48 Hours in Austin: Ditch the Car, Embrace the Unknown

Discover urban space at a casual pace

The drone of traffic faded as soon as I dropped into the sanctuary of Blunn Creek, replaced by the whistles of birds carried across rippling water. Just a 38-acre green space situated near Interstate 35 and surrounded by urban sprawl in Austin, Texas, but within the Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, it was as if I had been carried away to the backcountry.

Blossoming bluebonnets guided me along a rocky path until I returned to a sidewalk snaking through a neighborhood, reminding me that I was in the middle of Texas’ capital city during one of the busiest times of the year—early March, the season of South by Southwest.

After walking 3 miles north to rent a bike, I rolled a pair of dice onto the pollen-dusted asphalt just outside the doors. I got a six, which meant my next stop was Zilker Metropolitan Park.

Let me back up.

I’ve been to Austin before, and have hiked, biked and climbed around the area’s assortment of green spaces. But I’ve always had a car, zooming past neighborhoods and over the unique, hilly terrain without stopping to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the city.

Having a vehicle at my disposal had always tempted me to trek to places outside the city, when in reality there are ample outdoor opportunities within Austin. I had never before truly experienced the city on an intimate level, so on this trip, I wanted to slow down to soak in every bit of my travel experience—not just the destinations, but the journeys along the way, too.

The setup: I would spend 48 hours exploring Austin, getting around solely by foot or bicycle—no automobiles. To infuse a bit of serendipity into the trip, I would allow a list of pre-selected activities and a handy dice to dictate my itinerary. The list and corresponding dice numbers included: 

  1. Anne and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail/Lady Bird Lake
  2. Crux Climbing Center
  3. Barton Creek Greenbelt (Gus Fruh)
  4. Rowing Dock ATX
  5. Mayfield Nature Preserve
  6. Zilker Metropolitan Park

With chance as my guide and a trusty bicycle as my transportation, I would get to know the city I already knew and loved in a whole new way.

Day One: Rolling the Dice

Before heading out for my first day, I stuffed my backpack full of (potential) essentials: climbing shoes and chalk, hammock, water and food, tire pump and phone charger.

At 10:30am I rolled the dice for the first time, which sent me toward Zilker Metropolitan Park, about 2 miles away from the cycling shop.

As I waited to cross the street at a red light, I wondered if this experiment would truly get me closer to the city. I watched cars pass by, almost envious of everyone’s ease at getting around.

But, as I took off again on my bike and felt the cool, morning air against my skin, I was happy to be outside, using my body, and filled with anticipation about what I might discover during the day.

Zilker Park

Upon arriving, I found that there is plenty to do in the 351-acre park along Lady Bird Lake. I got a magnificent view of downtown, my first of the trip, from a high point atop the Zilker Park Clubhouse. Next up, I walked the Austin Nature and Science Center’s hiking trails, slowly making my way through dense canopy in the Zilker Park Nature Preserve to a sprawling green space. Here, I set up my hammock for a break and a snack, while other folks lounged in the sun.

My next roll of the dice took me less than a mile around Zilker Park, where I got more views of downtown, to Rowing Dock ATX on Lady Bird Lake. I appreciated the separate bike lanes on the way there, which were also well-swept and devoid of any obstructions like rocks or trash.

Lady Bird Lake

At Rowing Dock, I rented a kayak for an hour. The lake is actually a reservoir on the Colorado River (not to be confused with the larger Colorado in the Southwest). Likely due to the wind and highs in the 50s that day, I only had to share the crystal-clear lake with groups of ring-necked ducks and one territorial swan that chased me out of a cove. In the summer, Lady Bird Lake is a great place for stand up paddle boarding and fishing, too.

My next move was cycling 4 miles north of downtown. Earlier, I had noticed my bike seat was too far back and without any tools to adjust it, I was having to stretch my body all day. I really started to feel it on the undulating hills through the Tarrytown neighborhood. But taking everything in around me helped dismiss the discomfort—a stroll on a pedestrian bridge across Lady Bird Lake and more fields of wildflowers.

I noticed a thriving community garden adjacent to the lake and stopped to chat about local food with a gardener who was pulling some weeds. In a car, I likely wouldn’t have even passed by the garden, which is tucked away near the bridge, as my maps app would’ve directed me to busier streets.  

Mayfield Park

When I reached Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve, I expected only hiking trails, but was surprised to find a flower garden complete with peacocks ambling about. On the trail, I picked out native vegetation thanks to informative signs, and even crossed a few small creeks and climbed a bluff. For the third time in a day, the dense, forested hills whisked me off to another place far from Austin metro.

That night I was staying with friends, Landon and Michelle, and my ride back to their apartment was 8.3 miles—needless to say, farther than I had anticipated. I walked my bike up most of the hills on the way south and, by the time I had gotten downtown, I stopped for a well-deserved burrito, which inadvertently threatened to put me in a food coma. I walked it off for the rest of the 1.8 miles back and got to enjoy a well-earned sunset. I watched as the sun slowly hung lower until it dipped below the trees, casting an amber glow on the few clouds in the sky. Later that night, I stayed in to catch up (lounge on the couch) with my friends.

