If you ask most Austin area hikers about their favorite destination, they’ll likely give you one of three responses: the Barton Creek Greenbelt, the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, or the trail at Turkey Creek.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these answers.
With eight miles of trails conveniently located near the intersection of Mopac and 360, the Barton Creek Greenbelt is the city’s most popular hiking location for a reason.
The Wild Basin Preserve, meanwhile, features a peaceful waterfall and a few breathtaking scenic views.
And few dog-lovers can resist Turkey Creek’s unique mix of off-leash culture and winding creekside paths.
Yet, somehow, a place that harmoniously melds the best features of these three trails often goes unmentioned — and it’s located just a hop and a skip away from Lake Travis.
Nestled between Steiner Ranch and the Four Points area in the River Place neighborhood, River Place Nature Trail offers canyon views, waterfalls, pools, tall rock shelves, small walking bridges, a friendly swan, and just about everything but a partridge in a pear tree.
To check out this remarkable — and remarkably underrated — trail, head east from the 620/2222 intersection and take River Place Blvd. south to reach one of the three trailheads.
The first you’ll encounter is the Canyon Trail (4740 River Place Blvd.).
After circling around River Place Country Club and its clubhouse, you’ll find the Little Fern Trail (3916 River Place Blvd.).
Heading north from the Little Fern Trail, take your first right onto Big View Dr. and you’ll run into a boardwalk overlooking a lovely little pond where the Panther Hollow Trail (8820 Big View Dr.) begins.
Each trail boasts its own unique characteristics, so here’s a little bit about each one.
The Canyon Trail
The Canyon Trail offers everything you’d expect from its name. You’ll enjoy fantastic panoramic views and dry driftwoods from the get-go.
They soon give way to big boulders and limestone ledges with a few winding and dramatic passes sprinkled in between.
Things get greener the further you move down the canyon as the cliffs and overhangs give life to moss, ferns and other types of vegetation.
Be sure to breathe in that refreshing natural air. This part of the trail is where the air smells best and you’re probably going to need it as you venture through the most challenging part of the River Place Nature Trail.
The Canyon Trail area features tons and tons of stairs forged in the limestone, and it’s hard not to huff through its steepest paths.
There are 2,736 built-in steps through the entire River Place Nature Trail, and it sure seems like most of them can be found in the Canyon Trail section.
With a 1,700-foot change in elevation from the Canyon trailhead to the Panther Hollow trailhead, the Canyon Trail also has the highest elevation change in the Austin area. According to Friends of the River Place Nature Trail, this makes it a great place to train for hiking the Grand Canyon and many other rigorous hiking destinations.
The Little Fern Trail
If you like babbling brooks, tranquil falls, peaceful pools and the occasional stepping-stone crossing, you’re going to fall in love with this area of the River Place Nature Trail. Oh, and there’s a reason it’s called the Little Fern Trail. It’s the shortest of the trails and it’s littered with vibrant green ferns along its lower-lying parts.
While there are several steps through the Little Fern Trail, they’re not nearly as frequent or as steep as those on the Canyon Trail. These paths meander around (and sometimes through) creeks and waterfalls.
Along the Little Fern Creek, you’ll walk just inches away from lovely limestone rock shelves.
The Little Fern Trail’s waterfalls all have cozy off-paths and little places to sit nearby, making them popular picnicking spots.
Those seeking a quick, comfortable but memorable hike should park at the Little Fern Trailhead and head toward the Panther Hollow Trailhead, cutting out the Canyon Trail altogether.
The Panther Hollow Trail
The Panther Hollow Trail is the longest of the bunch. It’s so long that it consists of the Upper Panther and Lower Panther subtrails.
With some steep passes, dry areas and lots of stair-steps, the Upper Panther Trail shares many characteristics with the Canyon Trail. That said, you’ll encounter more cacti on this trail and it wraps around the River Place Country Club golf course, so you can peek in on the local golfers from time to time.
The Lower Panther Trail is very different. It’s mostly on flat land close to a creek and a few small, scattered waterfalls. This trail boasts the clearest paths and is fairly easy to manage.
The best part, however, is that the Lower Panther Trail begins (or ends) with a boardwalk overlooking a charming little pond.
Here, you can rest in a rocking chair beneath a pergola, gaze at the fountain or greet the friendly swan who calls this pond home.
The Panther Hollow Trailhead’s boardwalk is the best place to either end your hike through the 5.5-mile River Place Nature Trail or at least take a “halftime break.”
- Although a battle between the City of Austin and the River Place Municipal Utility District left chunks of the trail inaccessible for many years, the complete trail has been open since 2014.
- The trail is free and open to the public from sunrise to sunset.
- Leashed dogs are allowed.
- Picnics are allowed.
- Bikes and motorized vehicles are NOT allowed.
- Visit friendsofriverplacetrail.com for more information.