One of downtown Austin’s most distinctive images is the reflection of its skyline in the shimmering strip of water known as Lady Bird Lake. At dawn, the sight of the Austin Rowing Club sculling gracefully across the lake, contrasted against the backdrop of another stunning Austin sunrise, is truly sublime.
As the morning progresses, a steady stream of visitors dot the lake and its popular hike-and-bike trail with activity. Throughout the day, the energy of motion increases, becoming busy with people hiking and biking the trail or having fun on the water kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding.
Put on Your Sun Screen and Enjoy the Lady Bird Lake Hike-and-Bike Trail
The trail is the most popular feature of the lake, attracting more Austinites than any other hike-and-bike trail in town. In all, including sections that depart the shore and resort to city sidewalks for brief periods, the trail measures 10.1 miles as it makes a complete circuit around the lake. An easily accessible and beautiful place to walk, run, push a stroller, or ride your bike, some sections of the trail pass through shady wooded areas, others through open grassy parkland meadow.
The path itself is smooth, wide, well maintained and primarily made from crushed gravel. The path has a few inclines, but is mostly level. Along the way, there’s a popular path that turns off at Barton Creek and runs to Barton Springs Pool, a spring-fed constant temperature natural pool that is another of Austin’s most beautifully natural locations.
Auditorium Shores and a Few More Trailside Attractions
The trail passes a number of interesting attractions. Most notable is Auditorium Shores, a large outdoor amphitheater that hosts public Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve celebrations, as well as music festivals and other special events throughout the year.
The trail also takes its travelers past fishing piers, the dock where sculling teams launch, the beautiful grounds of the Four Seasons hotel, the old, now out-of-use Austin Fire Department practice tower, and the innovative and design-forward pedestrian bridge at Lamar St., as well as other interesting sites. There are numerous places to cross the lake if you want a shorter circuit, with convenient pedestrian crossings at Mopac, Lamar, South 1st Street, and Congress.
History of Lady Bird Lake
Lady Bird Lake is a peaceful, constant level man-made lake which marks downtown’s southern border. Essentially, the lake is a stretch of the Colorado River, created by Tom Miller Dam upstream and the Longhorn Dam downstream.
Before construction of the series of reservoirs on the Colorado River that now form the Texas Highland Lakes — including Lake Travis, Lake Austin, and Lady Bird Lake among others — floods posed a real threat to both safety and property along the shore.
The first two dams constructed both failed and collapsed where the Tom Miller Dam now stands. However, the Tom Miller Dam, finished in 1940, together with the Longhorn Dam, completed in 1960, have been faithfully keeping Austin safe and Lady Bird Lake constant and serene since 1940.
From Eyesore to City Treasure
Lady Bird Lake was originally designed for two purposes — helping as a cooling pond for the electrical plant and as a recreational venue. But by the early 1970s, Lady Bird Lake (then called Town Lake) had become polluted and was considered an eyesore.
In an inspired moment of proactive forethought, Roy Butler, Austin’s mayor in the mid-70s, and friend of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, enlisted the help of former United States First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. Together, they founded the Town Lake Beautification Committee to transform Town Lake into the exciting recreation area it is today.
Part of the project was creating the now legendary hike-and-bike trail along the lake’s shoreline. Town Lake was re-christened Lady Bird Lake in 2007, and the now well-established and much loved hike-and-bike trail was renamed for Mayor Roy Butler and his wife Ann in 2012.
One and a Half Million Bats over the Water
The Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, famous for its huge population of Mexican free-tailed bats, passes over the trail. The bridge was constructed in such a way that it serendipitously made a perfect home for these migratory bats. The bats arrive each year in March, and make a home under the bridge until early fall.
The colony of about 1.5 million bats is the largest urban bat colony in the United States. In season, the bats materialize en masse at about dusk each day, forming thick black columns as they emerge in search of the 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of mosquitoes and other insects they eat each night. The city estimates more than 100,000 people each year visit the bridge to watch the bats’ dramatic emergence each day.
Get Out on the Water and Discover More About Austin
The lake is open to non-motorized boats and there are a number of convenient businesses along the shore that rent canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards. For those who want a guided tour of the lake, there are specially licensed motorized tour barges or amphibious “Duck Trucks” that will give you all sorts of interesting bits of Austin history. The guides will park the Duck Trucks in the water to give passengers a unique and fascinating view of the bats emerging from their slumber and winging off into the night sky.