There is never a day that Zilker Park lays dormant. If there isn’t a festival forming a patchwork over the grassy expanses, then the acres are still alive with visitors exploring its many attractions and arteries. Zilker Park isn’t a place you can fully experience in a day or even a week. It takes a full year to take in all of its faces, and a history lesson to understand how the park came to be the cornerstone of everything we Austinites hold near and dear.
Patch of Green in the Wild West: The Origins of Zilker Park
Let’s take a step back in time to Central Texas in the early 1900’s. Along the quiet banks of the Colorado River, the growing city of Waterloo had recently been renamed Austin. This illustrious title, inspired by Father of Texas Stephan F. Austin, felt like a better fit for the newly appointed capital city of the Republic of Texas. These were simpler–albeit turbulent–devoid of many of the luxuries we have today. Informative blogs were scarce; fusion restaurants were few and far between; and the people of Austin relied on deliveries from Andrew Zilker’s ice factory to keep their perishables cool.
Zilker found his perfect match in Austin when he emigrated to Texas in 1876. Even at the beginning, Austinites cared about their food. The demand for ice made Zilker an overnight millionaire, allowing him to buy up vast expanses of ranch land around the growing city.
Come 1918, Zilker gave the first of three donations of land to the city for public park space. When he made the donation, he added a philanthropic caveat, which I’d like to think started Austin’s rich history of giving and volunteerism. In exchange for the park, the city would also have to accept an endowment that funded technical training in the public schools. Not only did Austin get its natural jewel, but the children of the city got shop and home ed. classes.
It’s safe to say Zilker did not realize the value of his gift. How could he have known that this 351-acre expanse of land would come to be the heart of our city, with a pulse that marked the passing of the seasons and the most important moments of the capital’s culture.
Spring in Zilker Park
Mother Nature loves to put on a show and Zilker Park is the perfect stage. Leafless trees line the trails until the start of March, when she snaps her fingers and the park comes ablaze in a blanket of green. Spring is the perfect time to lounge on the lawns, hit the Hike and Bike Trail, and try your hand at kayaking or stand up paddle boarding.
Umlauf Garden Party: For one night in April, the already picturesque Umlauf Sculpture Garden puts on an incredible party with music, auctions and food galore to benefit the garden’s exhibitions and educational programs.
Zilker Garden Festival: Head to Zilker Botanical Garden the last weekend in March for a celebration of all things garden themed, featuring floral displays, crafts, food, plants, live music and–of course–a beer garden.
Spring Break Camp: Send spring breakers ages 5-11 to experience new growth, as nature wakes up after spring at Austin Nature & Science Center.
Zilker Kite Festival: During the first weekend in March, kites fill the sky to celebrate the kick-off of spring activities in Austin. Anyone can bring a kite to fly, and there are contests for homemade kites, races, food and exhibits throughout the day.
Summer in Zilker Park
Austinites love the outdoors no matter how hot the summer might get. On days when the sun is particularly oppressive, take a plunge in the naturally cool waters of Barton Springs before spending the evening enjoying the best live entertainment our city offers.
Zilker Pops Concert: Every June, Austin Civic Orchestra offers a free outdoor concert for the public at Zilker Hillside Theater.
Woodland Faerie Trail: Starting in the spring, Austinites are invited to submit faerie homes and gardens to be expertly placed along the paths of Zilker Botanical Garden. The magical trail is open for viewing from the end of May until the end of July each year.
Zilker Summer Musical: Pack a picnic and bring a blanket for this outdoor performance. Zilker Hillside Theater hosts an annual production of a well-known musical every weekend from July to August.
Blues on the Green: Join fellow music lovers on select Wednesdays in the summer for the longest running live music series in Austin. Each night offers a different pair of performances from local musicians across genres.
Moonlight Swim: Although Barton Springs is open year-round, a moonlight dip is only really enjoyable during the hot, sticky days of summer. Free entry from 9-10 p.m. guarantees just enough time to cool off before heading to bed or continuing with the rest of your night.
Fall in Zilker Park
As the trees change colors and the city prepares itself for cooler weather, Zilker Park opens its lawns to one of its biggest events of the year. Fall is also the perfect season for long walks along the trail and riveting games of frisbee on the great lawn. Enjoy the open space while it lasts because, come October, the grounds of Zilker Park become overrun with events, leaving less park space to roam through.
Zilker Zephyr: Although the park’s miniature train runs all year, fall is the perfect time to spend the afternoon on a train-guided tour of Zilker Park. Located directly across from Barton Springs Pool.
Austin City Limits Music Festival: This event helps the city keep its reputation as Live Music Capital of the World. “ACL” welcomes thousands of attendees to enjoy top music from all over the country and world. First two weekends in October.
Last Straw Festival: Celebrate fall with pumpkin carving and giant Austin-themed straw statues at Umlauf Sculpture Garden on the second to last Sunday in October.
Winter in Zilker Park
Winter marks a slightly quieter time for Zilker Park. As fog wafts off the river, only the bravest of crew teams venture out on the cold waters. The trails slow as runners seek shelter on treadmills, waiting for sunnier days. But just because it’s cold, doesn’t mean the park is silent. Austinites watch the trees of Zilker for the first signs of the holiday season, and nearly the whole city turns out to spin beneath the Christmas tree and walk along the paths of the park during Trail of Lights.
Trail of Lights – Every night from the Sunday after Thanksgiving until Dec. 31, Zilker Park is transformed into a winter wonderland of LED splendor.
Polar Bear Splash – Wash away the old year, and start fresh and covered in goosebumps by leaping into Barton Springs the morning of Jan. 1.
Annual Orchid Sale: Fight the winter blues with pops of exotic tropical color and take home a beautiful piece of nature to brighten your home at the Zilker Botanical Garden Orchid Sale.
Winter Break Camp: Send stir crazy kids ages 5-11 to Austin Nature & Science Center for a week-long day camp during the holiday break.
Year-round in Zilker Park
Anytime of the year, Zilker Park is a paradise for all Austinites. It feels like an oasis away from the buzz of the city, while offering the best people-watching around. The next time you can’t think of something to do, just head to the park. If there isn’t an event going on, then maybe it’s the perfect day for a walk along the trail, a nap in the grass or an impromptu listening session with a local troubadour. You can rent a paddle board or visit one of the park’s permanent attractions. Whatever you do, enjoy!
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