The highest geographical point within Austin city limits, Mount Bonnell has been a favorite destination among tourists and Austinites alike since before there even was an Austin. In fact, the peak was used as a lookout during construction of the city, and even then it was noted for the sensational views from the top.
The Original Outpost
The first known mention of Mount Bonnell as a landmark dates back to 1839 in a letter written by the Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas, Albert Sidney Johnston. In it, he wrote, “My agent will set off in a few days to commence the building of the city of Austin at the foot of the mountain on the Colorado. His escorts will be sufficient to protect the workmen and materials.”
It had only been three years earlier that a Mexican army had attacked San Antonio, and attacks by Native Americans were not uncommon. As such, Mount Bonnell offered a much-needed vantage point over the construction of the new city, and it functioned as a defense outpost for about a year afterward until the population grew and the threat of attacks by either the Mexican Army or Native Americans subsided.
General Custer was fond of the place, too and occasionally picnicked there with his wife. He noted the final ascent was too steep for his cavalry horse and had to be made on foot. He also once had a band accompany his party on a picnic to serenade him and his wife on the mountain’s top.
A Mountain by Any Other Name
It is interesting to note that such a crucial element of young Austin didn’t receive a name for another year, or at least one that was mentioned in writing. The first appearance of the name in print comes in the book Topographical Description of Texas, to Which is Added an Account of the Indian Tribes, although the name was apparently already in currency. The sentence in which Mount Bonnell is mentioned reads, “Four miles above the city, upon the east side of the river, is a high peak, called Mount Bonnell. From the top of the mountain there is a perpendicular precipice of seven hundred feet down to the water. The prospect from the top of this mountain is one of the grandest and loveliest in nature.”
Interestingly, there isn’t enough evidence to conclusively demonstrate which Bonnell lent his name to the landmark. George W. Bonnell, a prominent newspaper publisher and author of the aforementioned paragraph, is one of the Bonnells commonly considered a strong candidate. The other Bonnell historians commonly consider a Texas war hero to be a strong possibility, who was a close friend of Albert Sidney Johnston.
One legend, probably untrue, claims that the mountain used to be named “Antoinette’s Leap” after a young woman leaped to her death to escape pursuers who had just done in her equally unfortunate fiancé. While this name is certainly more colorful, it is a decidedly unpleasant moniker for such a popular local attraction. The truth of the tale is dubious, but there is a useful takeaway message: Don’t get too near the edge, and most importantly, don’t fall off.
Bonnell’s Covert Name
Though almost anyone in Austin could identify Mount Bonnell, the peak is actually located in Covert Park. The Covert family donated the land to the city in 1939 after Frank Covert, after whom the park is named, died. Regardless, Covert Park is likely to draw blank stares, and nearly everyone simply refers to it as Mount Bonnell.
Today, much of the slopes leading up to the peak are covered with luxury homes, although the peak itself remains relatively unadorned, save for an open-air pavilion and the stone stairs leading to the top.
At around 780 feet, the peak provides a stunning panorama, showcasing the beautiful Austin skyline jutting from a sea of green, cut through by Lake Austin at the base of the mountain. There is no better place to get a feel for the scope of the Texas landscape that surrounds the city, and taking in the vista is widely considered a pilgrimage for anyone who wants to fully experience Austin.
A Short Hike with a Big Reward
Since Mount Bonnell is the highest point in the city limits, one might expect the hike to the peak to be a bit challenging; however, cleared paths and stairs make the climb a relatively simple endeavor. There are plenty of places on the way up to pause and soak in the scenery, making climbing at a leisurely pace rewarding. If you timing it just right, you can enjoy one of the most spectacular sunsets in Texas.
At the top, it is not uncommon to find families picnicking at the pavilion, or couples on a date trying to pretend that no one else is there. Continuing on the trail northward can afford you a bit more privacy without sacrificing any of the stunning views of the southbound trail. So pack some sandwiches and a couple of water bottles, and enjoy a historical and scenic adventure.