Best of Austin: Get Out

Ever wondered why people in Austin are so fit? Because they never run out of things to do outside.

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Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni

Best View

Conventional wisdom says that the best view of Austin can be seen from the limestone cliffs of Mount Bonnell, and the dramatic vistas of Lake Austin and the ever-expanding city skyline definitely make this pretty overlook worth the visit. A steep walkway of one hundred—odd stone steps (wear comfortable shoes) leads all the way up to the pavilion, from which you can look down on some of Austin’s most exclusive real estate. (It’s worth noting that Mount Bonnell is one of the highest points in the city, though it is less a “mount” than a hill.) Unfortunately, on a nice day, it can get rather crowded with tourists—and amorous teenagers after dusk—who make the panorama a bit less scenic. We think the most breathtaking views of Austin are from the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower. On a clear day, you can see all the way out to the Hill Country, and the spectacular 360-degree view is truly jaw-dropping. But there’s a hitch: You can only access the observation deck by scheduling a tour through the Texas Union, so it is important to call ahead and make a reservation. Mount Bonnell, 3800 Mount Bonnell Dr.; the University of Texas Tower, 24th and Guadalupe, 512-475-6633 or utexas.edu/tower

Best Place to Swim Laps

Young swimmers tend to use the chlorinated western section of Deep Eddy Municipal Pool, but the lap lanes on the eastern side are spring-fed and chlorine-free. That means no red eyes or green hair. But there are rules to swimming here, and a newcomer best adhere to the guidelines or risk upsetting one of the many passionate regulars. If a lane is free and nobody is standing in a line, jump in. If the lanes have one person each, get close to the edge of the pool and ask the swimmer if you can share with him. (Be sure to find out if he wants to circle or just split the lane; nine times out of ten he will want to split since swimming speeds vary.) If there are two people in each lane, ask any folks standing outside the pool where the line begins and wait your turn. 401 Deep Eddy Dr., 512-472-8546 or deepeddy.org

Best Leisurely Walk

One of the bestintro ways to spend an afternoon is to stroll through the Zilker Botanical Garden, where it’s easy to lose track of time while you commune with nature. The 31-acre oasis boasts hundreds of native, hybrid, and exotic plants, as well as a rose garden, an herb garden, and a butterfly garden. (The latter includes an open-air hatchery and flora that lures butterflies during their spring and fall migrations.) There is even a prehistoric garden, which re-creates the natural habitat of the Ornithomimus dinosaur, whose ancient, three-toed tracks were discovered on the grounds of the botanical garden in 1992. (Alas, you can’t actually see the tracks anymore; paleontologists made casts of the footprints, then reburied them so as to prevent further deterioration.) The pièce de résistance, however, is the meticulously landscaped Japanese garden, where stone pathways and streams wind their way past waterfalls, footbridges, and koi-filled ponds. Its design sprung from the imagination of the late Isamu Taniguchi, a Japanese immigrant who was held in a South Texas internment camp during World War II. Out of gratitude for the education that his sons later received at the University of Texas, Taniguchi landscaped this quiet refuge in the late sixties. Working for no pay (and with no restrictions on what he could do), he spent a year and a half transforming three acres of rugged caliche cliffs into a place of serene reflection. Pay close attention and you will notice that six sequential ponds—each of which is designed to resemble a letter—spell out the word “Austin.” 2220 Barton Springs Rd., 512-477-8672 or zilkergarden.org

Best Sunset

The Oasis restaurant is the predictable sunset-viewing destination, located on a gorgeous bluff with a sweeping view of Lake Travis. Traditionally, the sunset here is met with applause, and margaritas are the drink of choice, along with specialty mixes such as the “Oasis Sunset,” a blend of Bacardi Limón rum, Captain Morgan spiced rum, lemonade, orange juice, and grenadine with a float of Bacardi 151. A good part of the deck was destroyed by a fire in 2005, but it has since been remodeled and now accommodates (gulp) two thousand people. But if watching the sunset with a big crowd isn’t your style, we suggest the Dry Creek Cafe & Boat Dock, a little tavern on Mount Bonnell Road with a stunning view of the sunset from a rustic rooftop deck. The property name is slightly misleading: This is more of a saloon than a cafe or a boat dock, since the place doesn’t serve food and is nowhere near the water. Luckily, plenty of beer is available. Drink your domestic longneck (cash only, please) on a rickety chair and listen to the vintage jukebox play Hank Thompson, Willie, Waylon, et al. And unless you want to draw stares of contempt from those around you, hold your applause for your favorite old country song. Oasis Restaurant, 6550 Comanche Tr., 512-266-2442 or oasis-austin.com; Dry Creek Saloon, 4812 Mount Bonnell Rd., 512-453-9244

