Day Trip: Lady Bird Lake (Town Lake)
Around this time of year, it starts to feel like Town Lake has been deserted, but it’s actually a great time to take advantage of our city’s aquatic rec room for canoeing, kayaking and even stand-up paddling.
Town Lake, like most of the lakes around Austin, is actually a dammed part of the Colorado. The “lake” was formed in 1960, when the Longhorn Dam was built to form the lake’s eastern boundary. The western boundary is formed by the Tom Miller dam, which was built in 1939. In addition to being created as a cooling center for the Holly Street Power Plant, city officials in the 50s and 60s also saw Town Lake as a future recreational site for the city.
However, by 1970, Town Lake was an eyesore of waste and pollution, hardly a recreational area. Enter Former U.S. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson who, with Mayor Roy Butler, established the Town Lake Beautification Committee. Under Lady Bird Johnson’s eye, the committee cleaned up the lake and built the hike and bike trails so many of us use now. In 2007, after Mrs. Johnson’s death, Town Lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake, although most Austinites still call it Town Lake.
Town Lake presents a wealth of recreational opportunities that aren’t limited to the summer (March through October?) months. The hike and bike trail is great for a leisurely stroll, an invigorating run or a people-dodging bike ride. And the water itself presents a variety of opportunities.
The lake is a favorite spot for The Bearded One and me to canoe. We normally rent from Zilker Park Boat Rentals, head down Barton Creek to the river and then go west until we hit the dam on the other side of MoPac. Not only is this part of Town Lake secluded, it’s also an amazing place to bird watch. This past spring, we saw juvenile Great Blue Herons wading in the water at the foot of a tree holding the largest bird’s nest we’d ever seen. You’ll also find geese and a couple of swans on occasion.
Canoeing or kayaking up and down Town Lake is a great nature- and non-nature-watching experience. You’ll see turtles, snakes, birds, fish, as well as mansions, bums and an amazing view of the City’s skyline when you’re headed east. We usually don’t venture further east than the Congress Avenue Bridge for a couple of reasons. First, the closer you get to the bridge, the more potent that bat smell becomes. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, head that way and when your nostrils start to burn, those are the bats. Second, once you get on the other side of the Congress Avenue Bridge, the water becomes noticeably dirtier. There’s more trash and debris, and the water is just muckier and smellier. Stay west.
Most boat rental facilities require you to return their vessels at sundown, so watching the largest urban colony of Mexican Free-tailed Bats emerge from their sleeping area under the Congress Bridget is an option but doesn’t leave you much time. If you’re traveling with a group though, one option is a boat tour from Capital Cruises.
Another one of my favorite Town Lake activities is stand-up paddling. I normally rent a SUP from the Texas Rowing Center. Not only is stand-up paddling a great workout, it’s also a ton of fun and not nearly as difficult as it looks. Sure, you’re guaranteed to fall off at least once, but that’s part of the fun. There are even groups who practice yoga on stand-up paddleboards. I’m not courageous enough for that yet.
Town Lake presents a host of opportunities for Austinites, their guests and out-of-towners and gives a glimpse into the collective Austin life – we swim, we bike, we run, we paddle. We have fun.