Summer in the Southern US is one hot affair. There are few things that pair better with scorching temperatures than a cool pool of water to dip, dive, and douse yourself in. Bonus points will always be given to bodies of water that flow free, which makes the many lakes in Austin, Texas some of the best places to enjoy a lazy summer afternoon.
As the pandemic continues to shift restrictions, most travelers are choosing to keep their journeys closer to home. Opting for regional destinations that are within driving distance gives folks the flexibility to manage a changing situation, and break from their huddle around the A/C. Lake trips are a great way to stay safe while still seeking adventure. So, we researched the best lakes in Austin to help inspire your local outings.
The best 10 lakes in Austin’s highlands
- Lake Buchanan
- Inks Lake
- Lake Marble Falls
- Lake Travis
- Lake Austin
- Lake Georgetown
- Barton Creek Greenbelt
- Ladybird Lake
- Canyon Lake
- Krause Springs
Austin is located at the southern end of the Colorado River. Adventures on this waterway are just as plentiful as in the Centennial State.
The Colorado River has long been a life-source for indigenous tribes of Texas, such as the Comanches. Modifications to the lower river began in the 1930s and 40s in order to manage flooding and generate hydroelectric power. The resulting dams and lakes form the Texas Highland chain: six linked reservoir lakes offering a socially distant reprieve from air conditioning.
1. Lake Buchanan
Buchanan is the first and largest of the Highland Lake system, created by the Buchanan Dam which is a 2-mile long hydroelectric power station. The lake has a surface water of 22,333 acres, or in other words, there is plenty of room to spread out and avoid crowds.
Although most of the shore around Buchanan is privately owned, the public has access to the Lake through several local parks: Cedar Point Recreation Area, Black Rock Park, and Canyon of the Eagles. All three of these parks are under two hours from ATX city center, as the bird flies, and offer boat ramps, beaches, and campsites. Bring your paddles and poles, because this lake is packed with tons of recreational fishing opportunities.
2. Inks Lake
Immediately following the largest dam in the Highland Lakes chain is the smallest: Inks Dam. The reservoir lake in Austin shares the same name. Because the Inks Lake has a relatively compact area (only 831 acres), the things-to-do here focus less on the water and more on the natural world surrounding it. However, there is still plenty of boating, fishing, and aquatic recreation to be found here.
Inks Lake offers twelve miles of hiking trails through the beautiful Texas highland country. Additionally, the old Inks Bridge has been transformed into a walking area. It’s recommended as a great spot for nighttime strolls over the water. When it’s running, nearby Valley Spring Creek offers a set of falls to bathe under. Inks Lake is close to Austin; only 55 miles stand between sweating in the summer heat or swimming in relaxation.
3. Lake Marble Falls
Lake Marble Falls is the newest and smallest lake in the Highland Reservoir system, measuring just 611 acres. Although, for such a tiny lake the fishing opportunities are outsized. Marble Falls ranks as a top spot for bass fishing, but it’s known for much more. Water skiing and wakeboarding are a favorite activity at this lake, along with swimming and paddle-boarding across the crystal blue water.
Like many of the other lakes in the chain, most of the area around Marble Falls is privately owned. Several parks and recreation areas offer camping spots for overnight visitors, but travel from ATX only takes around an hour. If you’re an off-road enthusiast, nearby Hidden Falls Adventure Park offers hours of excitement from your truck, Jeep, or motor vehicle. Perfect for staying socially distant while having fun. And, if you’re wanting the endless horizon, take a look at the best beaches in Texas.
4. Lake Travis
Lake Travis is the crowning jewel in the Highland chain. It is also the closest lake to Austin proper so far. There are 271 miles of shoreline around Lake Travis, with eighteen different parks or recreation areas for visitors to access waterside day-trips. What’s more, is that the amount of fun to be had on Lake Travis is equal to the immense area of the lake (18,930 acres).
For starters, boat rentals are big business around Lake Travis– one which hasn’t been significantly limited by pandemic thus far. So, if you’re looking to avoid crowds and still get out, consider renting a craft and hitting the water. In addition to boating, all the typical water-sport activities are available on Lake Travis. Make sure to check in with the park you plan to visit since Lake Travis covers two counties where regulations may differ.
