Austin Outdoors



The buffalo-hunting and gathering Tonkawa Indians and their ancestors are the first people known to have made their home on the banks of the rivers and creeks of Central Texas. Later, in the 1700s, these nomadic tribes were threatened by the Apache and Comanche peoples who came into the Hill Country from the north. This is what the first Spanish settlers of Texas found when they arrived to establish their missions. In 1730, three Spanish missions moved from East Texas to the bluff overlooking Barton Springs in the area that is now Zilker Park. The next year, they moved to San Antonio. At this time, Texas was a Mexican state. By the time German settlers arrived in the Austin area in the 1800s, the more warlike Comanche were in control.

In 1835, Jacob Harrell and his family set up camp on the north side of the Colorado River near where the Congress Street bridge is today. This was the first documented settlement in what is now known as Austin. The next year, Texas declared its independence from Mexico and became the Republic of Texas. In 1837, William Barton settled near the springs that now bear his name. The frontier settlers named their new home Waterloo, after the British victory over Napoleon twenty years earlier.

In 1839, the settlement was selected as the new capital of the Republic, and was renamed Austin in honor of Stephen F. Austin. Although the capital was, at one time or another, moved to Houston and to Washington-on-the-Brazos, Austin eventually regained its status as the seat of government for this new nation. In 1845, Texas was admitted as the 28th state of the United States, after an election in which Texans voted to join the US.


One of the biggest challenges Austin faces over the next few years is how to encourage economic growth without damaging the area's precious natural resources. Water, which is so central to outdoor recreation in the Hill Country, is also at the center of fierce political debates that could have a huge impact on the area's future.

The Hill Country is, underneath it all, a mass of golden-toned limestone through which water seeps and flows. This precious resource, the Edwards aquifer, provides drinking water for more than a million people, and it is also the source for such recreational gems as Barton Springs pool. Unfortunately, drought and demand for water fueled by growth, is taxing the aquifer.

The stakes have grown even higher because of the presence of several endangered species that are dependant on these natural springs. The Barton Springs Salamander, the Texas Blind Salamander, the Fountain Darter, and a fish known as the San Marcos Gambusia all depend on the health of the Hill Country springs for their survival. The Edward's Aquifer has more species that exist beneath the ground for their entire lives than any other aquifer on earth.

Austin officials have already set aside large tracts of land that will remain undeveloped, allowing rain water to seep through and recharge the aquifer. But, in 1997, the city's population grew by 4.2 percent, the highest rate of growth in the past decade. This conflict between conservation and growth has already fueled numerous political and legal battles in Austin, and it seems likely that the battles will only intensify as time goes on.

Native Flora

Fans of native plants and wildflowers should make a point to visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on LaCrosse Avenue in south Austin. This beautiful facility, constructed largely of native limestone, was built with the environment in mind, with a rooftop water harvesting system, passive solar heating, breezeways, and the use of recycled materials. Founded by the First Lady who brought wildflowers to the nation's roadsides, the center aims to educate the public about the environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits of native plants. It features gardens, meadows, and educational exhibits that give visitors a look at the Hill Country in its most natural state.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »