Austin, TX is an awesome place to get outside with your kids! The heart of the city is Barton Springs Pool, a huge spring-fed pool that is on the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail (10 miles) inside of Zilker Park (350 acres). Just by getting outside and exploring together, the whole family can learn a ton about the geology, plants and animals of Texas (of today and millions of years ago).
You can maximize learning potential by reading the recommended books before visiting each place. However, if you don’t have the time to study up before your visit, have your kids start a nature journal and bring it with you everywhere! My kids love going back through theirs months later to remember what we did and showing off their writing/drawing to other people. It is also a good way to keep track of things that you may want to go over with them in more detail later.
There is a small but very informative exhibit on aquifers and water pollution at the entrance to the Barton Springs Pool. Admission is free and if you are going to swim in the pool anyways, it is certainly worth a visit inside. We have been several times and we always learn something new. There is a teachers guide to the exhibit on the website, but most things are pretty self explanatory as long as you are willing go slowly and investigate each part. I have had some great conversations with my kids here about the water cycle, water pollution and conserving water. Bigger kids will get the most out of it, but on a hot day little kids are happy to walk through the dark, cool cave too. Either Down Comes the Rain by Franklyn M. Branley or The Magic School Bus Wet All Over: A Book about the Water Cycle would be a good read with younger children before visiting the exhibit.
Watch this documentary all about Barton Springs before you visit and then enjoy some play time! Take a swim or relax on the grassy hill next to the pool and people watch. There is a diving board and a place on one end to wade into the pool. You can also bring masks and snorkels and really get up close and personal with the living things under the water. The water is 68 degrees year round, so factor that into your decision, but if it’s summer time you WILL want to get in I promise. My experience has been that is much easier to just jump into the pool from the side rather than try to wade in where it is VERY slippery and much harder to adjust to the water temperature.
If you want to get an up close look at life in the water but don’t want to swim, take a canoe ride instead. Just towards Barton Springs Road (on foot) from Barton Springs Pool you will see a sign for canoe rentals, they are $15/hour cash only. The water is very clear so you can easily look down into the water and spot fish, turtles and underwater flowers! This article will give you a very quick overview of what you will be seeing in the water.
If this sounds hard, I encourage you to go ahead and try it, it is surprisingly easy! I have done this (as the only adult) with both kids and our dog with no problem.
If you want to relax and maybe have a picnic, but water isn’t your thing, head across the street from the pool to the big open field of Zilker Park. There are big, cliff type rocks that my kids love to climb on that are just big enough to be exciting for them, but not so big that I have to climb with them.
Keep in mind that there are usually dogs off-leash in this area of the park.
The Botanical Gardens display exotic and native plant species on 26 acres within Zilker Park. The highlights for my kids are the Prehistoric Garden, the Japanese Garden and of course, the Children's Garden. There are two books, The Story of Mother Tree and The Journey of the Third Seed, available in the gift shop for reading on-site that tell the story of this particular Japanese Garden. Take the time to read them with your kids before going into the gardens, it really does enhance the visit in our experience.
There is a self guided tour geared towards children that you can use on your visit.
My kids enjoyed doing a scavenger hunt in the gardens. There are tons of options to download if you search for "nature scavenger hunts"; we used one similar to this one from "This is How You Play".
The Science and Nature Center is located in Zilker Park off of Stratford Lane. It’s easiest to park right under the Mopac Bridge and then cross Stratford to get to the trail that will lead you up to the main building. You can also access Butler Trail from here.
The Center consists of three main parts: a naturalist workshop, a rescued animal exhibit and a short nature trail around a pond that ends at a dinosaur dig pit. In the naturalist workshop, kids can handle lots of “nature finds” (think snake skin and squirrel skulls) and even use a microscope, scale or magnifying glass to investigate closely. The Birds of Prey exhibit is a great opportunity to see the specific adaptations of these types of birds up close.
My 6 year old is perfectly content to dig for bones in the dino pit and make her own discoveries. My 8 year old needs a little direction to make it meaningful for him, so for bigger kids, you may want to bring this general description or these specific profiles of the animals whose bones are found in the pit and read through them together, try to identify them in the pit or make journal entries with them.