Best All-Ages Playscape

Vince Hannemann started building a crazy tower dubbed the Cathedral of Junk in his South Austin backyard 21 years ago, and since then, he has destroyed old sections and built new wings. (The last time we visited, in the spring, his most recent addition featured a few live rabbits enclosed in a large covered cage.) The structure’s metamorphosis is a big part of the appeal. Not only is Hannemann constantly attaching motorcycles and telephones and other miscellaneous scrap to the assembly, but nature adds some finishing touches every day: Vines meander up the spiral staircase to the top of the tower, and birds make their nests in the thick of the dead electronic typewriters and metallic whatnot. Situate yourself on one of the “thrones” and take it in. 4422 Lareina Dr., 512-299-7413

Best Hours to Hit Barton Springs

Those summer days are gone when you could walk through the gates to Barton Springs at noon without waiting in line. And once you’ve paid your entrance fee, the crowds can put a real crimp in the relaxation factor; you have to hunt for a spot that isn’t invading someone’s personal space. (We’ve found ourselves sitting so close to our neighbors at times that we could scan the magazine article they were reading.) This is why we like going at night. We know, we know, it sounds crazy. But here’s the thing: The pool clears out around seven, leaving the area blissfully tranquil. The cold water brings your body temperature down and gives you an amazing night’s sleep. As always, you’ll find the occasional drum circle or a guy blowing a didgeridoo, but if you hate that type of thing you shouldn’t go to the springs in the first place. 2101 Barton Springs Rd., 512-476-9044 or ci.austin.tx.us/parks/bartonsprings.htm

Best Bike Route

Yes, there are longer bike routes with more-dazzling views (the 360 Loop) and more-challenging itineraries for hard-core cyclists (an eight-mile stretch on South Mopac Expressway nicknamed the Autobahn), but nothing beats the Veloway for an easy, stress-free workout. The wide, smooth paved trail is off-limits to joggers, cars, and pets, which means that cyclists—and a few inline skaters—have the place to themselves. The path is divided down the middle by a white line; slower users stay to the right, while ambitious cyclists forge ahead on the left. The Veloway draws a diverse crowd, from the lean, Spandex-clad Lance Armstrong devotees to little kids still teetering on training wheels. The trail winds through a peaceful stretch of woods that feels far removed from the suburban sprawl surrounding it, in part because the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, across the street, serves as a buffer. The Veloway is short (just over three miles) and relatively flat (there is only one steep incline), but folks who want vigorous exercise often ride the loop multiple times. This is also a good place to get reacquainted with cycling if you haven’t been on your bike in a while or to ride with family members who are of different skill levels. 4900 La Crosse Ave., veloway.com

Best Place to Make Out

Plenty of places around town lend themselves to canoodling, but Mayfield Park is impossibly romantic. While the grounds of its more upscale neighbor down the street, the Laguna Gloria art museum, are grander, Mayfield Park is secluded, quiet, and charming. Just beyond the 1870’s cottage at its entrance are several lily-filled ponds, soaring palm trees, walking trails, and more than two dozen small flower gardens, some of which include bulbs that were first planted in the early 1900’s. Most important, the park is populated by peacocks. Lots and lots of peacocks. They are everywhere—roosting in the trees, sunning themselves on the cottage’s rooftop, wandering the grounds, and showing off their plumage to visitors. Their trains are at their most magnificent during mating season, beginning in February and running into the summer. Their tail feathers fall out from mid-July to early August, and admirers are free to take home the souvenirs. 3505 West 35th, ci.austin.tx.us/parks/mayfield.htm

Best Dog Park

Of the twelve places in town where you can let your pooch run around off-leash, Red Bud Isle, located where Lake Austin meets Lady Bird Lake, is the best. (Folks who let their dogs run off-leash along the hike-and-bike trail are just begging for the maximum $500 leash ordinance fine.) Why is this place so great? It’s an island, hence no traffic. Visitors park on the lot and then step out onto the trail, where canines can dart down little paths that lead to the water. After an hour of fetch and some swimming, your dog ought to be mellow the rest of the evening. Warning: Though the Friends of Red Bud Isle try to keep the pervasive poison ivy trimmed, owners should keep an eye on their dogs or stick to the open spaces. 3401 Redbud Tr., austinparks.org/apfweb/park.php?&parkId=317

