Austin makes a lot of lists of the healthiest and fittest cities in the U.S., and one of the reasons is that there are so many ways to get outside for exercise, or just to enjoy some time in nature. This list focuses on outdoor picks that are in, or very accessible to, Central Austin. By the way, you’ll notice one name coming up a few times in these picks: former first Lady Bird Johnson. The Texas native and resident of the West Lake Hills area of Austin—who was a strong advocate for local plants and landscaping before it was cool—also advocated for the beautification of the area around Town Lake, the downtown reservoir created in 1960 by the damming of the Colorado River. The lake was renamed to honor Johnson soon after her passing in 2007. In 1982, she and actress Helen Hayes created a wildflower research center, which was renamed for Johnson in 1997. Here are five classic places to enjoy that natural greenery and (mostly) mild weather:
Lady Bird Lake
The downtown lake is usually dotted with rowers, kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders. Not up for that much of a workout? When Austin’s famous colony of Mexican free-tailed bats is in town (from about March through October), take a boat ride on the lake to watch the bats emerge nightly from under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge.
Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake
Surrounding the lake are 10 miles of trails beloved by runners, walkers and cyclists—not to mention local dogs out for exercise (and an occasional dip in the lake) with their humans. Along the trail, you'll find a memorial statue honoring the late blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. The newest part of the trail is the Boardwalk, which opened in 2014.
Zilker Metropolitan Park
Two weekends a year, Zilker Park is home to the Austin City Limits Music Festival. But the rest of the year, this 351-acre park in the middle of town is hardly quiet. Popular events include the spring Kite Festival, the Summer Musical production and the Trail of Lights during the holidays.
Barton Springs Pool
This three-acre watering hole has lifeguards and diving boards just like a swimming pool, but its 68-degree waters are fed by underground springs. Don't forget your goggles: Kids can spot tangles of plants and the occasional fish under the water. A free nighttime swim, from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., is particularly fun.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
About 12 miles south of downtown Austin, the Wildflower Center promotes the use of native plants—as in, plants that humans didn’t introduce to a region's landscape. Its varied gardens definitely make the case for the beauty of Texas natives (especially the state flower, the bluebonnet, which blooms in the spring). Green thumbs will especially love the gift shop.