Adventure Guide 2013: Austin

Because Austin is growing so quickly, 2013 is the year to explore all that Austin offers – before the trails are as crowded as the flagship Whole Foods downtown. For nearly a decade, the city itself has been attracting more people than it can seem to keep up with. Austin ranked first on Forbes’ list of America’s Fastest-Growing Cities for the second year in a row in 2012. But while the city is struggling to keep up with the tremendous boom, and indoor space still seems relatively limited (demonstrated by the many packed coffee houses, music venues, bars and office and apartment buildings), there’s plenty of outdoor space to go around in Austin.

Austin’s adventurous reputation owes much to its weather. With the exception of the smoldering mid-summer afternoons, Austin’s climate is perfect for outdoor adventure year-round. The community of Austin also prides itself on the myriad adventure activities available, and the locals relish in the ability to quickly drop what they’re doing and find a nearby adventure.

And there’s plenty of adventure to go around. Whether you’re interested in caving, climbing, hiking, swimming, paddling or tubing, Austin has a unique geography that’s perfect for the multitalented outdoors enthusiast. Use this guide to help discover it.


Heywood Hotel: The Heywood Hotel is one of Austin’s newest boutique hotels. Located in the center of the growing and creative East Austin, the Heywood is within walking distance of great bars, music venues, restaurants, shopping and downtown. While you’re in the neighborhood, try my favorite Bloody Mary from Rio Rita. The Heywood also includes free bike rentals, so grab a bike and head on out to your day of adventure. From $169.
heywoodhotel.com1609 East Cesar Chavez Street

Hotel San Jose: Hotel San Jose isn’t new in town – it was built in 1939. But the hotel is still a staple in Austin. Open-aired rooms are further enriched by cool amenities at Hotel San Jose, like a music and video library, a community typewriter and Polaroid cameras, and the open policy on animals. So if you’re planning to take your canine best friend on a hiking tour of Hill Country or need a bike to round out your adventure in Austin, you might want to stay here. This area of Austin is a perfect launching pad for everything from nightlife and food trucks to Lady Bird Lake and its many adventurous activities. While in the SoCo area, take a journey back in time with a stop into the eclectic vintage store Uncommon Objects. From $185. 1316 South Congress Avenue

McKinney Falls State Park: The McKinney Falls State Park camping grounds certainly aren’t a hotel, but they’re worth mentioning in this adventure guide. The park is beautifully equipped for all kinds of adventures. Hiking and bike trails loop through the grounds. Expansive rock formations dot the area, providing a decent basis for rock climbing. Or you can cliff dive right off one of those formations and into one of the surrounding natural pools. Campsites have water, electric, restrooms and picnic tables. From $15. 5808 McKinney Falls Parkway

Eat and Drink

24 Diner: Great cocktails, wine and beer are just afterthoughts at a place like 24 Diner, where you can get delicious and upscale diner food at any time of the day or night – which isn’t exactly common in the city of Austin. Hit up 24 Diner for a big breakfast before you begin your day of adventure or after you’ve worn yourself out and just need a strong drink and some comfort food. Make a steep trek through a semi-hidden graffiti display by checking out the Castle Hill graffiti while you’re in the neighborhood.
600 North Lamar Boulevard

East Side Show Room: East Side Show Room is kind of an adventure in and of itself. The cuisine showcases local ingredients in a gourmet, heavily French style and the bar brings traditional cocktails together with fresh, innovative concoctions.
1100 East 6th Street

Hillside Farmacy: Hillside Farmacy isn’t even a year old yet and the place is usually crowded. With actual pharmacy relics in tow, this trendy little restaurant is open 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. and is equally great for brunch or dinner. The drinks are great and the food is part southern comfort, part New American. There’s even an old, upright piano in the back room. While you’re in the area, learn a thing or two about wine from the guys at East End Wines. 1209 East 11th Street

Adventure Activities

Barton Springs: Barton Springs, a chilly spring-fed, man-made pool across the way from Zilker Park, is a famous Austin landmark for a reason. It’s refreshing, big, and well worth the $3 entrance fee. Go ahead, try to swim laps here. For no money at all, fewer people, less oversight and a bit more of an adventure, you can also swim in the creek just beyond the Barton Springs fence – if you’re facing the entrance to the official springs, the unofficial springs are to the left of the fence. 2201 Barton Springs Road

Secret Beach: For a laid-back adventure filled with river-swimming and surrounding woods for hiking, check out Secret Beach, just beyond Roy G. Guerrero Park and before the Colorado River Wildlife Sanctuary. It’s a sandy beach and perfect for sunbathing after your swim. The water rises late afternoon when the dam is opened, so go a little later in the day if you want more water in your adventure. Note that this beach, as well as nearly all other natural water sources in Texas, is subject to drought-induced low levels.

