We just returned from spending a few days boating and exploring a chain of Texas lakes known as the Highland Lakes. What a fun way to spend a part of the summer — the water is some of the clearest in Texas, the Hill Country and the lakes are very scenic, and there is plenty to see and do on and near each of the lakes. Here are a couple of other good links to learn more about the Highland Lakes – Highland Lakes Overview and Highland Lakes Interactive Map.
Boating the Highland Lakes!
Let’s start with a little history. The Texas Highland Lakes are a chain of man-made lakes formed by several dams on the Texas Colorado River (this is not the same as the Colorado River that flows through the Grand Canyon and empties into the Gulf of California) which winds Southeast from its headwaters near the border of Texas and New Mexico through Central Texas to the Gulf of Mexico.
The lakes and dams are:
- Buchanan Dam – Lake Buchanan
- Inks Dam – Inks Lake
- Wirtz Dam – Lake LBJ
- Starcke Dam – Lake Marble Falls
- Mansfield Dam – Lake Travis
- Tom Miller Dam – Lake Austin
- Longhorn Dam – Town Lake
In the old days, the Colorado River was infamous for major flooding, particularly in Austin and the dams were used to tame the flooding and to generate hydroelectric power. All of the dams, with the exception of Longhorn Dam, were constructed by the Lower Colorado River Authority during the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1960, The City of Austin constructed Longhorn Dam to form Town Lake largely to help beautify the city and to form a cooling pond for its natural gas-burning plant just north of the river. Town Lake, which is only 468 acres and 18 feet deep, starts at Tom Miller dam and flows about 3 miles or so on its way past downtown Austin. You are not allowed to swim or boat in Town Lake, so the only way you can explore the Lake is by canoe or kayak. If you don’t own a canoe or kayak you can rent from a vendor near Barton Springs Pool or from Texas Rowing Center. The Lake flows under three bridges, one of which is the Congress Street Bridge that is home to the largest urban, Mexican Free-tailed Bat colony in North America with a summer population of 1.5 million bats. At dusk, from March to September, Austinites and tourists line the bridge and riverbanks to watch the dramatic sight of the bats streaming out in their nightly quest for insects.
Another great way to explore Town Lake is to bike, run, or walk the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail which circles the Lake. This is a very popular trail of crushed rock and not at all strenuous. Here are some fun things to do as you ride or walk the trail:
Peddle your way into downtown and explore the shops, restaurants, University of Texas, and the Capital building. You can rent bikes at Bicycle Sport Shop
Ride or walk a block or so south of Town Lake to Barton Springs road and eat at Chuy’s (excellent Mexican food), Green Mesquite Barbeque, Baby Acapulco, or sit on the outside patio of Shady Grove and have lunch, appetizers or dinner on the outdoor patio and listen to live music
Follow the trail to Barton Springs Pool and Zilker Park and swim in the natural spring fed water, let the kids play in the playground or ride the train around the park, or just chill around the pool
- Play frisbee golf in Zelker Park
Hike or bike some of the other trials that feed into the Town Lake Trail
The next day we spent the day on Lake Austin. Lake Austin is only 1599 acres and 1300 feet at its widest point and it winds through some of the prettiest Austin Hill Country. Lake Austin is a Texas Outside Favorite Lake (click here to read the review) and rated 8.5 stars out of ten. Lake Austin is more like a river with beautiful scenery flowing up and down its 20 miles of shoreline which is lined with very beautiful and expensive homes in the hills and along the shoreline. There are some fun bars and restaurants right on the water that offer drinks, good food, and live music. Lake Austin also has a couple small coves for swimming and raft-ups and the skiing and boarding is excellent if the lake is not too crowded. After spending the day cruising, watching the golfers at Austin Country Club, and swimming in Bull Creek cove we enjoyed appetizers (the crab cakes were excellent) at Lucy’s Boatyard. We watched the sun set on the deck at Lucy’s, then boated down to Ski Shores for burgers and live music on their deck — can’t get much better than that! If you don’t have a boat there are a number of places that provide lake tours or rent watercraft of various sizes.