5. Lake Austin
If you were to hop in a tube and travel southward down the Colorado River, Lake Austin is one of the last reservoir lakes you would encounter before hitting ATX city limits. As with the other lakes in this system, Lake Austin is formed by a hydroelectric dam which resulted in the 1,599-acre reservoir pool. Only twenty miles lie between the city center and a lazy lake day. Popular activities on Lake Austin include canoeing, kayaking, and sailing. Lake Austin flows into Lady Bird Lake, another body which is covered a later on.
6. Lake Georgetown
Similar to the Highland chain, Lake Georgetown was formed as a reservoir lake from a dammed river. However, unlike the lakes mentioned, Georgetown is found off of the San Gabriel River. Instead of heading Northwest from Austin, Lake Georgetown takes travelers 41 miles directly north. For such a slight change in location, there is a large difference in the natural world to be explored.
To start, travelers can go subterranean by exploring the 10,000-year-old Inner Space Cavern. San Gabriel Park is one of several parks located on the banks of Lake Georgetown. 200-year-old oak trees provide shade for the recreation area. It’s a great place to escape the summer sun. A 26-mile-long path known as Goodwater Trail circles the perimeter of Lake Georgetown. Thanks to local development, mountain-bikers can cruise the entire length of the lake. Lake George offers plenty of camping sites for overnight trips, including primitive and hike-in camping for those who are more adventure inclined.
7. Barton Creek Greenbelt
One first thing to note about the Barton Creek Greenbelt is that it’s not technically a proper lake. The Greenbelt is a water-centric recreation area that runs for miles through the city of Austin. The city-operated system of parks starts at Zilker Park and ends at Barton Creek Wilderness Area. Limestone cliffs, the running river, and dense green foliage make this destination just as cool as visiting a deep lake in Austin’s Highlands. This is the spot for those looking to get outside without all the boating hubbub.
Barton Creek Greenbelt is only minutes from downtown ATX and has multiple points of access throughout the city. Joining at any one of these gives day-trippers a unique nature experience. Rock climbing is a prominent activity along the limestone bluffs. You can also find rope swings, mountain bike paths, and some truly stunning hiking trails. Explore the two-mile long Airmen’s Cave, the longest in Travis County. Make sure to bring your mask and maintain proper spacing along the trails; the Greenbelt is located in the city so it’s likely to be a bit crowded.
8. Lady Bird Lake
Of all the true lakes around Austin, Lady Bird Lake is the most centrally located; it flows from Lake Austin right through the city center! It’s so close to the banks of the city that this body is locally referred to as Town Lake.
There are no motorboats allowed in Lady Bird Lake, so activities here focus primarily on paddle sports, biking/hiking trails, and swimming in local spots like Barton Springs and Deep Eddy Pool (be sure to check about covid-19 related closures). Lady Bird Lake also features a 1.3 mile boardwalk,
9. Canyon Lake
Lake Travis may be the crown gem of the Highland Lake chain, but it is Canyon Lake which is known as the “Jewel” of Texas Highland country. Located on the Guadalupe River, the 8,230 acre lake is actually 64 miles south of Austin, separating it from the rest of our list. However, geography is where the differences end. Like the larger lakes in Austin, Canyon Lake is a central hub for water sports including water skiing, jet skiing, and paddling.
Similar to the Greenbelt and Lake George, Canyon Lake offers below ground adventures, with the Natural Bridge Caverns. In 2002, a torrential flood created a 64-acre gorge near Canyon Lake. Now, guided tours offer exploration of the many waterfalls, lagoons, and aquifer springs that emerged from the split. The hikes are demanding, which is just what day-venturers need before cooling down in the crystal waters of Canyon Lake.
10. Krause Springs
Krause Springs is a privately-owned watering hole that has operated for 50 years outside of Lake Travis. Just like the Barton Greenbelt, Krause Springs is less of a lake and more of a swimming hole. Fortunately, it’s just as aesthetic. There are 32 springs around Krause, making it a good choice for social distancing while enjoying time outdoors. The springs run at around 70 degrees, so make a reservation and grab your suits!
Looking for more lakes to enjoy this summer? Read our roundup of the 10 best lakes in the US.
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