The greatest attraction Austin has to offer is the stretch of the Colorado River called Lady Bird Lake, formerly known as Town Lake. This wide, slow-moving river winding through the heart of downtown Austin is banked with lush vegetation, ancient trees, and wildlife, such as turtles, swans, and ducks. What makes Lady Bird Lake so remarkable? By taking just a few steps you can go from bustling, urban downtown to an alternative world that’s peaceful, beautiful, and natural.
Lady Bird Lake’s hike-and-bike trails are some of the best urban trails in the country, with several loops over and around the lake that are in three 10-mile increments. Each loop’s bridge provides a different view of Austin, the lake, and surrounding hills. Although the trails are fit for bikes as well as pedestrians, and during peak hours bikers find it pretty hard to navigate all the joggers and speed-walkers, everyone seems to sweat in harmony. The trails are all lakeside and have lots of shade, benches, water fountains, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. That’s right! On the south shore of the lake is a life-size bronze statue of the Austin legend proudly standing as a sentinel with guitar in hand. Free water stations are set up at various locations along the trail. The trail is considered very safe, so no need to worry about crazy people doing crazy things. However, watch out for poison oak. The trail is laced with this evil plant, and if you are not paying attention, or decide to pet the cute dog running up to you, you may end up with some serious itching. During the peak months nice people will put little flags on branches to help identify the stuff.
Other activities that take place on Lady Bird Lake include crewing, canoeing, kayaking, and stand-up paddle-boarding, which are great ways to get up close to giant white swans and turtles. You might even catch a glimpse of the elusive gar. This is a long, prehistoric-looking fish with spots and a crocodile-like nose. From the water the city skyline looks pretty impressive—even breathtaking. For many locals, spending time on the lake in some sort of vessel is the best way to spend a Saturday.
Canoes can be rented by Zilker Park Boat Rentals (512/478-3852, 10am-dark Mon.-Fri., 9am-dark Sat.-Sun. in summer and early fall, 10am-dark Sat.-Sun. in winter as weather permits, $12 an hour or $40 per day) at Zilker Park near Barton Springs Pool. They have 17-foot Alumacraft, Grumman and Michicraft canoes, and both Frenzy (one-person) and Malibu Two (two-person) ocean kayaks. Paddles and life jackets are provided.
If you prefer standing while traversing the lake, stand-up paddle-boards can be rented from Texas Rowing Center (512/651-5710, open daily during daylight hours). This boat rental go-to is located on the north side of Lady Bird Lake on the trail near Mo-Pac on Stephen F. Austin Drive across from Austin High School. The weird-looking recreational sport of standing on a surf board has become very popular. Texas Rowing Center also has rentals for other water sports, such as canoes and kayaks. Rates start at $10 an hour and go to $45 for all-day rental.
The most glorious way to experience the lake under the city skyline is by tour on a double-decker paddle-wheel riverboat. Lone Star Riverboat (512/327-1388, $10) operates this Mark Twain-style adventure March-October on weekends at 3pm.
Lady Bird Lake’s trails can be accessed at any of the downtown bridges and from several of the hotels on the river. The most convenient parking lot is at Auditorium Shores, on the south side of the lake at the foot of the 1st Street Bridge. However, a better place to park is in Zilker Park, on Stratford Drive under the Mo-Pac overpass. Peak recreation hours are before and after the workday, during the weekend, and on holidays. Swimming in Lady Bird Lake isn’t allowed due to dangerous whirlpools.