Atomic Adventures: Hiking River Place Nature Trail in Austin, TX

I love being outdoors and I love getting in a great workout. The good news about hiking River Place Nature Trail northwest of Austin, Texas, is that it’s so beautiful you forget about how much pain you’re in. Well, some of the time.

River Place Nature Trail is a hidden gem that disappears into the Texas hill country via suburbia hell. (Says the anti-social curmudgeon.) As you pull into the neighborhood boasting possession of the much-beloved trail, you’re convinced that you’re more likely to happen upon one of those golf carts that looks like a Rolls Royce rather than a gorgeous hidden hiking trail in the hills. But the 3-mile long trail is anything but predictable to its camouflaged surroundings.

Part of the deep winding stairs on the Canyon trail.

The trail boasts three trailheads, and is NOT a loop. Let me repeat. It is NOT A LOOP! You need to plan accordingly. As far as you hike in, you will have to hike out, unless you decide after three miles that an Uber will be the better choice to return you to your vehicle. It’s six miles total when you hike from trailhead to trailhead and back the way you came. Yet, here’s what makes River Place so gnarly. And I mean, it’s gnarly, with a capital “GNAR”.  Signs at the trailhead claim the trail contains 2,756 steps carved into the side of the hills held by cut logs. Oh, and did I mention those steps are only one way. The trail has a 1,700 ft elevation change. It’s lots of ups and downs and moments you may feel like crying, but then all of a sudden you happen upon a little waterfall and your eyes dry up, which may or may not be dehydration from all the sweating.

That’s what I love about River Place Nature Trail, it’s pure magic. Not only is it making my ass defy gravity, it’s just a beautiful hike. It consists of three trails, Panther Hollow, The Fern Trail, and Canyon Trail. The Fern Trail is a short half-mile off-shoot from the other two trails.

If you want the harder workout, then begin at the trailhead on River Place drive and begin with the Canyon Trail. The entrance is very unassuming and you’ll likely only spot it by an odd line of cars parked to the right side of the road. The reason why entering and leaving here is more challenging is because once you pass what I affectionately call “one-mile tree” on your way out, it feels as though the entire last mile is straight up. That may be an over-exaggeration, but not by much.

“One-mile tree”, which looks remarkably like a demogorgan here.

If you want to start flat and end flat, you’ll want to go to the boardwalk trailhead complete with fountain, rocking chairs, and swans. If you have children, for the love of God, begin here or choose the astoundingly beautiful Fern Trail which has it’s own trailhead and is only half a mile long. I can’t tell you how many occasions I’ve seen people beginning a hike from the top trailhead with small toddlers. I begin my countdown, MELTDOWN IN 5,4,3….! People train to hike the Grand Canyon by coming here. If you have a toddler, and you begin at the top trailhead, you’re gonna have a bad time. I guarantee it.

The other entrance by the boardwalk is every bit as charming and you’ll be able to get to the water without the massive climbs.

Adventure Betty’s Life Lesson Learned: Most of the time when I bike, I’m listening to music. With this hike, however, I am fully sans the earbuds. There’s something about this place that as I’m getting lost in the woods, I get lost in my thoughts and the last thing I’m craving is music. This place is magic to me. For some reason when I finish, I have an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and peace. I swear it’s like therapy. If I begin the hike with a heavy heart, by the time it’s completed I realize, my burdens are lifted and my mind is at ease.

If you’d like to read Atomic Betty’s full life lesson from the trail you can do so here. “Being” In Your Happy Place. If you’d like more information on the trail, keep reading.

How long does it take: It takes me close to two hours to do the entire hike but the signs will warn you that a person of average health will take 90 minutes to trek from one of the two main trailheads to the other.

What to bring: Water. With some water. And a side of water. I also bring a mid-hike snack just for energy because since I park at the top, the hike back is the part I need the most energy for.

What not to bring: For the love of all that is holy, please don’t bring your purse. I see girls all the time with their purses on the trail and this confuses me greatly. I guess they think they’re going to run into a Starbucks along the way. Or maybe a place to get their nails done. Just don’t. Some people wear their sunglasses but in all honesty, because of the massive shade from the trees, you really won’t need them.

What to wear: Good shoes! I use trail runners, but hiking boots would be perfect as well. I use the trail runners because I like the flexibility I have running the stairs. There are a lot of rolling rocks underfoot in places. But again, I’ve seen everything from flip flops to Keds. It depends on how far and how hard you are going.

When to go: I try to go during the weekdays because on the weekends, especially mid to late mornings, it gets busy. Especially if the weather is nice. The trail is a thin one, so someone has to move in order to pass. Trail etiquette dictates that anyone on the up climb has the right of way. However, try telling that to a girl with her thousand dollar purse and lip gloss you have the right of way. I just move.

What’s allowed and what’s not allowed: Dogs are allowed and I’m getting to know quite a few of their names. There’s a great pool area by the creek that the dogs love to jump in. Bikes are NOT allowed which I’m convinced you would die if you even thought about getting a bike on there. However, my boyfriend would love to try.

If you are in Austin and you get a chance to make the hike, even with all the steps, I promise you, you won’t regret it.

 

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