Barton Creek Greenbelt: Austin is landlocked, so you have to rely on the dammed up Colorado River (Lady Bird Lake, which offers stand-up padding), Barton Creek and other creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes for water adventures in the area. The BCG is shorthand for an incredible stretch of preserved land that winds its way through the city of Austin. While the creek flows through the BCG, the steep slopes that surround it are go-to spots in Austin for rock climbing, hiking and biking. And since the creek is always nearby, there’s always a swimming hole. 3755-B Capital of Texas Highway

Get Around

Getting around Austin isn’t always easy if you don’t have a car. As an aid, look into Car2Go, a shared car service that allows you to rent cars by the minute, hour or day and leave them wherever you choose within the city for 38 cents a minute.

Biking is a popular method of transportation in Austin, with a strong bike culture and special lanes on many roads. Several companies, including Barton Springs Bike Rentals and Austin Bike Tours and Rentals will rent bikes to visitors from $22.50 per day. Pedicabs and taxis are also quite common in the downtown area for localized transportation. In addition, Capital Metro provides the MetroRail, an expanding train service that connects outer and east Austin to downtown, while Capital Metro buses go all over town. A single ride on the bus is $1, but you can get a day pass for $2.

From Austin-Bergstrom Airport, take the Austin SuperShuttle or a taxi into town for the quickest commute. You can also take the Capital Metro bus from the airport into town.

Adventure Tip

Although this might seem obvious to you now, make sure to wear protective shoes when exploring Austin’s outdoors. Thorns, burrs, rattlesnakes, fire ants and plenty of other harsh conditions and risks exist outside in Texas. You can wear sandals to Secret Beach and Barton Creek, but wear sturdier shoes when exploring the Greenbelt and McKinney State Falls. While it doesn’t hurt to take extra precaution, it can definitely hurt to not. One thing I learned while living in Texas is that people down there wear cowboy boots for a reason.

[Photo credit: Flickr users austinevan (top) and Steve Snodgrass]

Journey To Secret Beach in Austin, Texas

I walk through the open gate and into a dusty backyard BBQ party. I offer the contents of a grocery bag to the men manning the grill. The afternoon sun on July 4 in Texas isn’t subtle. Dozens of friends are gathered here and sweating in unison. I find a place to relax in the shade — a slice of watermelon in one hand and a cold beer in the other. I think of my puppy, Fiona, at home. I’ve just left her alone for the first time. Once an hour has quickly passed, I excuse myself on behalf of Fiona’s assumed despair. I think of her barricaded in my kitchen, all eight pounds of her. Before I leave, I’m invited to rejoin my friends later at a purported “secret” beach, appropriately and memorably called Secret Beach. I’m given specific directions that are promised to take me there, but I never go. I open the front door to my house to find Fiona hiding under the couch in the living room. How she managed to jump over the 4-foot-tall stacked plastic storage bins that closed off the kitchen without budging them whatsoever is a mystery. Clearly distraught from her first home alone experience, I instead decide to take her with me to a friend’s pool, where she’s allowed to be but not to swim. I could have taken her with me to Secret Beach, but I didn’t know that at the time. I emailed a friend a few days later to get the directions to Secret Beach in writing. I saved the email knowing I’d want those directions sooner or later.

%Gallery-152063%The summer in Austin is oppressive. It’s my first summer in Texas, but the record-breaking drought and heat aren’t making the transition easy. Locals commiserate. “I’ve been in Austin all my life and this is, by far, the worst summer ever. I’m so sorry it’s your first”, they tell me, attempting to reassure me that the hard time I’m having isn’t because I’m a newcomer. But my instincts tell me that no matter what they say, the brutality of this summer is weighing more heavily on me, a recent transplant from the north. Everyone is feeling exhausted and visibly so. Beat down by the relentless heat, which has been in the triple digits for over 70 days now, I receive the pitying facial expressions of air-conditioned drivers paused at stoplights as I walk Fiona. Walking her isn’t easy to do — her paws are too soft and raw for the burning asphalt. A friend tells me he can only walk his 6-year-old Samoyed when it’s dark. This gives me the idea to become nocturnal.