Best Place to Pretend You Live in the Country

Getting out of the city didn’t used to be so complicated, but now, even taking a day trip into the Hill Country requires sitting in an awful lot of traffic. So when we need a break from urban life, we head for Boggy Creek Farm, right in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable residential neighborhood in East Austin, just two and a half miles from downtown. The five-acre working farm is open to the public only on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., so make sure to time your visit accordingly. The main draw is the fresh produce, which is sold in the shade of a live oak tree. The certified organic vegetables and fruits—many of which are harvested the same morning they are sold—change from week to week and include chervil, leeks, and strawberries in cool weather and sweet corn, okra, and figs in hot weather. (Smoke-dried tomatoes are available year-round). Our favorite thing to do at Boggy Creek Farm is to wander around—past the 1840’s farmhouse, which is one of Austin’s oldest surviving homes, and along the rows of newly planted vegetables and flowers, where you can see what is beginning to sprout. Adults usually hover around the coffee urn in the barn, while kids often gather around the henhouse, where chickens cluck and scratch and strut for their delighted audience. 3414 Lyons Rd., 512-926-4650 or boggycreekfarm.com

Best Sandbox

Kids who are into dinosaurs can’t seem to get enough. They memorize names, facts, and will quickly correct you when you’re wrong. The Dino Pit display at the Austin Nature and Science Center is a way to turn your child’s enthusiasm into an understanding of how we have come to know those facts: paleontology. Kids can use shovels to uncover the fossil casts under the sand if they want, but posted signs encourage them to use the brushes. When they’re done, they can pile the sand back on and start all over. This may be the closest escape Austin has to a Zen rock garden. Austin Nature and Science Center, 301 Nature Center Dr., 512-327-8180 or utexas.edu/tmm/sponsored_sites/dino_pit/

Best Public Tennis Courts

Unless you are lucky enough to belong to the Westwood Country Club—whose pristine clay courts draw the likes of Andy Roddick—the Caswell Tennis Center is hard to beat. The complex, which is the oldest operating tennis facility in Texas, was renovated in 2003, and its eight lighted hard courts are in excellent condition. The only drawback: They are available by reservation only, for a nominal charge, and can be difficult to book. Calling ahead is strongly recommended. The tennis center also has a good pro shop that allows players to demo a wide variety of racquets for a modest fee. If you are looking to play for free, however, the two lighted courts at Little Stacy Park, which were recently resurfaced, are a good bet. The park is lush and shady and quiet, which makes it one of the prettier places in Austin to play a couple sets, but be forewarned—come spring, the full trees overhang the baseline and can interfere with your ball toss. Caswell Tennis Center, 2312 Shoal Creek Blvd., 512-478-6268 or lovetennis4caswell.com; Little Stacy Park, 1400 Alameda Dr., austinparks.org/apfweb/park.php?&parkId=274

Best Llama Encounter

The lions, bears, and other exotics at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary grab everyone’s attention at this nonprofit, but nothing elicits a high-pitch squeal like some one-on-one with a llama. We attribute this excitement to the llamas’ lips, which can stretch a good inch in front of their teeth (something the deer and the goats can’t do). They tickle a feeder’s hand for a second or two before greedily taking the special zoo treats, leaving a thin slobber on the feeder’s fingers. Hey, little kids love it. Older children, who generally don’t care to have their hands slimed, tend to park themselves in front of the jaguars, cougars, and other big cats. Mischievous types head straight for the monkeys. 10807 Rawhide Tr., 512-288-1490 or austinzoo.org

Best Run

There’s something wonderfully democratic about the ten-mile hike-and-bike trail at Lady Bird Lake. On a typical morning, you will see marathon runners training for their next race; moms pushing jogging strollers; silver-haired ladies power-walking; shirtless dudes dashing by as they work on their tans; and Austinites of every stripe making their way around what was, until recently, called Town Lake. In the spring, swans and their cygnets glide by, and in the fall, migrating flocks of cranes soar overhead. Look closely and you may spot a great blue heron wading through the reeds. And if you can handle running at dawn, you might catch the bats returning home to the Congress Avenue Bridge after a night of feeding. Whenever you go for a run, though, make sure you adhere to trail etiquette: Stay to the right unless passing, and don’t run more than two across. As you take in the scenery, you might be serenaded by Woody, a friendly guy who’s often out playing his guitar, or you may get outpaced by the Austin High cross-country group as they effortlessly race by. (Nothing will make you go faster than a group of lithe teenagers running laps around you without breaking a sweat.) Most joggers don’t venture beyond Interstate 35, where the trail is flatter and less heavily traveled, but we like its solitariness. Our favorite spot of all, though, is beside the First Street Bridge, where RunTex, a local sporting goods store, sets out jugs of ice-cold water—something that, at the end of a long run in the dead of summer, you have an unimaginable appreciation for. Mopac Expressway to Congress Avenue to Pleasant Valley Road, ci.austin.tx.us/parks/trails.htm

