Zilker Park is known as the "jewel in the heart of Austin," and it's easy to see why. The 351 acre park features a natural spring-fed swimming pool, sculpture garden, stand-up paddle boarding, dinosaurs (at the prehistoric gardens in the botanical garden) and unbeatable views of the Austin skyline. Here are some of our favorite ways to enjoy one of Austin's most popular green spaces.
Austin City Limits Festival. Credit Sara Marjorie Strick.
1. Zilker Park
Situated along the banks of the Colorado River, Zilker Park is the epitome of Austin recreation. Here you can marvel at the sparkling city skyline, take a dip in Barton Springs Pool, walk or jog around the Hike and Bike Trail, or attend a rocking live music performance. The park is home to the Austin City Limits Music Festival (two weekends each October), the ABC Kite Festival (held in March) and the Trail of Lights, a massive holiday celebration each December with a giant tree, lit up in festive colors. There are playgrounds, picnic spots, disc golf, sand volleyball and tons of other activities here, so spend a day exploring all of the possibilities.
Pro tip: this is a great place to ride a bike. Pedestrian traffic can mean slow going by car in some spots, but it's easy to bypass if you rent a bike.
2. Zilker Botanical Garden
Zilker Botanical Garden has promoted gardening education and botanical conservation since 1955. It has 26 unique fenced areas that feature different plants and styles, including the Cactus and Succulent Carden, Taniguchi Japanese garden, an herb garden, and even the famous Hartman Prehistoric Garden. The prehistoric garden features fossilized dinosaur tracks found in the area and life-sized dinosaur sculptures situated among the plants… so it’s kind of the closest thing you can get to a real-life Jurassic Park.
Umlauf Sculpture Garden. Credit Studio Uma.
3. Umlauf Sculpture Garden
Centered around the work of visionary American sculptor Charles Umlauf, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden is an indoor and outdoor museum. The museum has both permanent and fluid exhibitions, and the outdoor sculpture garden is a lovely place to enjoy quiet time in nature. This is a peaceful and serene escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, as well as an opportunity to gain an appreciation for the art of sculpture. Admission is $7 for adults and $1 for children ages 13-17.
4. Austin Nature and Science Center
The western edge of Zilker Park is home to the Austin Nature and Science Center, an award-winning complex that offers free admission for all ages. The most popular exhibit is the Dino Pit, an outdoor exhibit that allows children to become paleontologists for the day and dig up fossils hidden in the sand. The center also hosts workshops and has a nature preserve and mammal walkway, from which you can watch live animals such as prairie dogs, foxes, and bobcats.
Lady Bird Lake. Credit Rachel Phillips.
5. Lady Bird Lake
A reservoir on the Colorado River, nearby Lady Bird Lake is a popular destination for outdoor fun in Austin. Paddle boarding and boating are popular ways to explore the 416 acre waterway—rentals for kayaks and canoes are easy to find around the lake from stops like the Rowing Dock. Anglers can catch bass, catfish and carp in the reservoir as well. Plus, the Austin Hike and Bike Trail follows along the lake’s shore, and you can even attend a yoga class on stand up paddle boards out on the water!
6. Zilker Eagle Miniature Train
A staple of Zilker Park since 1961, the newly renovated Zilker Eagle Miniature Train (open early 2022) allows children and adults to take a slow ride around the park and enjoy the beautiful view. The train route starts at the playground near Barton Springs Pool and slowly weaves its way around the park until you reach the starting point again. The ride costs $3 for children, $5 for adults and clocks in at 30 minutes, running twice per hour. You may want sunscreen since the cars aren't covered, but you'll enjoy the breezes and shade as you take a leisurely cruise through the park's varied scenery.
Barton Springs Pool. Credit Nathan Fluellen.
7. Barton Springs Pool
Zilker Park’s Barton Springs Pool is a massive 3-acre swimming pool fed by three natural, underground springs. With average temps holding at around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, this local swimming hole has kept Texans from overheating since before Texas was even established! In the 1730s, the springs were revered by the Tonkawa tribe, who used the pools for sacred rituals before Spanish explorers built temporary missions around it. In the 1830s, the land was purchased by "Uncle" Billy Barton, who saw the area's potential as an attraction and named the three springs after his daughters- Parthenia, Eliza and Zenobia. In the '20s, the city of Austin obtained the property and built the dams to create the one huge pool we see today. It only costs $3 for adults and $2 for kids, and a portion of that money goes to a fund to help research and protect the endangered Barton Springs Salamander, so you can cool off for a cause.
8. Zilker Hillside Theater
This iconic outdoor stage hosts annual performances such as Shakespeare in the Park, live concerts, the Zilker Summer Musical and more. From March through October, the Zilker Hillside Theater is home to an array of dazzling, family-friendly shows, located just steps from Barton Springs Pool. Check the calendar for performances, then bring a picnic blanket and snacks for an evening of live music and theater on the lawn.
Whether you’re looking to get a dose of art and culture, work up a sweat on the trails or just want to see a really great view of the Austin city skyline, there’s no better place than Zilker Park. Make sure to leave plenty of time to fully explore everything this town favorite has to offer.