It’s hard to imagine Austin without its crown — the 10-mile trail that encircles much of Lady Bird Lake in the heart of the city. Officially known as the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail, the path offers a natural respite in Austin’s increasingly concrete core, serving the fitness and commuting needs of runners, walkers, and cyclists — a vital alternative transit corridor away from car-jammed streets.
But without a few notable visionaries, including Lady Bird Johnson herself, the trail might never have taken its current shape, skewing Austin’s development on a very different, and less prosperous tangent. Back in the 1960s, the shores of the recently-formed Town Lake were barren and brown. Anything green had been stripped away by decades of flooding along the Colorado River, helped along by misguided efforts to remove the trees along the river’s banks to abate future flood damage.
The first dam on the river, on the west side of what’s now known as Lady Bird Lake, was completed in 1893, destroyed by a flood, rebuilt in 1912, destroyed by another flood, and finally rebuilt atop the existing two dam structures as the Tom Miller Dam in 1940 — which thankfully seemed to do the trick, keeping the Colorado River in control to this day on its ebbs and flows through Austin.
In 1960, the Longhorn Dam was built on the eastern side of the new lake to supply cooling waters for the nearby Holly Power Plant — the name originates from its location along the old Chisholm Trail where cattlemen steered their longhorns across the river.
The new lake was soon dubbed Town Lake by a newspaper reporter who apparently didn’t know what else to call it. The city council’s lake study committee proposed calling it Lake Tonkawah, after the Native American tribe that once lived along its riverbanks. That name, however, was quickly dismissed after a councilman suggested the tribe might have been cannibals — while others joked that Texans would never remember how to spell it.
Perhaps the plainly-named Town Lake was appropriate for the stripped and polluted puddle it was in 1971 when Lady Bird Johnson, Les Gage, Ann Butler, and other influential folks in the city formed the Town Lake Beautification Committee, aiming to beautify the lake and its shores to enhance the community with a new outdoor gathering place.
But it was a chance meeting between Lady Bird and Ann Butler in London that really solidified the idea of the trail. The two women were admiring a stretch of the Thames Path — a beautiful, green trail along London’s famous river — from the balcony of their hotel, and Lady Bird asked Butler if they might create something similar along the shores of Town Lake. Butler agreed, and looked to her husband, Austin’s Mayor Roy Butler, for help.
The city had a plan in place at the time for enhancing the lake’s image, and was in the process of seeking federal funds to put it into action — voters had already approved more than $1 million for the project as well. But it was Mayor Butler’s idea for a presidential-style fundraiser at the LBJ Ranch that really moved the Beautification Committee, and the idea of a trail, forward into reality.
Donors flew in from Houston with the promise that the former president would greet the bigwigs in his bedroom, but Lyndon B. Johnson died in January 1973, little more than three months before the planned April event. Lady Bird insisted that the party would go on as scheduled, and Willie Nelson played to a packed house.
With enough cash to move forward, the Committee enlisted the help of local garden clubs in planting and maintaining more than 3,600 trees, including many Texas redbuds, which were meant to bring color and identity to the shores — not unlike the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C.
The committee also began building a trail around the lake, which was an innovative idea for the era. The British had a long history of rambling — walking long distances for pleasure — and the Thames Path accommodated such pursuits. But Americans, and most definitely Texans, were square in the middle of a golden age of suburban sprawl and its associated car culture in the 1970s, and pedestrian-friendly design wasn’t high on the list of priorities for most city planners at the time.
A jogging craze had recently emerged, though it had yet to go mainstream, so the idea of running on a trail remained foreign to most Texans. Even Lady Bird didn’t foresee the vast fitness, recreation, and transportation options the trail might one day provide — she simply imagined a path giving the community access to the lake and its surrounding area.
Along the trail, the committee oversaw two major projects — the building of gazebos at Auditorium Shores and Lou Neff Point.
Having completed everything it set out to do, the committee disbanded in 1976 with much of the trail on the west side of the lake in place. A pedestrian walkway underneath the Mopac Expressway had been built alongside the highway in 1973, due to efforts of local conservationist Roberta Crenshaw, who helped influence the Texas Department of Transportation to add this critical footbridge to its plans for the highway and form the trail’s west end.
The first pedestrian crossing built over Lady Bird Lake, however, was at Congress Avenue. The current concrete arch bridge was built in 1910, and underwent a major renovation in 1980, which inadvertently made the bridge an irresistible summer home to a mega-colony of Mexican free-trailed bats. The 1.5 million bats, mostly female, arrive around March to build nests and birth their pups under the bridge, giving trail users a distinct experience both visual and aromatic.