I succeed in living by night for a month or so. But between raising a new puppy, totaling a car, shopping for a new car and planning my upcoming wedding, the inconvenience of a nocturnal lifestyle isn’t suiting me. I return to the daylight in the weeks before my October wedding, slowly readjusting to societal normalcy. My wedding is blessed with rain; a beacon of hope that graces the multi-day outdoor event with cool breezes. With a marriage license signed, an elaborate wedding set-up and torn down, and the weight off my chest from entertaining over a hundred mostly out-of-town guests, I find myself able to kick my feet up at my own home. But my feet are on boxes. Boxes filled with vintage lace, plates and glasses, and bins filled with silverware and candles. I lay my head on a collection of solar-powered camping showers strewn across my couch. The opportunity to depart from the wedding immediately following the ceremony for a honeymoon wasn’t an option. Perhaps I could have planned better, asked more of our family members and friends, but I didn’t. Instead, my husband and I work during the week following the wedding. We work in 12-hour chunks scrubbing the floors of the cabin on the property we rented, Austin Heaven. We are washing dishes so that they might be sold, and we are making back-to-back trips between the property and our house in Austin — a 30-minute commute without any traffic. And there’s always traffic.

Eight days after the wedding, two out-of-town friends remain in our home. One friend is an optimistic, ukulele-playing young lady. She has decided to extend her stay permanently and will be looking for a place of her own soon (she eventually moves into an actual closet). The other flies back home tomorrow to Germany, where he works as a physicist, which I find both fascinating and intimidating. With a flea market-looking, post-wedding home yielding not a single interior space for our guests or selves to relax, I have an idea.

“Do you guys want to go to Secret Beach today?” I ask in a tone that I hope conveys to our guests that I, for one, am getting out of the house and into the water regardless of what they choose. They think this sounds “awesome” and I do too. Perhaps more importantly, Fiona hasn’t had any exercise whatsoever since running around the wedding property eight days ago. She sees her leash and rejoices; her paws stretched out and pressed against the door as far up as she can reach them. She is ebullient. We put on our swimsuits, spray on sunblock and I pack a few towels. When we arrive to the end of the road on Austin’s southeast side, I’m not sure where to go next.

“Let’s just park and walk,” I say, hoping the path down to the water isn’t too inconspicuous. We see the white building that was referenced in the directions as a landmark, but we don’t know where the referenced trail nearby is. I debate calling the friend who gave me the directions, but part of the adventure is finding the path on your own.

In the parking lot next to the white building, a man is wet and ushering his dripping dog into the back trunk of his station wagon.

“Do you know where Secret Beach is?” I ask him, certain that he does.

“Secret Beach?” He responds. “It’s not so much of a secret anymore. Back when I discovered it, well, actually, my dog here discovered it, ten years ago, nobody knew about this beach but us. He just went nosing around down there one day and I followed him, I wanted to see where he’d take me. And he took me to Secret Beach. Nobody was down there but us; we founded it. Been comin’ here ever since then, but more and more people seem to show up every time.”

“Wow, you discovered it,” I say, catering to his “I Found It; It’s Mine” gasconading bravado. “Well, I hear it’s beautiful. Can you tell us where it is?” I continue.

“Look,” he says pointing. “Now you follow that path right there all the way until you see another dirt path to your right, take that one, the one to the RIGHT, don’t miss it. Follow that path down and around all the way and I don’t know what you’re going to do, little lady, wearing sandals like those. It’s not easy to get down that hill without slipping. But once you’re down the hill, walk through the trees and then BAM! You’ll hit the sand and the water.”

As the man leaves, another man arrives wearing swim trunks and guiding his Boxer puppy in the direction that had been pointed out to us. Fiona chases after the puppy as we journey down to the sandy beach, finally arriving beneath the late afternoon sun. Beams of light shoot through the canopying trees and hit the water like kaleidoscopic images. Fiona and the Boxer puppy hit the water like exploding cannonballs. With gnashing teeth and splashing water, the two dogs share their first swim. Letting the cool water move through me as it travels farther east, I am unencumbered. I soak in the feeling of having a low-populated and beautiful retreat this close to home.

Autumn is beginning to set in and it looks good on the drought-stricken land — a shoe that finally fits. We cycle in and out several times from the water to our outspread towels. There are only a handful of other people here on this Sunday afternoon. The beach sand is soft and the shells that are scattered alongside the Colorado River are plentiful. Our shoes are behind us in a haphazard pile. We’re a group of unapologetic nelipots.

Once we feel fully depleted, I stuff everything into a large tote bag and we climb the steep hill back up to the dirt path that leads to the parking lot by the white building. Secret Beach isn’t exactly secret enough to warrant the mysterious title these days. But it is still a place I like to go; I am reprieved here from the overcrowded swimming holes in and around Austin. If you want to find it, you won’t have a hard time. Research it or ask a local. I’d tell you myself, but I don’t want the blood of sharing semi-secrets on my hands.