It's springtime in Texas and you all should get outside while you still can! Though lasting all of about five seconds, these glorious spring days are bright and beautiful and relatively comfortable; a brief and necessary interlude before the blazing, brick-oven heat that will arrive to slap us soundly in our faces! So let's all get out this month, and hopefully the next as well, and take advantage of Austin's bounty of nature retreats. One of my favorite things about living here is all of the easily-accessible green spaces available to us. The trees, the meadows, the creeks and small lakes; there's nowhere I'd rather be on a perfect spring day. Even our highways are rendered more attractive bordered by the sprightly wildflowers and the devoted butterflies flitting among them. So go outside, my fellow Austin mamas, and breathe in the brilliant blue sky and the gilded golden sun for the precious few seconds you have before it's trying to burn off all your skin! Below I share my family's favorite nature retreats. Oh, but don't forget your Zyrtec because after all, this is Austin! :)
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin TX 78739, Open daily 9-5, Adults - $10/ Seniors - $8/ Youth (ages 5-17) - $4
This is the perfect time to visit the Wildflower Center because all of the spring wildflowers are in bloom, making the grounds colorful and lovely. In mid-April of last year we took beautiful bluebonnet pictures here. There are wide open fields blanketed with dense patches of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, pink evening primroses and a host of other wildflowers, threaded by a wide walking path (though I would bring a jogging or another semi-rugged stroller). There are other walking paths through trees which lead to cultivated gardens and a lovely arboretum. There is also a family garden where kids can wade in a creek, climb on giant tree stumps, and wander in a shrub maze. Even the entrance to the Center is engaging because of a small turtle pond and the resident owl Athena who raises her owlets on the ledge above the entrance. Last year our kids were so entranced by the owls and turtles that we could barely get them to walk through! Check out the monthly calendar for their many activities, like Nature Play Hour for kids on Saturdays, plant sales, moonlight hikes, and nature writing and drawing workshops. There is also a café and gift shop on site. No doubt it’s a bit of a drive if you’re coming from up north like me, but well worth it on a beautiful spring day!
Austin Nature and Science Center, 2389 Stratford Drive, Austin TX 78746 Open Mon.-Sat. 9-5/ Sun. 12-5, Free!
In my cheapskate opinion free admission alone is worth making the trip down to the western edge of Zilker Park to visit the Austin Nature and Science Center, but the Center itself is a really great place to spend a day with kids. Be aware that it’s a bit of trek to get to the entrance to the Center so wear your walking shoes and bring a “rugged” stroller. Parking is under the MoPac overpass and then you have to walk uphill to the entrance. Free admission does come with a cost :) but as I said, well worth it! I don’t recall it being a huge place but there is quite a variety of activities. In the indoor spaces there is a hands-on exhibit about nanoscience and technology as well as the Naturalist Workshop where kids can handle many natural artifacts. Outdoors there is a big Dino Pit where kids can dig and brush for fossils (my kids loved this!), a string of small shallow ponds where kids can wade, and wildlife exhibits housing regional rescued animals including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and birds. I was particularly impressed by the Birds of Prey exhibit which houses several different kinds of owls (we love owls in my family), raptors, and other species as well. We spent a delightful half-day at the Center and then drove home for toddler naps but if your schedule is more flexible you can also take advantage of the other outdoor treasures in/around Zilker Park.
Zilker Botanical Garden, 2200 Barton Springs Road, Austin TX 78746 Open Daily 9-6, Adults: Austin-$2/Non-resident-$3/Seniors-$1/Kids (ages 3-12)-$1
Truth be told I have visited the ZBG only during the Zilker Garden Festival, during which admission is markedly pricier ($10 for adults and $4 for children, plus $5 for parking). This spring I’m looking forward to visiting this beautiful and expansive space during a quieter and less crowded (and less expensive!) time. The garden is housed on 26 lovely acres and is often referred to as “the jewel in the heart of Austin.” There is a variety of gardens to explore such as Japanese, herb, and rose, as well as a children’s garden, and they’re all interconnected by comfortable walking paths that meander past koi ponds, streams and small waterfalls. There are other attractions for children such as a pioneer village and a butterfly trail, and if your children are anything like mine, they’ll be most happy running after birds and butterflies and fording the shallow streams. :) There is a garden center on site with a gift shop, and the ZBG holds many events throughout the year (especially the spring!). There are educational/instructional talks related to gardening and local wildlife and children’s events such as the annual Woodland Faerie Trail. Be sure to check out their web site for the current goings-on but it’s also worthwhile to go just to spend a half-day exploring!
Mayfield Park, 3505 W. 35th Street, Austin TX 78703 Open Daily (closed between 10 pm- 5 am), Free
Mayfield Park is known for its beautiful and freely roaming peacocks, and my kids were definitely entranced by them, but they were equally excited about the turtles drifting around in the various lily ponds! The peacocks are there to greet you right at the entrance and from there you can walk around the park grounds, following them and waiting for one to fan out its royal plume. You can also explore the walking paths around the lily ponds and through the cottage gardens. Honestly, we couldn’t tear our young kids away from those lily ponds and their hide-and-seek turtles! Walking and light hiking trails lead down from this main area to the shores of Lake Austin and there are very nice views of the lake and its wildlife from various points on the trails. These trails are perfect for first-time hikers; we carried our eighteen-month-old in a backpack carrier and our four-year-old “hiked” happily along. Many people pair Mayfield Park with Mount Bonnell because it’s just down the road, and the two excursions together can make for the perfect day!
Zilker Zephyr Miniature Train, 2100 Barton Springs Road, Austin TX 78746 Open 10-5 (hours vary; check website), Adults - $3/Children - $2/Under one – free
I love this train ride! It’s one of our favorite go-to activities whenever we have guests from out of town, adults and children alike! Okay, well maybe we wouldn’t take adult guests who weren’t toting along any kids, but it’s perfect for families! The ride is 20-25 minutes and it goes through Zilker Park right alongside Barton Creek and Lady Bird Lake. It’s lovely and peaceful and so pretty, and your kids will love going under the bridge over Barton Creek! And there is a great playground right next to the train depot, as well as walking paths down to Barton Springs, so there’s a lot to keep your kids busy and happy right in that one area! The train runs every hour on the hour during the week and every 30-40 minutes on the weekends, and you can only pay with cash. There is an ATM inside the depot.
Cedar Rock Railroad, 3005 Co Rd 175, Leander TX 78641 Open 10-5 Tues.-Fri.. 10-6 Sat.-Sun., closed Mondays, $2.75/ticket
If you live up north and don’t want to drive all the way down to Zilker Park, the Cedar Rock Railroad is a great alternative! Actually, it’s a great miniature train ride in its own right and we’ve spent many a beautiful spring day chugging along! The train is in Williamson County Park which has a big sports complex and a nice little playground. There’s a fun play area all around the train depot with a child-sized model of an old wild west town, a wooden train playscape, and crank car for kids 3 and up ($2.50/ticket). The ride itself is a lovely loop around the park, rolling through both open fields and woods and rounding its way around a duck pond. My kids love this ride, perhaps even more than the Zilker Zephyr. The train departs every 30 min. at a quarter after the hour and a quarter of the hour. The ride itself is about 10-15 min.
I hope everyone enjoys our short-lived spring! :)