Itinerary: Austin and Texas Hill Country

Swimming, swimming, and more swimming

It’s August, which means Leo Season is upon us, my birthday is coming up, and I have another Pinch of Dirt itinerary for you! This request came from a subscriber in Texas, and was delightfully broad: “Austin or somewhere in the Hill country.”

Austin, Texas, is located on Tonkawa and Comanche land. According to the University of Texas at Austin Writing Center, which appears to have done their homework, the land is part of the traditional territories of the Apache, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, the Kickapoo Tribe of Texas, the Ysleta del sur Pueblo, the Lipan Apache Tribe, the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians, and the Coahuitlecan.

While I have visited Texas numerous times, mostly as a child, I don’t have experience hiking or backpacking there. So I did some Googling, and this is what I would do if and when I visit Austin. Jacqueline, I hope at least one of these suggestions is new-to-you!

If I had an afternoon:

You know you’re fortunate if you live in a city that has enough swimming holes and waterfall hikes to merit listicles rounding up the best of each.

The last time I was in Austin was in 2011, when I visited my very good friend Chloe over spring break, which happened to coincide with That Big Conference/Festival, which we avoided almost entirely—except for one fringy event that centered on bacon. The other highlight of the trip was our visit to Barton Springs, which was lovely and not at all crowded in early spring, although I can only assume it’s mobbed at other times of the year. Is it the best swimming spot in Austin? Who knows, but it was lovely and pleasant to wade into and splash about and loll around on the grass for a time.

Barton Springs via Wikimedia Commons

If I had a night:

Just 13 miles from Austin, it’s hard to get more accessible than McKinney Falls State Park. There’s only nine miles of trails, but the waterfalls look absolutely gorgeous, and the park has 81 campsites (with bathrooms, and hookups for water and electricity, if you need that kind of thing), so it seems like an ideal spot for a low-key night away from the city.

My friend Chloe says she used to camp there as a kid with her family. “I remember liking it but I was pretty young,” she texts. “I remember it being super hot and that getting in the water felt reallllly nice.” Relatable!

Swimming is generally allowed but sometimes off limits after heavy rains or flooding, when the fecal coliform (poop) counts spike from sewage runoff.

If I were planning an overnight, I’d suggest setting up camp upon arrival, hiking to the upper and lower falls, and then washing away the sweat with a swim before returning to camp to make a fire and dinner. In the morning, take the short Rock Shelter Trail to Smith Rock Shelter, a natural limestone overhang believed to have been used as a shelter by Native Americans from 500 BCE up to the 18th century.

Other items of note: During the Cretaceous Period, the region was covered by a sea populated by aquatic reptiles; a complete skeleton of a mosasaur (yeah, that was a new one for me, too) was unearthed nearby.

The park is also located along the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, which covers the U.S. section of the thoroughfare dating to the 18th-century Spanish colonial period. It’s one of those “trails” that largely follow highways (or is followed by highways), which just makes my heart hurt.

If I had a weekend or more:

This request really came at a fortuitous time, because shortly after it landed in my inbox, the May/June issue of Backpacker landed in my mailbox with this charming feature on the Texas Hill Country by Morgan McFall-Johnsen, which draws on the expertise of a local guide, Steven DeBorde. I can’t do better than this, so will defer to both DeBorde and McFall-Johnsen. Click through for “seasonal vernal pools and occasional swimming holes,” “a swimming hole fed by a series of cascades,” and “a staircase of travertine formations that form clear pools of spring water...[sadly] no swimming allowed,” and much, much more. (Can you tell it’s hot in New York or what?)

Backpacker notes that you should go in spring (March – June) to catch the wildflowers, but maybe that means it is less crowded at other times of the year.

Pedernales Falls State Park via Wikimedia Commons


A quick reminder: Paid subscribers, send me YOUR requests for Pinch of Dirt itineraries, and let me know if there are specific things—good for kids, good for biking, good for smelling the flowers—you’re looking for! No place too obscure, no request too specific. I’m only doing these once a month, so get yours in while there is absolutely no wait at all. ;)