December 24, 2015 By Pam LeBlanc
You’ve baked sugar cookies, binge-watched “Frosty the Snowman” and molded a semi-permanent nest into the sofa cushions. Now it’s time to head outside and work out the kinks.
Hiking trails, rivers, steamy pools and bike paths abound in Central Texas. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorites, all of them perfect for exploring this time of year.
Now it’s up to you. Get out of the house and move. Dip your fingers in the water, scuff up your hiking boots, spin a bicycle wheel. Your heart, lungs and muscles will thank you.
1. Swim at Big Stacy Pool. Who says swim season ends when eggs quit frying on the sidewalk? Slipping into an outdoor, heated swimming pool is like easing into a warm bathtub. Big Stacy Pool, with its mix of tap water and water naturally heated through underground springs, steams like soup during the winter months. The old-school vibe will soothe your soul. Free. Open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, noon to 7 p.m. weekends. 800 East Live Oak Street, 512-445-0304.
2. Bird-watch at Reimers Ranch Park. Most folks head to Reimers Ranch for rock climbing, mountain biking or fishing for white bass, but bird-watchers flock there during cooler months, too. On their must-see list? A wide variety of winter sparrows that hang out here during the winter. For a more supervised experience, join one of the two-hour guided tours offered the first Saturday of each month, October through April (No walk in January; details at tinyurl.com/pkltn3d). Entry fee $10 per vehicle. Open 7 a.m. to twilight daily. 23610 Hamilton Pool Road near Dripping Springs, 512-264-1923.
3. Run the River Place Nature Trail. Trail runners looking for hills should check out this steep trail, which climbs up rocky steps and winds through canyons and hilltops along Panther Hollow Creek. The trail was temporarily closed in 2012 after a dispute with the city of Austin — trail-makers had inadvertently built a 1,600-foot stretch on property set aside as golden-cheeked warbler habitat. It’s since been realigned, and nature lovers are reveling once again in its challenging terrain. Free. Open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The trail has two access points — 4207 River Place Blvd. and 8830 Big View Drive. friendsofriverplacetrail.com.
4. Paddle the Colorado River in Webberville. Pack up the kayaks in winter? Not us! Shove off from Little Webberville Park for a cruise down the Colorado River to Big Webberville Park and you’ll forget about the holiday shopping crowds. The 5-mile trip takes about two hours, and even though it’s close to downtown Austin, it feels like the country. Thanks to concrete boat ramps, the put-in and take-out are a snap. Bird-watching is spectacular, too. Cook’s Canoes, 1004 Water Street in Webberville, rents canoes for $40 and kayaks for $30 (cash only, extra for shuttle service). 512-276-7767, cookscanoes.com.
5. Pedal the Slaughter Creek Trail. This 5-mile trail, built by volunteers from Austin Ridge Riders, offers the perfect challenge for intermediate-level mountain bikers. Instead of bone-cracking cliffs and steep drop-offs, it’s mostly smooth dirt single track, with a few rock gardens tossed in, that unspools over gentle hillsides. Plan on about 45 minutes to make the loop through the 100-acre, city-owned Slaughter Creek Preserve, set aside for water quality. Watch for hikers and trail runners, and if you encounter someone on a horse, slow down, step off the trail and talk (nicely!) to the animal as it passes. Free. Open dawn to dusk daily, unless it’s been raining. Check facebook.com/slaughtercreektrail for conditions. Enter gate at 9901 FM 1826 to reach the trailhead.
6. Walk your dog on the Turkey Creek Trail at Emma Long Metropolitan Park. Dogs sometimes outnumber humans here, but if you don’t mind a little l’eau de soggy canine, head to this 2.5-miler tucked in the hills off City Park Road. You’ll quickly find yourself skipping over stepping stones as the trail crisscrosses the creek and then winds through areas thick with trees. During wet times, it leads to what we call “The Mythical Wall of Ferns,” an oasis of a rock wall dripping in lime green, mossy lushness. The trail then veers up a ridge where it suddenly opens up and you can see the sky. Free. Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. 1706 City Park Road, 512-346-1831.
7. Explore the Violet Crown Trail. The first 6-mile section of the long-awaited Violet Crown Trail, which ultimately will stretch 30 miles from downtown Austin to Hays County, opened in August. The trail dips into rocky ravines, dives into thickets of ashe juniper and oak, and winds along Gaines Creek, through land owned by the city of Austin. (Part of the route overlaps the existing Sweet 16 trail through the Barton Creek Greenbelt.) Free. Open dawn until dusk daily. Trailhead located a few hundred yards from U.S. 290, just to the east of Spec’s in Sunset Valley.