Best Place to Get Your Kids Wet

The innovative geyser display at the Liz Carpenter Fountain is a mystery to toddlers. It is not a fountain they gaze on from afar, oh no. This is an interactive toy with spigots about an inch in diameter that shoot out water at timed intervals. The little ones crawl right up to one of the many holes and peer in, then wait for the inevitable splash in the face. After the initial confusion subsides, the fascination with these timed spurts takes hold. Parents can spend hours watching their kids play here, so bring snacks. At night, the fountains are illuminated by internal gizmos that turn the water different colors, presenting a beautiful photo op, and Doug Sahm Hill, which stands between the park and Riverside Drive, offers one of Lady Bird Lake’s best views of downtown. Butler Park, between Riverside Drive and Barton Springs Road, next to the Palmer Events Center and the Dougherty Arts Center, ci.austin.tx.us/parks/butler.htm

Best Place to See Stars

The Austin Astronomical Society takes advantage of the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve’s spectacular vistas. But instead of looking out at the 227 acres of hiking trails and woodlands, visitors look up through telescopes. Events are scheduled around moon phases, and depending on the time of the month, stargazers can learn about the planets, stars, and constellations, or the moon’s science and legends. (Bring a small flashlight and a cushion; reservations required.) For a less formal gathering, swing by the Mansfield Dam, where the Austin Dam Astronomers set up telescopes on Friday nights for public viewings of the moon and easily seen planets. Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, 805 N. Capital of Texas Hwy. (enter on the east side of Loop 360), 512-327-7622 or wildbasin.org; Austin Dam Astronomers, tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/austindamastronomers/

Best Place to Have a Picnic

Pack a blanket, some sandwiches, and a copy of Billy Lee Brammer’s political epic The Gay Place into your picnic basket and head over to the Capitol grounds. The majestic red granite Capitol building, which is nearly fifteen feet taller than the Capitol in Washington, D.C., is a dramatic backdrop for an unhurried lunch. Find a good, shady spot under one of the many live oak trees that dot the perfectly manicured lawn and take in the view of downtown Austin. After lunch, you can walk around the 22 acres, which boast eighteen historical statues. (Brochures for self-guided tours are available at the Capitol Visitors Center.) Make sure to stop at the Tyler Rose Garden, which is in full bloom in the spring. Its historical marker says it best: “The beauty of the Tyler Rose is an example of what happens when God and man work together.” Congress Avenue and 11th, 512-305-8400 or tspb.state.tx.us/SPB/capitol/texcap.htm

Best Canoe Route

If you own a canoe or kayak and water levels are up, your best bet is the section of Onion Creek that winds through the 744-acre Mc-Kinney Falls State Park, where two waterfalls ranging from six feet tall to fifteen feet tall splash into the pools below. (While some kayakers do go over the falls, it is officially discouraged. Rapids require some expertise, and this stretch of Onion Creek can be dangerous in high water, so use good judgment.) Put in where William Cannon goes over the creek, a few miles east of Interstate 35, and take out at Richard Moya Park, about five miles downstream. If you don’t own a canoe, you can rent one from Zilker Park Boats for $10 an hour or $40 a day and make your way up Lady Bird Lake, paddling against a gentle current for about three miles from the launch site to the foot of Tom Miller Dam, where big chunks of granite from an old broken dam have turned into a tree-covered island that is now a city park. Choose a spot that suits you, then pull up and picnic. Best of all, the current works with you on the way back. McKinney Falls State Park, 5805 McKinney Falls Pkwy., 512-243-1643 or tpwd.state.tx.us./spdest/findadest/parks/mckinney_falls/; Zilker Park Boats, on the shores of Barton Creek, just north of the Barton Springs Pool dam, 512-478-3852 or zilkerboats.com

Best Way to See the Bats

Standing on the Congress Avenue Bridge to watch the bats can be a little frustrating. During the peak months of activity, March through October, tourists and locals line the path next to the heavy traffic and elbow for a good spot to see the largest urban bat colony in North America take off for its late-night feast. If you’ve got an hour and want to really make the bat-watching an event, we recommend a boat tour via Capital Cruises Austin, which uses a paddle wheel, or Lone Star Riverboat, which also uses pontoon boats (reservations recommended; call for departure times). Instead of hearing your neighbors repeatedly wonder aloud, “When are the bats coming out?” you can enjoy a guided tour of Lady Bird Lake. Then, at sunset, the bats will begin their nightly trek down the river in a long black stripe. Capital Cruises Austin: Departs from the Hyatt Regency Austin Hotel, 208 Barton Springs Rd., 512-480-9264 or capitalcruises.com. Lone Star Riverboat: Departs from a dock near the Greater Austin Chamber parking lot, just south of the bridge on South 1st, 512-327-1388 or lonestarriverboat.com

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