Kayaking is a way of life for Austin locals and we've got the lowdown on the best places to go © Larry Williams and Associates / Getty Images
It’s no secret that Austin is known as the most outdoorsy city in Texas. The city teems with green spaces as well as lakes, reservoirs and rivers, making it very popular for boating in general – and kayaking in particular.
Whether you’re interested in paddling with the city skyline as your backdrop or prefer quieter spaces with hidden coves and rugged channels, the Texas capital has something for every type of kayaker. We’ve gathered our favorite kayaking destinations in and around Austin so you have all you need for a seamless paddling experience.
Lady Bird Lake is Austin’s most accessible kayaking destination
Lady Bird Lake is Austin’s crown jewel and the most popular kayaking spot in town. In the heart of the city, this 416-acre reservoir was created in 1960 with the damming of the Colorado River. Here, you’ll see kayakers gliding over the calm surface while admiring the sparkling buildings of downtown Austin on one side and the green spaces of Zilker Park on the other. Many paddle toward hotspots like 17-acre Red Bud Isle or Festival Beach, an inlet beach near the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood.
Lady Bird Lake is the most accessible kayaking destination if you’re staying in central Austin. Not only is it close to downtown and popular neighborhoods like South Congress, but the lake has eight official access points and a slew of kayak rentals along its shores. Waller Creek Boathouse, Epic SUP, The Expedition School, Texas Rowing Center, Rowing Dock and Zilker Park Boat Rentals are all trusted outfitters to consider.
Insider tip: Take a kayak out at sunset and paddle to the Congress Avenue Bridge to get a perfect view of the bats taking flight at night.
Hit the water in a kayak at sunset for a unique view of the Congress Avenue Bridge bats setting off for the night © Kushal Bose / Shutterstock
Head to Lake Austin for the city’s best paddle spot for natural scenery
A reservoir adjacent to Lady Bird Lake, Lake Austin begins at Mansfield Dam and ends at the Tom Miller Dam. While grand homes line sections of Lake Austin’s shores, for the most part this is a tranquil body of water that offers plenty of natural beauty.
Most of the Lake Austin shoreline is privately owned, so kayakers are limited to five launch points: Emma Long Metropolitan Park, Mary Quinlan Park, Fritz Hughes Park, the Walsh Boat Landing, and a boat ramp below the Loop 360 bridge. Emma Long Metropolitan does charge an entrance fee (because it has campsites); if you want to save a bit of cash, park and launch at the other four sites.
Unlike Lady Bird Lake, motorboats can be used on Lake Austin – which means you can expect some choppiness depending on how many other vessels are out on the water. If you’re in need of a kayak rental, call the folks at ATX Peace Paddling, a mobile kayak rental company that serves Lake Austin’s communities.
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Lake Walter E. Long might be Austin’s most underrated kayaking destination
At 1165 acres, Lake Walter E. Long is massive and surrounded by a 3695-acre park of the same name. You could spend a week exploring this phenomenal kayaking destination and could still find a new cove, bit of shoreline or a channel every day.
Boats are allowed on the lake, so prepare yourself for light waves at times. An entrance fee is in effect: $5 Monday to Thursday and $10 on weekends.
Take note that there isn’t a kayak rental on-site – yet. In 2020, Austin adopted an $800 million expansion plan for Lake Walter E. Long which will include boat and kayak rental facilities on the north side of the park. For now, you’ll have to bring your own and use the public boat ramp to launch.
Look forward to diverse kayaking experiences at Lake Travis
Lake Travis may be known as a summertime destination where boaters tie their crafts together in Devil’s Cove for a raging party. Yet kayakers are welcome here, too. At 30 square miles, there is plenty of space to paddle and explore on your own (though we wouldn’t fault you if you wanted to paddle to the party). Lake Travis is renowned for its hidden coves, and whether you’re in a one- or two-person kayak, you’ll have a blast exploring the different channels.
The lake is a 30-minute drive from downtown Austin. Launch into the water from your pick of locations, including Camp Creek Park, Gloster Bend Recreation Area, Grelle Recreation Area, Jessica Hollis Park, Narrows Recreation Area, Shaffer Bend Recreation Area or Turkey Bend Recreation.