Day Two: Slowing Down

Nursing a case of saddle soreness on the morning of my second day, I looked at my bike with a wince.

I had just rolled a three, which meant I was headed for the Barton Creek Greenbelt. The Greenbelt is an Austin staple, a protected park following Barton Creek that’s full of hiking trails, crags and swimming holes. I set my GPS for Gus Fruh, a spot on the Greenbelt, and set off.

The Greenbelt

Starting my ride, I pedaled through a hilly neighborhood leading to the trailhead, stopping for coffee along the way. After grabbing some joe, I walked for most of the remainder of my trip, which was complemented by a retinue of barking dogs, an orange cat perched in a window, squirrels shaking branches, cyclists cruising down the well-maintained bike path—and oh yeah: A bird pooped on my arm.

I took a quick jaunt, boulder hopping along Barton Creek for a half-mile or so before backtracking. In the summer, Gus Fruh is one of the go-to swimming holes in the area. Nearby, there’s also plenty of sport climbing, along with some technical bouldering ranging from V6 to V9.

As soon as I mounted my bike, my butt again let me know it wasn’t happy. I decided that slowing down and walking was best for the rest of the day, and I’m glad I did. With the warmer temperatures and light wind, I could smell pollen swirling through the air.

As I strolled along the sidewalk, walking my bike near my side with a coffee cup in one hand, a man hanging out in his driveway said, “You should get a cup holder for that coffee.”

“They should make these cups hands free,” I replied with a smile, then waved as I continued on.

It was just a quick, passing exchange with a stranger, but the pleasant interaction was starting to convince me that automobiles, indeed, take something away from a travel experience.

Before starting my trip, I had suspected that perhaps we sacrifice these sort of interpersonal connections in favor of convenience to get around a city. This random moment—seemingly such a little thing—along with other chance encounters I shared with folks along the way, confirmed my suspicions. And, are cars really that convenient when factoring in parking, flat tires, traffic and gas money?

My body decimated by saddle soreness, I pedaled 3 miles south and returned my bike, resolving to cover the rest of my Austin challenge on foot. Afterward, I crossed my fingers that my next roll wouldn’t be far.

The Crux

As fate would have it,  the dice called for a run along the nearby Anne and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail. This 10-mile path traces Lady Bird Lake, and the boardwalk section is 1.1 miles, which extends over the lake, offering an unobstructed view of downtown.

The path connected me to South Congress Street, a busy thoroughfare in south Austin full of restaurants and packed sidewalks, where I met a friend for lunch. Now, like some strange ritual, I rolled the dice on our dining table—a two.

“Want a lift,” Landon asked. “You can cheat once, can’t you?”

I considered it but opted to stay strong, walking the mile and a half to Crux Climbing Center. Once I got away from the bustle of South Congress Street, the businesses waned and I began passing homes, many of them decorated with cacti garden beds, blooming flowers growing ravenously in a few lawns. And, what seemed a constant of my trip so far, the subtle calls of at least a half-dozen different types of birds chirped from above.

Crux Climbing Center boasts a 30-foot rope-climbing area complete with a few auto-belays and a bouldering cave, where I was free to flail about as I remembered how to climb after an extended hiatus. As a plus, any day pass gets you a free same-day yoga class.

However, after pulling on some holds, instead of chasing my bliss, I opted to chase my thirst, electing to grab a drink next door with Landon at Cosmic, a beer garden and coffee bar. He and I talked as the sun set, then finished off the night at another watering hole down the street.

As we flirted with midnight, Landon prepared to catch a ride from a friend. I looked at my phone—it was a half-hour walk to the apartment. I swallowed my pride and hopped in the car.

That sort of serendipity, I think, the kind that fills out the details and daily quirks of a place, we could all use more of when exploring.

On the short drive back, I recognized the route we took as I had just walked it earlier in the day. I remembered stopping to look at flowers alongside the road, a collection of bluebonnets that sprawled over the hill. Farther down, near a creek bottom, great-tailed grackles squawked at me.

As the wind had blown, I could smell spring in the air.

In the backseat of the car, of course, none of that was apparent. I could only hear the drum of the tires, the soft sound of the radio. I peered out the window, struggling to see through the dark.

As I reflected on what I had done over the last two days, it hit me that I had never experienced Austin like this, uncovering a part of the city that only emerges when you slow down, hop out of the car and start exploring.

The next morning—my experiment complete—I prepared to spend a day working at a coffee shop. I looked at my phone—a five-minute drive or a 25-minute walk?

I grabbed my backpack and headed out the door, electing to continue my wanderings on foot through the city.

I left the dice, but I certainly brought along my curiosity for what I might encounter on the way. That sort of serendipity, I think, the kind that fills out the details and daily quirks of a place, we could all use more of when exploring.