First section of Violet Crown Trail opens to the public

Trail ultimately will stretch 30 miles from Zilker Park to Hays County

Just a few hundred yards from U.S. 290, along a new trail that dips into rocky ravines and winds along Gaines Creek, chirping birds and rustling leaves swallow the sounds of traffic.

Last Friday, the city unveiled the first 6 miles of the long-awaited Violet Crown Trail, which ultimately will stretch 30 miles from downtown Austin to Hays County.

A pair of stone pillars, a small shade awning, a trail map and a park bench mark the trailhead, tucked just to the east of Spec’s in Sunset Valley. This inaugural section of trail weaves through thickets of ashe juniper and oak and clatters over limestone.

“What you hear here is nature,” says George Cofer, executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust that works to preserve open space and has spearheaded the effort to build the trail. “In the early morning it’s extraordinary.”

Part of this first section of the trail piggybacks the existing Sweet 16 path through the Barton Creek Greenbelt, although sections were rerouted and rebuilt to better watershed and curb erosion. It also includes about 1.5 miles of new trail.

It serves an important purpose at a time when many of Austin’s lovingly trampled existing trails show signs of overuse.

“We’re a very green city, but our population growth is outpacing our ability to create parks and trails,” Cofer says. “By creating 30 new miles of trail, we’ll be providing relief to other overcrowded trails.”

When complete, the Violet Crown Trail, first envisioned in 1998, will connect neighborhoods with parks, pools, libraries, schools and shopping centers and create lots of new terrain for hiking, running and pedaling. It will also tie in to other trail systems and open access to about 16,000 acres of public land. The goal, trail creators say, is to provide more connectivity, so people don’t have to get in their cars as often.

“We’ve got to get people outside for the environmental education and health,” Cofer says. “We’ve got to have some peace and quiet in our lives.”

All land and easements have already been acquired. When finished, the trail will be the longest regional trail in Central Texas.

More than 20 organizations, including the cities of Austin and Sunset Valley, the Austin Parks Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Conservation Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have pitched in to make the trail a reality. Trail planners went through a two-year process to gather public input before they started construction.

The Hill Country Conservancy has raised about $9 million of the $13 million needed to fund the first 13 miles of the trail, from Zilker Park to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. That includes construction costs, administration costs and a stewardship fund to maintain the trail once it is finished, said Nico D’Auterive, manager of marketing and events for Hill Country Conservancy.

The public is invited to experience the new section of trail at the Get Out on the Trail event on Aug. 22. REI will lead guided trips starting at 8 a.m. for runners, cyclists and hikers.

“We want to encourage everyone to get on the trail that day,” D’Auterive says. “I think it’s important to have people on the trail so they understand the beauty of the Texas Hill Country and Austin and feel more committed to preserving it.”

The trail is open from dawn until dusk to hikers, runners, cyclists and dogs on leash. The trail rambles through land owned by the city of Austin, trail easements donated by companies and land purchased with voter approval to protect water quality.

Trail builders have not cut down a single tree, but instead are routing the trail around existing features.

Members of the Austin Ridge Riders have signed an agreement to help maintain this part of the trail. Other organizations will maintain other portions of the trail as they are finished.

Now, attention turns to the next section of the trail: a 7-mile segment that will link Sunset Valley to the Veloway, a popular closed cycling and skating loop, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Officials hope to finish that section by the end of 2016.

The final phase of the trail, the 17-mile stretch from the Wildflower Center to just north of Onion Creek, will pass through cty of Austin water quality lands once occupied by historical ranches. Those lands were acquired with bond money approved by voters in 1998, 2001 and 2006.

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