So close, yet so far out…a gorgeous hike within the Austin city limits
When most tourists think of Austin, they think bars, music, nightlife. But just as crucial to Austin’s attractiveness as a tourist haven, is its natural setting and opportunities for being immersed in nature while still within the city limits. One of my favorites for getting far away from it all just a short drive from downtown is the Lower Bull Creek Greenbelt in Northwest Austin.
Sitting by the falls at this Greenbelt after a heavy rain and listening to the water pound over the falls is a sensory experience that represents the very essence of Austin. Few tourists make it this far northwest in Austin, but locals know, this is some of the best hiking within the city limits. Even though you can still hear the sounds of cars on heavily trafficked Loop 360, a hike through the Lower Bull Creek Greenbelt transports you to the feeling of hiking in a National Forest.
Less than a 20-minute drive from downtown Austin is the trailhead to “Inga’s Trail” at the Inga VanNynatten Memorial Trail & Bull Creek District Park. You will want a car to get here from downtown. Near the intersection of Spicewood Springs Road and 360 on Lakeland Drive is a gravel lot (when you are near the Marquis Apartments entrance, you’re close) where hikers park. Across from this lot (see picture on left) is the trailhead marker (center pic) that will lead you into the greenbelt.
Along the trails…
After meandering down and over the first creek crossing (see picture above on the right), you will begin hiking on a rocky incline that will lead you above the creek and offer views on your right. These are sheer drops of 30 feet or so, so watch your footing, but I love these sightings of the creek from above.
After about 15 minutes of climbing up the rocky path (there is the occasional bench for resting), you will pop out into an open field where the distant hills rise up to look slightly like you’re in a different setting, like a hike in a meadow in Colorado. If you are hiking this in summer, it won’t feel like Colorado but the views of the hills are still lovely. If you’re hiking in spring, lucky you, as the wildflowers will be in full bloom.
After about 10 minutes of this landscape, you descend down and to the right to begin meeting back up with the creek. Watch carefully, particularly in summer for poison ivy lunging at you from the wall of foliage you are hiking through at this point. Watch out for tree roots, and huge spider webs. It’s quite magical, but you’re in nature, watch where you’re going.
At this point, you can hear the water roaring again, and the ground gets muddier as you are nearing the side trail off to the right, leading straight down to the water. You can see it as you walk. Or if it’s summer and overgrown, you can hear it. Follow the sound. You are looking for a muddy side trail to take you down to the creek. If you walk until you get to a 20-foot across to creek crossing, you’ve gone too far. Although continuing this way is nice too, you just won’t see the lower falls. Backtrack until you come to a trail down to the creek. If it’s a weekend day, just follow the dogs and their owners. All dogs love the falls.
The Big Reveal…
After hiking for about 20-25 minutes or so, you’ve found the lower falls at Bull Creek Greenbelt. What’s great about this spot, is that you can swim, wade and play in this shallow rock ledge of a water expanse in almost every season. Deep winter, no. It’s much too cold. But, on warm winter days, we’ve hiked down here to see the change in grasses and trees during winter as well. In summer, it’s fun to swim and rest in the shallow water. On a hot summer day, by the time you walk back to the car, you’ll have dried off.
Now that you’ve reached the falls…you’ve earned a rest. Have a seat on the rock overhang, enjoy whatever food or small picnic you’ve packed in (and will pack out), lay on a towel, or watch the dogs play. (This is not an official off-leash park but most dogs are roaming).
But oh, to go for a hike on a Sunday morning in late spring! It’s absolute heaven, just sitting on a rock that juts out over the falls and listening to that sound. I can see why so many hippies set up base camp in Central Texas in the 1960s/70s after visiting the city’s many greenbelt trails. The real reason that Austin is “hip” now is that it was “hippie” then.
Most of Bull Creek is fairly primitive and used primarily for hiking, so:
- Make sure to bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen. Hats and towels during the summer are advisable. You can wear a swimsuit as well if you plan to swim.
- You are hiking in a city park, but there are no facilities along this trailhead.
- This trail is not recommended for young children as this is hiking and the terrain is uneven.
- This is, however, a great trail for dogs. There are plastic bags at the Inga’s Trail marker and be polite and pack out any “donations” your dog may leave behind!
- Try to hike this trail in spring or before noon in the summer. Afternoons in the summer are pretty hot.