If you don’t have your own kayak, rent one from Austin Peddle Kayaks, Viking Ship Kayak Rentals or Lakeway Marina Paddleboard and Kayak Rentals. Some hotels on Lake Travis, like The Cove BnB, even offer free kayaks for guests.
Expect currents and rapids on sections of the San Marcos River, an hour south of Austin © Valerie Johnson / Shutterstock
Intermediate and expert paddlers should head to the San Marcos River
Just an hour’s drive south of Austin is one of the most popular tubing spots in Texas, the San Marcos River. Tubers come out in full force every summer, yet the San Marcos River makes for a great year-round kayaking destination because of the mild Texas climate and the water’s average temperature of 72 degrees.
Along the spring-fed San Marcos’ 75 miles, paddlers can twist and wind through 130 acres of parkland, the Hill Country, calm pools, and Class I and II rapids. Although you could paddle all the way to the Guadalupe River (which requires the occasional portage around old dams), most people paddle the 16.5 miles between City Park in San Marcos and Staples Dam.
It doesn’t cost a thing to park or enter the San Marcos River, at least not from the 16 access points that can be found at numerous parks in San Marcos between City Park in the north and Ramon Lucio Park in the south.
Beginners and intermediate paddlers may want to start off with the 6 miles between San Marcos and the Luling Zedler Mill; on the 4-hour trip, don’t be surprised if you experience a few currents and low-level rapids. For something more intense, the Rio Vista Falls in Rio Vista Park has three sets of drops – a lead-in slide, a middle-hole feature and a ledge drop – with a variety of flow rates. It’s here where paddlers can level up their white-water kayaking skills.
There are several kayak outfitters in the area like Texas Canoes and Kayaks and Olympic Outdoor Center that can take care of your kayak rental or guided tour needs. Paddle SMTX offers a super-popular after-dark paddle experience on the San Marcos: lights on the bottom of see-through kayaks let you witness the underwater river world by night.
Insider tip: You can take coolers and alcohol for a float on the San Marcos River. Just make sure to take your trash with you and remember to recycle.
The best kayaking day trip is Inks Lake State Park
Inks Lake State Park is a Hill Country gem. The lake within the park is the second in a series of lakes on the lower Colorado River; Buchanan Dam is on the north side, and Inks Dam is to the south.
The horseshoe-shaped lake is 4.2 miles long with a surface of 831 acres. Although boats are allowed on the water, Inks Lake State Park has tried to keep kayakers in mind with a large, no-wake zone for paddling. Arrive with your own kayak or rent a one- or two-person kayak, paddles, and life vests from the state-park store. Because this kayaking destination is located in a state park, there is a $7 daily entrance fee for adults (with free admission for children under 12).
As you paddle about Inks Lake, admire the hilly landscape full of pink limestone outcrops jutting out of the ground. Cedar elm, live oak, willows and pecan trees mixed with native grasses, cacti and wildflowers in the spring add to the views of Texas’ natural beauty.
Barton Creek, off Lady Bird Lake, is an easy and accessible place to take your kayak © Christian Perry / Shutterstock
Tips for kayaking in Austin
- If you can bring one thing on your kayaking trip, make sure it’s water. While this part of Texas can get chilly in the winter, in spring, summer and parts of fall, it’s quite hot and humid. Be sure to stay hydrated.
- The reservoirs, rivers and lakes around Austin are managed by dam systems, which can help limit flooding and dangerous conditions. That said, it’s always best to check with local park or city services or even kayak outfitters to see whether it’s safe or not to hit the water.
- Texas is home to many dangerous snakes, including water moccasins. Keep an eye out for these poisonous creatures if you stop for a break on an embankment.
- Many of the “lakes” around Austin are actually reservoirs created by the damming of rivers and are shaped accordingly – sometimes with currents to match. We would recommend arranging for a vehicle to take you back to your launching point after a multi-mile kayak trip downstream rather than attempt a round trip.