Lake Austin is a relatively narrow, deep, and constant level lake that snakes back and forth among beautiful cliffs and dramatic vistas west of town. Boaters, fishermen, and skiers prize the lake for its usually placid surface and unchanging shore and depths.
The lake was formed in 1939 when the Lower Colorado River Authority built the Tom Miller Dam. Lake Austin is one of the seven Highland Lakes created by the Lower Colorado River Authority and Austinites use the lake primarily for recreation, though it also provides power generation and invaluable flood control.
All Kinds of Fun on the Water
While water skiing, wake-boarding, and other pleasure boating are the most popular activities on the lake, it is stocked with a number of different kinds of fish to enhance fishermen’s enjoyment on the water. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stocks the lake with largemouth bass, bluegill, redbreast, redear, sunfish, and flathead and blue catfish. The bass are particularly abundant, and during spawning season can be found in high numbers.
Fishing can be difficult however, particularly on days that attract a lot of motorized boats since traffic tends to scare the fish into hiding. Experienced fishermen who try their luck at night or during the early morning hours can almost always harvest a plentiful catch.
Getting On, or Into the Water
Almost all the shoreline around Lake Austin is privately owned, which limits access and fishing from the banks of the river. Bank access can be found at Pennybacker Bridge, Emma Long Park, Mary Quinlan Park, and Fritz Hughes Park near the Mansfield Dam.
For anyone launching a boat, there are two excellent concrete public boat ramps. One is the Walsh Boat Landing, located in town just off Lake Austin Blvd., and the other a ramp below the Pennybacker Bridge (also known as the Loop 360 Bridge). Other ramps are located at Emma Long Park and Mary Quinlan Park.
Some daring souls enjoy stand-up paddle boarding, canoeing, and kayaking on the lake’s smooth water. There are a few places to rent equipment for these endeavors scattered throughout Austin, and a couple on Lake Austin itself.
If you’re spending a long day on the water, you’ll want to consider a stop at the Ski Shores Café for a recharge and a little nourishment. Ski Shores, an Austin icon, welcomes you to tie up at their dock and come ashore for some delicious hamburgers, nachos, tacos, and drinks from the full service bar.
In 1954, the owners of a small collection of lakeside location rentals – then far from town – built the original Ski Shores Waterfront Cafe to give guests someplace to go and relieve them of the need to cook in the small rentals tiny kitchenettes.
Since then, Ski Shores developed a following based on tasty food and a supremely laid-back atmosphere that appealed to Austin. Over the years, management of Ski Shores changed numerous times, but the success endured for decades. Facing a difficult financial situation, Ski Shores closed down in December of 2009. Many longtime fans were heartbroken.
Fortunately, the restaurant wasn’t gone for long. Restaurateurs and Ski Shores fans Rick Engel and Mark Turner decided the landmark just had to be saved. After sprucing the place up a little – but retaining its funky charm – the pair reopened Ski Shores in 2010. And from spring to fall each year, happy Austinites drop in by road or water to enjoy the atmosphere, charm, and still-tasty hamburgers as well as the other food served at this Austin landmark.
Swimming, Camping, Hiking and Biking
Emma Long Park on Lake Austin is the city’s largest park. The park was established after Emma Long, the first woman elected to the city council of a large Texas city, donated the land to the Austin. Most of the 1,147-acre park is oak and juniper forest, but among the park’s most popular features may be its approximately one mile of shoreline on Lake Austin. This popular section of the park, adjacent to the lake, features a large boat ramp, courtesy docks, and several swimming areas.
Other recreational activities at the park include hiking, camping, and mountain biking. The technical and challenging trails were originally built for moto-cross motorcyclists, but now attract experienced mountain bikers who want to challenge themselves. The 9.13-mile bike course is accessible only to mountain bikers and moto-cross riders. Hikers and walkers enjoy the 1.97-mile Turkey Creek Nature Trail.
The park has both improved and primitive campsites run by Austin City Parks Department. Amenities include restrooms with showers, a day use picnic area, and basketball and volleyball courts.
Bring Your Camera
Lake Austin is spanned by one of Austin’s most iconic features – the photogenic Pennybacker Bridge, also known as the Loop 360 Bridge. The dramatically designed bridge spans the river suspended from two enormous arches connecting northwestern Austin to the southwestern part of the city. It has been an icon of the area since it was built more than 30 years ago, and it is frequently featured in pictures and on postcards. The view of the bridge from the water is particularly stunning.
Mount Bonnell is another popular feature on the shores of the lake. Long ago, Mount Bonnell became one of Austin’s earliest and most beloved sightseeing spots after the area was made secure from Indian attack in the 19th Century. Mount Bonnell sits atop a limestone cliff that rises more than 800 feet from the water on the northern bank of Lake Austin a little bit west of downtown. From the peak, the views of the Hill Country, sunsets, and points west are unparalleled.
Luxury on the Lake
If you’re looking to spend your time on the lake luxuriously, head to Lake Austin Spa & Resort, a 40-room spa located on the shore northwest of Austin. Outdoor activities include kayaking, pedal boat workouts, pontoon boats, and waterskiing lessons. The real draw, however, is the intense relaxation that only a quality spa can offer. Whether it’s a Swedish massage, an acupuncture treatment, or a fig-scented scrub and hydrotherapy bath, you can achieve deep, rejuvenating relaxation on the shores of Lake Austin.