Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Beginners Guide to Hiking the Lower Barton Greenbelt

Only minutes from downtown Austin, Texas is arguably the most scenic urban hike in the state and a favorite of locals and visitors alike.  It really does blend the best of both worlds in that you feel very "one with nature" on the trail but you could still throw a rock and hit some of South Austin's finest dining and entertainment.  The Greenbelt offers a little bit to every outdoor enthusiast including separated hike and bike paths at various points along the trail, a multitude of great swimming holes and rapids (when the water levels are high enough), and plenty of room to run your dog tired so he'll be sleeping like a baby all the way home.

There are quite a few access points along the trail and each one offers a little different approach to what the Greenbelt has to offer (click here to see a map of the trail and access points).

  • The Zilker Park access point is the best if you plan to bring kids along considering that there lots of parking spaces, a large playground, the Zilker Zephyr, the concession stands and picnic tables, and the always popular bathrooms.  The trailhead here is level and wide and starts just past the Barton Springs pool-house.  In good weather you'll find yourself surrounded by a bunch of other folks so parking here tends to fill up quickly on sunny days and weekends but the location really is a must for anyone with children or who want a nice easy sunday hike.  
  • The Spyglass and Barton Hills access points are fairly decent in that they are not crowded often but that's probably because parking here can be a bit tricky.  The residential location of these access points is truly designed for the people who live within that general area but do offer a good starting point for folks who don't want to pass through the sometimes large crowds at the Zilker entrance.
  • The Gus Fruh access point is an excellent drop-in point if your aim that day is to enjoy a large Texas swimming hole and not have to walk the 2 miles back to your car (or bike) with wet clothes and shoes.  Once again, this access point is in a residential area so parking can be tough but when you get down to Gus Fruh pool and the water levels are right, then the only worries you'll have will be who's right in describing the shape of the clouds overhead. 
  • The 360 access point marks the beginning of a new Greenbelt compared to the trails downstream towards Zilker Park.  This access point is off of loop 360 right before you get to MoPac and is literally right next door to a large office building which can cause confusion when looking for parking.  You'll see the sign, take a right, and think "wow, there is so much parking here!" and then you'll realize that the nice, paved parking lot is actually the property of the office building and they will not hesitate to tow you...so don't try that one.  Parking is actually a handful of gravel spots that are inside of a wooden fence just off of the road.  The 360 access point is great for one of two reasons; one, the amount of people on the trail tends to dwindle right about this point and two, if you want to do some good rock climbing, and don't want to drive all the way out to Enchanted Rock, then you're in luck.  There is a large vertical bluff directly across the creek from the 360 access point that offers some good climbing.
  • The Twin Falls-Gaines access point is the last one on the Lower Greenbelt and is probably the most difficult hike down to the creek considering that you have to switchback down the side of a cliff to get down to the trail and the falls.  Parking here is on the access road of MoPac and normally has ample room for everyone, it only starts to fill up when the weather is nice or it is a weekend, but that'll be the case anywhere you go.

In total, the Lower Greenbelt trail covers just about 4.5 miles from the Twin Falls-Gaines access point to the end at Zilker Park and covers everything from flat, easy, meandering trails to difficult ascents and chain-holds in the bluff.  Starting from Zilker Park and heading upstream, the trail is very easy and can be covered by most every hiker and biker, there are no large rises or drops in elevation and the trail is well beaten by the heavy traffic that comes through this part of the trail.  You'll first start to notice a change in terrain when you get to the Gus Fruh pool.  The trail will be begin to roll up and down and will turn to more of a cross-country path once you get to the rapids and flats at Three Falls (about 3 miles in).  Continuing on to the 360 access point, you'll being to see that less and less people are walking around you and you'll begin to see some of the popular climbing bluffs.  The trail here is a little bit noisy due to the proximity of the 360 bridge but tends to drop off quick as the creek takes a bend right after the bridge.  Be aware that just past the 360 bridge, heading upstream, the trail narrows considerably and, for a point, is basically footholds that have been carved into the bluff and have a chain handhold running parallel to them so if you are new to hiking or don't feel comfortable taking on a trail such as this then you should just skip over this point of the trail until you're ready to tackle it.  Once you get past this part of the trail it is pretty level up until you get to Twin Falls and the access point there, which is quite a vertical hike, but the view is well worth the 4.5 miles it took to get there.

So get out there and explore the amazing gift we have here in central Texas that is the Barton Greenbelt and make some adventures of your own!  Be sure to comment about your favorite points along the trail and help other enjoy the experience.


  1. Sometimes when I visit TX (New Braunfels area), we make a side trip to Austin to visit a friend. I will mark this for future reference. It is a very informative post about what sounds like a lovely hike.

  2. Thank you again. Austin hiking really has some of the finest in the state and Barton Creek is the capstone of those trails. Hope you enjoy your visit!