Class I-II rapids, and a variety of wildlife, including armadillos, herons, kingfishers—and co-eds from nearby Texas State University. Whether in a canoe or kayak, you can cast a line for largemouth and smallmouth bass, as well as feisty sunfish. Obstacles include logjams and some small dams that may have to be portaged. But for the most part, unless there have been regular rains, floating San Marcos tends to be pretty stress free. Shuttles and rental boats can be arranged by T.G. Canoe Livery (512.353.3946) or Spencer Canoes (512.357.6113), which also runs the Shadow Grove Campground downstream.

Published: 24 Dec 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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