A Guide to Austin Lakes and What to Do on Them
Boating, ziplining, and more water activities to enjoy
By Avery Wohleb,
7:00AM, Tue. Aug. 24, 2021
There are a lot of reasons to visit Austin – the live music and great food, for starters. But during the warm months – and let’s be honest, that’s most months in Austin – one of the city’s greatest treasures is its breathtaking lakes. Or rather, what can be done on those lakes.
The Austin area is home to several bodies of water, but three are the most notable and closest to the heart of the city, literally and figuratively: Lady Bird Lake, Lake Austin, and Lake Travis. Each one is part of the Highland Lakes, a series of lakes created by damming the Colorado River at points in and northwest of Austin. If you’re staying in Downtown Austin, Lady Bird Lake is within walking distance. However, Lake Austin – located several miles west of Downtown – will likely require a car to access. Lake Travis is even farther afield, with the more popular activity spots located over 15 miles northwest of Downtown.
To reap the benefits of what Austin’s water scene has to offer, you need to know your options. But first – and always – water safety should be a priority. In addition to the safety protocols for the specific activity you are enjoying, you should also be sure to do your research on less obvious hazards. For example, some areas of Lady Bird Lake and Lake Austin have been susceptible to algae blooms at certain times of the year that have been shown to be toxic to animals, particularly dogs, so do your homework before you get in the water. The City of Austin maintains information on where algae has been found at https://www.austintexas.gov/page/algae.
In order of tamest options to most thrilling, here are some suggestions for ways you can soak up the sun on Austin’s breathtaking lake trio.
Dining, Hiking, and Biking
Okay, so these may not be technically on the lakes, but any discussion of Austin-area lakes would be lacking without some mention of the things you can do around the edges. If the lakes themselves are treasures, the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake may be the crown jewel. This urban path, completed in 2014, is a 10-mile trail circling most of Lady Bird Lake right in the heart of Austin. The views of the cityscape from the boardwalk on the southern edge of the lake are particularly amazing.
As for drinking and dining, many venues offer settings right along the water’s edge. Lady Bird Lake has restaurants and bars near the water such as the arcade-themed Bishop Cidercade, the Line Hotel and the Four Seasons.Some popular spots on Lake Austin include Hula Hut, Mozart’s Coffee, and Abel’s on the Lake, located at Oyster Landing in west Austin. As for Lake Travis, you can’t beat the views from the multiple levels of outdoor dining decks at The Oasis. (See also: "Austin Restaurants With Killer Views.")
If you’re not much of a thrill-seeker, relaxing on a peaceful boat might be the way to go. Some of the best boat tours will be on Lady Bird Lake, which flows down the southern edge of Downtown Austin. Capital Cruisesoffers a variety of tour options throughout the day for any occasion, including dinner cruises, sightseeing tours, and more. One of the more popular boat routes takes guests right under the Congress Avenue Bridge, where thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats can be seen and heard right above you. At sunset they take flight for their nightly feast on mosquitos and other insects. Want to experience the bats without the boat part? Visitors gather nightly on the Congress Avenue bridge to take in the truly stunning sight below during the peak season from late March to early fall.
If you’re looking to host a party, why not move it to the water? Increasing in popularity over recent years, there are a variety of barges that can be rented on Lake Travis through VIP Marina, including barges with slides, grills, and more. If you’re willing to put in a bit of extra work, Austin Pedal Bargeoff of Lake Austin offers a “booze cruise” through the convenience of your own effort, meaning guests will have to pedal in order to make the boat move. Keep in mind that barge parties tend to be on the pricier side, so the more the merrier with these events.
Kayaking and Paddleboarding
Kayaking can be done on any of the three lakes, but Lady Bird Lake will likely be the most rewarding. Unlike the two others, Lady Bird prohibits the use of individual motorized boats, making for calmer waters for kayakers. Rowing Dock and Zilker Park Boat Rentals have kayaks available for rent that can be taken directly down to Lady Bird Lake. Most of these places, along with Austin Paddle Shack, also rent out paddleboards. Want to make it an educational outing? Sign up for the Roll Colorado Roll River Tourby Black Austin Tours & Rowing Dock, which focuses on African Americans’ history and experiences on the Colorado River.
Jet Skiing and Motorboating
Jet skiing and motorboating are favorite pastimes on the Austin area lakes, but as we said before, you won’t be able to do either of these on Lady Bird Lake. If you don’t have your own boat or personal watercraft, there are plenty of rental options. Some of the more popular motorboat rental places on Lakes Travis and Austin to check out are Lake Travis Boat Rentals, Keep Austin Wet and Austin Rental Boats. And, if you’re a fan of steering and control, jet skis can be rented at Play Water Sports and GoGo Jet Ski Rentals.Keep in mind that in order to rent some of these water vehicles, there are likely going to be age and licensing requirements.
Not for the faint of heart, of course, but ziplining can be a most exhilarating way to enjoy a lake, and you really can’t beat the view from 2,000 feet in the air. Lake Travis Zipline Adventures boasts three out of the longest ziplines in Texas, with a boat transporting attendees across the water to the ziplines. Need to decompress after so much adrenaline? Water, snacks, and hammocks to relax in are provided alongside a private lakeside view.