Barton Springs Greenbelt: A Mystical and Magnetic Charm

Austin’s Barton Creek and Barton Springs Pool have long enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as being irresistibly beautiful, exuding an almost spiritual draw. Before European settlers arrived, Native Americans in the region believed the springs were a sacred place where they went to heal their wounds.

In fact, Barton Springs and Barton Creek were a big reason that Texas legend Mirabeau B. Lamar insisted (over Sam Houston’s objections) that the small central Texas town then known as Waterloo (later renamed Austin) become the State Capital instead of the City of Houston. Lamar’s good friend and the creek’s namesake, Billy Barton, often hosted Lamar at his place near the springs. Entranced by the creek’s clear waters, rustic limestone cliffs, and towering, majestic trees, Lamar built his home nearby.

Lamar, too, just as Native Americans, Billy Barton, and many others had, felt it was an irresistible and special place. But he probably never imagined that it could still radiate its almost mystical and magnetic charm even as the modern, vibrant capital city grew up all around it.

Less Development, More Fun

It wasn’t until 1901 that A. J.  Zilker bought the land where the first swimming pool at the springs was constructed. That original pool still stands, but is now closed from swimming due to age and having become a refuge for the endangered Barton Springs Salamander. (Zilker donated his lands to the city in order to allow them to become city parks, and the process began in 1917.) Between 1929 and 1931, the current pool — the largest municipal pool in the country at over 900 feet long — took shape.

Austin has taken good care of the springs and the Barton Creek Greenbelt, managing them with an eye toward conservation, preservation and expansion rather than development or dramatic man-made improvements. The rustic pool, with natural spring-fed water, is a constant 68 degrees even through the heat of summer and cold of winter. It is a year-round draw not only for people from all over Austin, but also for people from around the world.

Hiking, Biking, Swimming and Climbing along the Greenbelt

Whether enjoying Austin’s longest and most popular greenbelt while hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, walking with your dog on a leash, or splashing in one of the small natural pools, this pristine wilderness trail provides a dazzling array of natural recreation opportunities. You won’t find many modern constructed amenities such as water fountains or restrooms strategically sited along its sometimes-rugged route. Instead, the greenbelt retains much of its original majesty and appeal as when it was first discovered so many years ago. With seasonally full swimming holes sporting such names as Campbell’s Hole, Gus Fruh, the Sculpture, and Twin Falls, Barton Creek has provided oasis pockets to wade and swim in which are far better than anything man could ever build.

Its 7.9 miles of meandering natural path — with some improved patches — is considered one of the best hiking trails in Texas, and its many connecting branches or ‘social trails’ provide mountain biking fun for novices and experts alike. The trail is all about escape and adventure. Serenely quiet, the greenbelt’s natural splendor is artistically woven into the urban fabric of the Austin lifestyle with several public access points throughout its route.

Few cities of any size can boast of such a dynamic natural experience only footsteps from man-made development. For those who desire more modern convenience, there’s Barton Springs Pool with its concrete banks and bath house facilities at the foot of the greenbelt. But even Barton Springs Pool is filled with untreated, natural spring water, and has a natural, limestone bottom.

In addition to the matrix of paths and natural swimming holes, the trail is lined with a number of climbing cliffs. Beginners can learn and experienced rock climbers can hone their skills on sites such as Seismic Wall, Urban Assault, and the difficult 5.8 Sanctuary rock face, among others.

Airman’s Cave runs more than two miles into native fissured limestone formations and is the longest cavern in Travis County. Tricky to navigate and dangerous to explore, hiking into the cave is only possible with the assistance of experienced cavers who have demonstrated their expertise and have been trusted with the key to the locked cave entrance.

Nature’s Timeless Tenacity

Aside from the few signs of man’s adventures, including the initials carved into the native timbers of Lover’s Bench so many years ago, and the poignant message of peace painted into ‘Peace Rock,’ nature’s grand design for Austin’s most beloved recreational treasure remains serene for all, and sacred to many who have enjoyed its charms.