People always say to me, “Hey Jonas, you’re always riding your bike around Lady Bird Lake. You must be an expert.” Flattering? Sure. But the truth is, anyone can do it. I’m just a normal guy. A normal guy who, after not owning a bicycle since childhood, rekindled an old love and hasn’t looked back.
What follows is my answer to the question of how to have the best cycling experience on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail, a 10-mile trail of dirt paths, bridges, and boardwalk that wraps around Lady Bird Lake. Locals know it as “the hike and bike trail” or simply “the trail.”
Feel free to pick and choose from my suggestions based on what works for you. Think of what follows as a trail cycling pu pu platter, of sorts.
I don’t discriminate when it comes to the time of day that I bike the trail. When planning your own trip, you may want to note that the boardwalk portion doesn’t open until 5 a.m. (and closes at midnight). But no one has ever accused me of being a morning person.
Also, if you’re looking to see the bats fly out from underneath the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, try to time it right in the evening (you’ll pass under the bridge twice).
When I head out, I usually wear sunglasses, athletic gear that can get wet (more on that later), and $3 in cash. But really, all you need is a bicycle and ideally a helmet (I prefer a mountain bike, but the hike and bike trail is smooth enough for any type).
I live on the east side, so I ride south down Robert Martinez Jr. Street until I get to the baseball field (Mendoza Field), which is part of Edward Rendon Sr. Park. I take a left onto the dirt path and suddenly I’m on the trail. There are many points of entry, with parking and without, along the 10-mile loop. But this is my story. And this is my entrance.
Keep riding, through an underpass, past the Holly Street Power Plant, the wall covered with murals on your right, and the basketball courts on your left. Make your way over the unused train tracks and hit the Holly Shores At Town Lake Metro Park, where you ride straight across the peninsula. Wave to the people fishing and, as you cross over the wooden pedestrian bridge, look for turtles if the sun is out. They’re everywhere.
Follow the hike and bike trail and you’ll soon reach the Pleasant Valley Road Bridge. The walking/cycling path is narrow, so keep an eye out for oncoming bikes and pedestrians as you ride by. If it’s the evening, this is one of the best sunset views I’ve seen in Austin.
Have you ever wanted to see what the Lady Bird Lake looks like in tie dye colors? Then this is your sunset spot.
Cycling Lady Bird Lake’s South Shore
Once you’re on the other side of the bridge, you have some options. I like to take a right before the first pedestrian bridge and go out on the peninsula, where a gazebo sits at the tip. This is a great time to think about the mysteries of the universe or just give your mom a call. Once mysteries are solved or mom is updated, I’m back on my bike, retracing my tracks and veering right to go over the pedestrian bridge.
Soon you’ll pass a workout station on your right. Depending on how I’m feeling at this point, I may get in some pull-ups or sit-ups, or just pretend I didn’t see it until I’ve passed it. It would be silly to turn around at that point. So I bike on.
The boardwalk is coming up. This 1.3-mile section of the trail opened in June 2014, and looks brand new and kind of futuristic. Heading west, I continue on the twisting, winding path while peeking at the approaching downtown skyline on the other side of the lake.
Around this point of my trip, I start to calibrate (as I do so often) how grateful I am to live in this city. I remember my time in New York City, where our idea of nature was taking the subway to Central Park. Or living in L.A., where I’d sit in traffic on the PCH for hours just to get to a Malibu hiking trail.
I now live in a city that has planned its infrastructure so well that I’m on a boardwalk looking across the blue water at a bustling downtown and the heavily wooded dirt path straight ahead, all in the same breath.
And just like that, I’m off the boardwalk and surrounded by green, with sun rays trickling in all over.
Bats, Dogs, and Vaughan
Soon I’m passing under the Congress Avenue Bridge, known for the aforementioned bats. Time it right, and you’ll see over a million bats fly out from hiding. If it’s around sunset, between March and November, you can expect a crowd waiting to see the show. If it’s around any time of day, you can expect the smell of bat droppings. You’ll be through it soon.
➡ Keep reading: Guide to Bat Season in Austin
Auditorium Shores is now on my left, and I maintain focus in that direction to avoid seeing a second workout station on my right. Out of sight, out of mind. The famous Stevie Ray Vaughan statue is ahead on my right, but I can’t look for too long because I’m cruising into the Auditorium Shores Dog Park.
The trail cuts right between the lake and the park, and these dogs always tend to be heading to one or the other in a hurry. The smart move is to slow down and make sure you avoid all the dogs who just remembered they have somewhere to be.
Now is maybe a good time to mention you need to keep your head on a swivel at every point on the trail. Walkers, runners, cyclists, scooter-ers, dogs, and dog leashes are all in play.
Pass under Lamar Boulevard Bridge and follow the trail next to flowing Barton Creek, which is a mixture of blue and green I’d never seen in water before moving here. If I’m ready for a swim–and during the summer I almost always am–I veer left and follow the walkway to what eventually becomes the south entrance of Barton Springs Pool.
I lock my bike, pay the $3 entrance fee, and am soon in the ice cold refreshing springs that can either boost your energy or cure your hangover, depending on the situation. Note: Barton Springs is closed on Thursdays.
➡ Keep reading: Guide to Barton Springs Pool, Soul of Austin
Back on my bike, I reverse course and follow the trail until I come to a footbridge, where I take a left. In the middle of the bridge, notice Barton Creek opening up into Lady Bird Lake, and maybe get yourself a picture of the water, canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards.
Return to Lady Bird Lake’s North Shore
Once again, I’m riding next to Barton Creek, this time back toward Lady Bird Lake. Lou Neff Point, where the creek meets the lake, is a worthwhile photo opp. Trust me.
Riding alongside Lady Bird Lake again, look for Zilker Park on your left. Before you know it, you’re at Mopac Expressway Bridge, ready to cross to the north shore. I like to stop in the middle of the bridge and take in the activity on the water. Sometimes there’s water polo practice going on below, and there are always nice houses if you look west (one day!).
➡ Keep reading: Guide to Austin’s Zilker Park for Every Season of the Year
The trail stays relatively straight here, and our growing city, full of new buildings and cranes putting up new buildings, is in plain view to the left. Soon I’m back under Congress Avenue Bridge. Up until a few months ago, this section of the trail was the most dangerous part–a windy wooden bridge with blind corners, combined with crowds of people watching the bats during sunset hours. In early 2018, the bridge was updated. For a trail-lover like me, it made a big difference.
We are on the home stretch! It’s impossible to miss what is coming up on your left, a massive sculpture called “Forever Bicycles” by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, installed in 2017. I won’t explain the meaning and symbolism here (we have a ride to finish), but it’s worth stopping to read about.
We’ll be finishing the loop along the lake, on a dirt path, with the open grass of Edward Rendon Sr. Park on your left. I am suddenly back on the east side, feeling good and ready to head home.
To me, cycling is a workout, as well as a way to see both metropolitan and natural parts of our city. It’s fun, a stress reliever, and a meditation of sorts. And finally, cycling this trail provides an unmistakable sense of community. I’ll never tire of seeing Austin residents, people and dog varieties, being their best selves on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail.
Hope to see you out there!
@theAustinot wants to know:
What’s your favorite part of cycling the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail?