When Austin’s summer temps surpass a punishing 100 degrees, it’s time to cool off in a swimming hole. Lake Travis, roughly 30 minutes from central Austin, has been a watery, refreshing respite from Austin’s heat, traffic, and citified stress since 1942. This is your detailed guide to spending a flawless day in and around Lake Travis.
Lake Travis, one of a series of manmade lakes around Texas, is a branch of the Colorado River. The Lower Colorado River Authority created Lake Travis when it built Mansfield Dam (part of the Highland Lakes project to create lakes throughout central Texas).
The lake measures approximately 63.5 miles, snaking up and around west Travis County nearly to Marble Falls. It’s our largest body of water in the area and has spawned a lifestyle centered around boating, water sports, yacht rock, and easy living.
I spent a few days out at Lake Travis in order to share these adventures with The Austinot’s readers. These tips are a good start to getting to know the area and its activities. Enjoy!
Several of these businesses offered a comped media experience in exchange for my honest opinion and inclusion in this article. All opinions are my own.
Let’s Get Physical
Swimming and boating pop into mind when one thinks “Lake Travis.” Briarcliff Marina in Cat Hollow is a one-stop spot for all of Austin’s boating needs. This spacious marina rents boat slips and actual pontoon boats. Our group went out on a pontoon boat for the day, swimming and touring a good stretch of the lake. Each pontoon boat holds up to 12 people, so rental fees are reasonable for a group.
I suggest stocking up at Briarcliff Marina’s little store on the dock before setting out to explore Lake Travis. Once you leave the large wake-free area, stop the boat and jump in for a swim. Keep going for a bit, and you’ll pass Lakeway and reach Pace Bend Park (more below), a fun spot to hang out.
Remember Lake Travis winds through the hills for miles and miles. So if Pace Bend is too crowded, you can go a bit farther to find a more secluded cove. However, it’s best to boat with someone who knows the lake well. On the more narrow bends in the river, you’ll need to be careful. The points extend beyond what is visible and you don’t want to hit them.
406 Sleat Dr., Briarcliff, TX – Website
Pace Bend Park and Cliff Jumping
The nine-mile stretch of Pace Bend Park’s shoreline makes it a celebrated destination. The park has dedicated swimming coves, two boat ramps, 20 campsites (some primitive and some with hookups), plus trails for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding. This is a great spot to hang out and people watch.
Speaking of people watching, you can observe or even join the more adventurous at the limestone cliffs. In a couple of places, the water below these cliffs is deep enough for swimmers to jump into. Some jumpers approach the cliffs by land, while others scale the limestone structures from the water.
If you are the cliff-jumping type, please go with a local who knows the safer spots to jump, where the lake is deep enough. Have fun, but be careful!
2011 Pace Bend Road N., Spicewood, TX – Website
I am excited about Waterloo Adventures, a new water park and obstacle course on the Volente side of Lake Travis. This bright, massive obstacle course on the lake is part Ninja Warrior course, part bouncy house, all fun. Opened in late June 2018, this new attraction is already selling out regularly, so don’t forget to book your reservation in advance.
A day with Waterloo Adventures includes both active and passive fun. Start by boating to Adventure Island and the obstacle course where you run, climb, jump, and slide your way to the finish line for 45 minutes. Then play on a giant blow-up slide, trampoline, and springboard jumping tower to your heart’s content. Next lounge on the private beach under a (provided) umbrella or climb into a hammock for a nap.
14529 Pocohontas Trail Suite A, Leander, TX – Website
Eating, Drinking, Live Music, and Sunsets
The Lighthouse Restaurant & Lounge
Enticing diners from both water and shore, The Lighthouse Restaurant & Lounge was once known as Willie Nelson’s Lighthouse and owned by the musician himself. With new owners, the eatery serves comfort food and drinks with a view, and occasionally live music. Fortify yourself with a meal, then mosey on down the hill to Briarcliff Marina to hit the water, or grab drinks and appetizers while watching the sun set on the lake.
We tried the no-frills but tasty Bloody Marys and the solid brunch. My favorite of the day was the creme brûlée French toast, served with fresh berries. This dish is always decadent, but I appreciated that The Lighthouse’s version isn’t overly sweet.
The popular chicken fried chicken Eggs Benedict is exactly what it sounds like: a large, stacked plate of Texas eats covered in Hollandaise sauce. For those wanting healthier fare, you can also order a custom omelette.
The motto here is #brunchsohard. Gazing out onto the lake, stuffing our faces, and listening to music made us really feel it.
513 Sleat Dr., Briarcliff, TX – Website
Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse
“No Bad Days” is the motto at Poodie’s, frequently spoken by Poodie himself. Also known as “The Hilltop,” this classic honky tonk dive bar is just up the road from the lake in Spicewood. It was founded and run for decades by Poodie Locke, Willie Nelson’s longtime stage manager, until his death in 2009.
You can likely imagine the “back in the day” stories this Lake Travis original holds under its hat. Talk to any Poodie’s regular (and about 90 percent of the patrons are most days), and you’ll get an enjoyable earful of old Austin and famous names. Willie’s not the only legend to have graced Poodie’s stage or bar.
Sharon Burke, who went in as partner with her husband in 2006, took over as owner after both men passed away. Burke honors the spirit of Poodie by booking talented local musicians seven days a week. While the menu and feel of the dive bar have stayed the same, Burke makes improvements where needed.
Sundays at Poodie’s are something of a neighborhood gathering. Tessy Lou Williams and the Shotgun Stars play most Sundays, though we enjoyed a show by Jeff Warren Johnston the day we visited.
The menu is classic bar food. The signature Poodie’s burger with green chiles and cheese is big and satisfying, and they’ll even make the black bean veggie burger “Poodie’s style.” Apart from that, the fried okra and wings are tasty.
Dive bars and honky tonks have my heart, and Poodie’s is no exception.
22308 TX-71, Spicewood, TX – Website
This casual restaurant in Volente has good reviews and offers traditional lakeside food: burgers, salads, sandwiches, pasta, and grilled meat dishes. I didn’t have a chance to eat at Shack 512, but as a former Girl Scout, I know when I go, I will order the Lakeside S’Mores.
The view here is a big part of the appeal for sure—the website boasts, “We do sunsets!”
8714 Lime Creek Road, Volente, TX – Website
Oasthouse Kitchen + Bar
Oasthouse Kitchen + Bar is a quick drive from the lake, and offers an upscale dining experience for those wanting to make a night of it. Oasthouse fits the bill for a fancy date night or lively happy hour. Happy hour runs longer than most, so I’d recommend stopping in for drinks and appetizers, or one of the tantalizing desserts.
8300 N. FM 620 E. – Website
Day Into Night Fun
The Reserve at Lake Travis
This expansive residential and resort area is a lake lover’s dream. I could see spending a week here easily. The Reserve has a marina with complimentary boat slips for guests plus kayaks to rent. There are also tennis courts, a well-stocked fishing pond, and a lodge on the lake’s edge for special events.
For me, the jewel in the crown is the pool area. The Reserve’s pool complex has a kiddie pool, hot tub, stunning infinity pool, adult-sized water slide, and a large lazy river. The lazy river ambles around the property and has a swim-up bar and casual restaurant.
This complex does not offer day passes, as it is a residential area, too. But Austin residents and other visitors have two ways to visit. The first is a monthly membership for access to all of the amenities. The second is to rent one of the luxury cabins or cottages on the grounds. They are beautifully decorated and several of them overlook the lake.
19926 Thurman Bend Road, Spicewood, TX – Website
Cypress Valley Canopy Tours
Cypress Valley Canopy Tours takes visitors through an extensive canopy tour atop ancient cypress trees. The adventure includes five ziplines, two sky bridges, and an optional rappelling platform. From start to finish, expect to spend about 90 minutes to two hours.
What I love the most about Cypress Valley Canopy Tours are the overnight accommodations. Do you ever dream of sleeping in a treehouse like Tarzan? Cypress Valley will hook you up! Except it’s a treehouse glamping experience rather than roughing it. Each treehouse is designed to sleep two to six people, and the Ranch House on the ground sleeps up to 14. Zipline canopy tours are required, though, when available.
1223 Paleface Ranch Road S., Spicewood, TX – Website
➡️ Keep reading: Explore Your Wild Side on a Day Trip to Cypress Valley Canopy Tours
Mix It Up a Little
Hill Country Galleria
If you need a shopping fix or want to sit out a summer storm, never fear. Right up the road from Lake Travis is Hill Country Galleria. This area is home to all of the usual shopping suspects, but also boasts a huge, gorgeous lawn, stage for concerts and special events (scheduled during every season), and a splash pad for the kiddos. Local businesses share space with national brands at Hill Country Galleria.
Try a cup of Joe at Bee Cave Coffee or an ice cream cone at Austin favorite Amy’s Ice Creams. For dinner, I suggest Buenos Aires Café, Argentinian cuisine. I specifically would point you to my favorite dish at Buenos Aires, the gnocchi quartet, with pumpkin-cinnamon, sweet potato-chipotle, cilantro-jalapeño and fresh herbed potato dumplings.
There’s always a lot to see, do, eat, and drink at Hill Country Galleria. Watch the schedule of events to keep up to date.
12700 Hill Country Blvd., Bee Cave, TX – Website
But Wait, There’s More
Lake Travis is home to several distilleries and breweries, and more seem to be opening up regularly. Of course, The Oasis remains a favorite for many, but remember you are going for the view. As with many tourist spots, don’t expect much more than a killer sunset.
With Austin’s rapid growth, it is inevitable that the outlying areas, including Lake Travis neighborhoods, will grow, too. Nonetheless, that casual, lakeside vibe keeps on keeping on. The people who live there help preserve that old Austin feeling.
In closing, I need to give a huge shout-out to my friend and long-time Lake Travis resident, Christine Prater with Moreland Properties. She inspired this article and generously shared her insider’s view of Lake Travis.
@theAustinot wants to know:
What are your favorite things to do and eat around Lake Travis?