(A new trail bridge under the Congress Avenue bridge should be complete within the next two years.)
Other significant pedestrian crossovers, connecting the northern and southern portions of the trail, were built well after the leadership of the Beautification Committee ended. The bridge at First Street was built in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1989 that our city council approved the wide pedestrian lanes on both sides of the bridge that are separated from vehicular traffic and sunken comfortably below road level, creating convenient foot access to the Auditorium Shores area.
In 2001, the James D. Pfluger Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge opened, named for the Austin architect who contributed to the design of trail and parkland. Built after a drunk driver hit and killed a cyclist crossing the lake on Lamar Boulevard’s extremely narrow sidewalks only inches away from traffic, the pedestrian bridge features an unusual “double curve” design and has become a recognizable piece of Austin architecture.
Nearly three decades after the Beautification Committee disbanded, the trail had become a heavily-trodden component of a growing Austin, with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department charged with the constant necessary upkeep. But citing a lack of leadership, non-profit organization The Trail Foundation formed in 2004 to provide sustainable care for the trail’s environment — and a new direction that had been missing since Lady Bird’s control.
“I’m not sure if Lady Bird or the original committee ever expected the trail to have over 2.6 million visits per year,” says Heidi Anderson, executive director at The Trail Foundation. “I think that would have blown their minds…little Austin back in 1971, versus where we are today.”
“The trail is so well-loved and so well-used, there are literally portions of it falling into the lake. We’re just trying to keep it alive in a lot of ways.”
— Heidi Anderson, The Trail Foundation
The Trail Foundation ushered in the completion of the trail in 2014 with a long-anticipated 1.1-mile boardwalk that finally connected the 10 mile loop around the lake. The boardwalk snakes along the south side of Lady Bird Lake offering stunning views of the city and the water, along with a more unusual feature: bronze castings of leather belts, with lyrics from old country songs stamped into them and fastened to the railings. The belts, a project by Art in Public Places, offer trail users an unexpected bit of Texan culture without impeding the flow of the trail.
The Trail Foundation’s vision, says Anderson, is to expand how people view the trail — which is now labeled by the city as a transportation corridor, not just parkland — and the critical role the trail plays in the continued well-being of Austin’s population.
“As development continues, there is going to be a dense urban core, denser than it is now, and the only way you’re going to get access to nature without having a weekend drive to the hill country is to get on that trail, and probably walk or bike to get to it.”
— Heidi Anderson, The Trail Foundation
- Why is the trailhead under Mopac near Austin High School called “The Rock?”
The Rock refers to the granite slab placed in 1936 — the centennial year of the battle at the Alamo — by the State of Texas to honor William Travis, who died in that battle. The historical marker on top of the slab is largely ignored but its flat surface and prominence (approximately 3 feet high and 2.5 feet wide) made it an ideal place for an unofficial lost and found. Starting in the 1980s, keys, dog toys, driver’s licenses and whatever else had slipped out of peoples’ pockets during a visit to the trail was often placed on top of the marker where it frequently was reunited with its owner. With few other structures at the trailhead, the granite marker began to be referred to simply as “The Rock”.
- Why is there a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan on the hike and bike trail?
Blues rock legend Stevie Ray Vaughan was born near Dallas, but Austin claims him as its own — he moved to Austin as a teenager and performed here often, including at Auditorium Shores just weeks before his death in 1990. A city councilman wanted to rename Auditorium Shores “Stevie Ray Vaughan Park” immediately following his death, but his brother Jimmie Vaughan and mother Martha were uncomfortable with that. They opted instead for a bronze statue, created by sculptor Ralph Helmick, funded primarily by brother Jimmie, and placed near Auditorium Shores in 1994. Passers-by still leave flowers and other devotions at the base of the statue.
- Who is the guitar player I see most weekends on the rocks above Lou Neff Point?
His name is Woode Wood, and that spot has unofficially become known as Woode’s Point. He’s been serenading runners and writing songs there since 2007.
- Can I get married on the trail?
Yes! Weddings, funerals, and baptisms are relatively common on the trail. The most popular site for weddings is Lou Neff Point — although runners who like to stretch there get a little miffed when a wedding interrupts their post-run cool down! The most popular time for baptisms in the lake is Easter Sunday.