Want to do a little preparation? Read Digging Up Dinosaurs and/or Fossils Tell of Long Ago by Aliki to your little ones before you head to the Nature Center. It will really help put what you will be seeing and doing into context.
The Smithsonian PreHistoric Pals Collection app is also a great resource to go through together before your visit.
These will all be relevant reads for a visit to the Texas Memorial Museum as well.
Need to eat? Shady Grove is kid-friendly and close-by; above average bar food, but a very fun atmosphere.
The Texas Memorial Museum is a place that my kids never get tired of visiting. It is small and manageable, you can go through the whole thing in 1-2 hours, but still worthwhile. There is a hall of paleontology where fossils found in Texas are on display; a hall of geology showcasing beautiful gems and rocks; and a hall of Texas wildlife dioramas. The education page of the museum’s website has curriculum guides for each section of the museum, with pre- and post-visit activities and suggested reading. Take a look at this website with your kids before you go, it provides a quick rundown of the most impressive creatures that used to roam Texas.
Need to eat? Torchy's Tacos on Guadalupe street is less than a mile away and you can't come to Austin without trying it! Best. Tacos. Ever.
The LBJ Wildflower Center is open all year, but is most impressive when the famous Texas wildflowers are actually in bloom, which is usually during March. Two great reads for younger kids (<8) before visiting would be The Legend of the Bluebonnet and The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush by Tomie dePaola. The LBJ Wildflower Center website also has a great education page, with another read on Wildflowers of Texas Legends and Folklore and some scavenger hunts, checklists and trail guides to use while you are visiting. You can print these out beforehand or check out a Discovery Pack while you are there that has most of the materials you would want in them.
Need to eat? The Oak Hill location of Jack Allen's Kitchen is in the same general area of town (about 4 miles away) and has a great farm to table menu with a fun, hip vibe inside (i.e. don't go in your bathing suit, but otherwise casual).
West Cave Preserve is a 75 acre preserve about 40 minutes west of downtown Austin. If you have the time, the drive through the hill country is beautiful. You must make a reservation for a guided tour in advance if you want to explore the property. We did the "Water: Lifeblood of the Earth" program with the Austin Families in Nature Homeschool Program. It was a three hour program that included a demonstration of point and non-point source pollution on a model town, a runoff and groundwater exhibit and a hike through the arid savannah down to the beautiful grotto. The guides were excellent, both knowledgable and enthusiastic with kids, and the tour was well worth the fee.
Need to eat? Verdes is about a 15 minute drive back towards town from the preserve. It is delicious interior Mexican food with a huge outdoor yard for the kids.
If West Cave Preserve requires too much planning, you can hike to Twin Falls at any time for free! This is a great way to see the Barton Creek Greenbelt that everyone is always talking about in Austin. It is a pretty short hike (an easy 15 minutes) downhill to the water, although you can keep going much further if you like. I have even taken my non-hiking mother-in-law on this walk and with a few little pushes over some slippery rocks on the way back up from the water, she did just fine. It is best to do this hike on a weekday morning as it does get crowded otherwise.
You can bring your dog on a leash, but be aware that lots of people let their dogs off leash even though technically they aren't supposed to.
Take a Texas Birds book with you and see how many you can spot. If your kids are younger than 8, have them watch the Wild Kratts episodes (Season 2: Episodes 17, 20 and 21) about animals they might see on the hike.
Need to eat? My favorite nearby spot to eat with kids and a dog is Red's Porch on South Lamar (about 2 miles from Twin Falls parking)I.
The 1.5 million Mexican brown tailed bats that live under the Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin take off in unison at sundown for their nightly feed from March through October. For a low-key (and free!) viewing, you can stand on the bridge and watch them go. If you want to make an event of it, you can reserve a spot on a bat cruise with Capital Cruises or rent a kayak through Live Love Paddle to see the bats depart from the water. Read Bats by Gail Gibbons with your kids while you are waiting for sundown.
Need to eat? Well, you are downtown, so look around and there are tons of options! My recommendation is walk over to The Four Seasons for happy hour appetizers and drinks; everyone will enjoy sitting outside on the river. If you need a full meal, I like Lambert's for upscale BBQ, but go early (5:30ish) if you don't want to wait for an hour for a table.