Next in the Highland chain of lakes is Lake Travis. Lake Travis is 18,929 acres, 270 miles of shoreline, and a maximum width of 4.5 miles. As you can see from the pictures, in the summer of 2006, the water level was down over 20 feet yet there was still lots of lake to explore. Lake Travis is one of the deepest lakes in Texas and the water is very clear and emerald green in color. To learn more about Lake Travis, read this review. Travis is a fun lake because there is plenty to see and do including:
Hippie Hollow Park which is the only clothing optional public park in Texas and it is very popular for nude sunbathing and swimming – so cover the kids eyes as you boat by and leave the binoculars at home!
very large and expensive homes that line the hills and shoreline — where does all that money come from and why don’t they share it with us?
several fun and lively restaurants and bars with music (for example, Carlos and Charlie’s and Johnny Finns)
a large and popular party cove (Devils Hollow which is across from Emerald Point Marina) where hundreds of boats raft up on the weekends for a day of fun and frolic (in fact, this cove is so popular you can call and order barbeque from a floating tug boat that will deliver to your boat)
- boat over to Volente Beach Water Park and spend the day
- go for a parasail ride from Airscape Parasail which is a great way to see the lake
If you don’t have a boat, there are plenty of places to rent jet skis, ski boats, party barges and even houseboats for a day or weekend of fun.
After boating on Travis, we headed to the Oasis, the sunset capital of Texas, for appetizers, drinks, live music and watching the sunset over Lake Travis. The Oasis sits hundreds of feet above and overlooking Lake Travis. The multiple decks offer spectacular views of the lake and I don’t know of a better place in Texas to watch the sunset.
The third lake in the chain of Highland Lakes is Lake Marble Falls (the smallest of the chain, excluding Town Lake) which is a narrow (maximum width is 1080 feet) and short 5.75 mile stretch of the Colorado River with not much to see and do. Some houses line the shoreline but the only reason to boat here is to fish, ski or board on what is usually very smooth water with little to no boat traffic. So we skipped Marble Falls and headed for Lake LBJ.
LBJ is a constant level lake that is fed by the merging of the Llano and Colorado River. The shoreline is highly developed with houses of many sizes and shapes. This 21.15 mile long lake has some of the best cruising through million dollar homes that cover the shoreline and in the the canals of Horseshoe Bay’s Applehead Island. You should also cruise up the Colorado arm if you are looking for smooth water or to see more beautiful homes. We like to cruise down the Sunrise Beach arm where you can beach your boat on the sandbar to socialize, swim or play water volleyball. Lake LBJ also has plenty of accommodations to fit your taste and budget ranging from RV Parks to condos to some large 5 bedroom houses right on the lake. You can usually find some calm water for skiing on the north end of the lake or in some of the larger coves.
We spent that night at Inks Lake State Park. This is a great park with sites on the water of this small but pretty lake. Inks Lake is only 800 acres, 4.2 miles long, and a maximum of 3000 feet wide. It doesn’t take long to cruise the entire lake, so you come to this lake to camp, swim, fish or ski – and there is usually not much traffic to content with. Inks Lake State Park has a nice 9 hole golf course and a concession that rents canoes, paddle boats, and surfbikes.
What a great way to spend a few days!
Here is some additional information on the Highland Lakes:
- Highland Lakes – more good information on each of the Highland Lakes
- Fishing Guides – find a local fishing guide to help you land the big one
- Watercraft rentals – rent a waverunner, party barge, ski boat, or party barget ot enjoy the lake
- Golf courses in the area including reviews and ratings, discounted tee times, and locator maps
- Reviews and ratings of the Lake Travis, Lake Austin, Lake Buchanan, and Lake LBJ
- Rentals of houseboats, pontoon and ski boats, party barges, tours, and more
- Lake rental property on the Highland Lakes
- Texas Parks & Wildlife has lake maps, fishing information and more on each of the Highland Lakes
- Highland Lakes map and more links