To celebrate National Bike Month in May, we set out on an urban cycling adventure that took us over creeks and along Lady Bird Lake, with stops at public art installations, gardens and parks, and within range of hip eating and drinking establishments.
But where to start? At that expansive (and expensive) new series of bicycle and pedestrian bridges alongside South Loop 1 (MoPac Boulevard) where it crosses Loop 360 and Barton Creek, of course. That $14.5 million thoroughfare opened in June 2017, and it launches you directly from South Austin into the heart of downtown Austin.
We’ve plotted out a 15-mile route, with plenty of fun destinations along the way. It’s easily shortened or extended.
1. Start in the massive parking lot that houses Best Buy, Spec’s and other big box stores. You’re going to need fuel for this one, so consider a pit stop at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Zero out your bicycle odometer, exit the northwest side of the parking lot and pedal about half a mile along the very wide bike lane/shoulder of South MoPac. From there, you’ll flow right onto the 14-foot-wide trail that leads to the new pedestrian bridge over the 1,045-foot gorge above Barton Creek, then crosses Loop 360 with two short spans. Continue north on the trail, which becomes a sidewalk (or hop into the access road, with a marked bike lane) and leads you all the way to Barton Springs Road.
2. Need a diversion? At mile 4.25, stop at the Austin Botanical Gardens, 2220 Barton Springs Road, to explore 26 acres of rose, herb and Japanese gardens, crisscrossed with streams, waterfalls and ponds. (Safety tip: Don’t cross Barton Springs Road midblock; pedal a few hundred feet east, use the crosswalk at Stratford Drive, then backtrack.)
3. You’ve probably started to sweat. Easy solution — turn right to access arguably the world’s best urban swimming hole, Barton Springs Pool, 2201 Barton Springs Road. Water temperatures hover around 70 degrees year-round, and humans, fish, crawfish and aquatic plants co-exist in refreshing bliss.
4. Just before Barton Creek, at mile 4.5 of your journey, take the trail that branches off to the right, follow it underneath Barton Springs Road, cross the creek via the little arched pedestrian bridge and turn right to get back up on Barton Springs Road. Behold, you now stand at the start of a half-mile stretch of roadway, glittering with iconic Austin bars and restaurants. Choose from Chuy’s, the Picnic food trailers, Baby Acapulco’s, Shady Grove, Uncle Billy’s and Juiceland, where you can buy a copy of “The Essential Rumi” while you sip a coconut water, banana, kale, spinach and spirulina smoothie.
5. Clearly, you need to golf next. Continuing east on Barton Springs Road, stop for a round at the feet of a lime-green T. rex at Peter Pan Mini Golf, 1297 Barton Springs Road. The place opened in 1946.
6. Hop back onto the Lamar Boulevard sidewalk for the quick sprint north to Lady Bird Lake at mile 5.62. Cross the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge, and if you’ve packed a snack, pull off and spread your goods on the 24-foot picnic table (actually a public art piece called Open Room Austin) in the pocket park at its northern terminus.
7. Looking for something good to read? Pedal the Butler Hike and Bike Trail a quarter of a mile farther east, to mile 15.6 of your trek, where you can take the Shoal Creek spur beneath Cesar Chavez Street, park your bike in the special bike valet area, and spend some time browsing the stacks at Austin’s new Central Library, 710 West Cesar Chavez St.
8. Next, stop to explore Lady Bird Lake (actually a dammed stretch of the Colorado River). Congress Avenue Kayaks at the Waller Creek Boathouse, 74 Trinity St., at mile 6.75 of your tour, rents single, double or triple kayaks and standup paddleboards for $12 to $20 an hour.
9. Since this trip is all about bikes, be sure to stop at the nearby Ai Weiwei “Forever Bicycles” installation, which you can see from the boathouse. The artist arranged more than 1,200 bicycles into a towering pattern that looks like it got caught in the “warp speed” setting of the Starship Enterprise.
10. Continue east, to mile 7, where you’ll discover the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center at 600 River St. There, check out the Trail of Tejano Legends or peruse the “Orphans” exhibit (through June 2) by Jose Rodriguez, an exploration of issues that arise from migration and dislocation.
11. At mile 7.6 of your adventure, cross Interstate 35 on the pedestrian lane on the east side of the bridge over Lady Bird Lake. When you reach the south side of the river, follow the trail as it wraps down to the boardwalk, where you can enjoy a close-up view of rowers, runners, turtles and more.
12. If it’s close to sunset, take a break to watch the Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the Ann Richards-Congress Avenue Bridge, at mile 9.1. Find the best vantage point on the hillside next to the Austin American-Statesman offices, 305 South Congress Ave. During summer months, the colony typically departs for a night of insect foraging at dusk.
13. Maybe you’d like to rent a swan-shaped boat next. Stop by Capital Cruises behind the Hyatt Regency, 208 Barton Springs Road, where you can climb aboard a floating white bird and pedal your way around the lake. Rental cost is $15 an hour.
14. If you have little ones along for the ride, stop at Liz Carpenter Splash Pad at 1000 Barton Springs Road, at Mile 9.65. There, they can trot through streams of water that rise up from the ground like miniature geysers.
15. You’re probably exhausted by now, but you’re not quite finished. Hop on your bike, rejoin the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, cross Barton Creek, and follow the trail all the way to the pedestrian bridge beneath MoPac. Turn left (instead of crossing the river) and follow it as it parallels the northbound lanes of MoPac until you reach Barton Springs Road. Cross the street, jump in the bike lane and you’ll be back on the trail toward Loop 360 and Barton Creek in no time. Just save a little energy — it’s a gradual uphill most of the way back.