Southern Walnut Creek Trail: East Austin’s Green Wonderland for Bicylists

I rode the upper half of this trail again, and realized that although familiarity breeds contempt, I’ve never grown weary or bored of this trail. Maybe it’s because there are no cars, so one can relax and enjoy the ride. It could be the variety of sights from thick, evergreen trees to the distant skyline of downtown Austin. There’s occasional deer, rabbit, or armadillo (all of which I saw), not to mention birds, frogs, bugs and more. It’s also used by people walking, running, on rollerblades or even wheelchairs, since it’s 10 feet wide and paved. It’s great for all levels and types of cyclist: road, mountain or even kids (though the latter may not make it up the big hill). It’s been featured on many of my rides on Strava, but today it gets its own blog post. Hop on your bike and come with me on this virtual ride!

Austin Knocked It Out of the Park(s and Rec)

The trail began opening in sections in 2015, and was finished in 2016. It goes northeast for almost 10 miles starting at Govalle Park in Southeast Austin, Texas, USA. The $7 million in funding came from the U.S. Department of Transportation. I can imagine the right of way that had to be purchased, and all the engineering and environmental studies and just tons of planning before the first bit of earth was turned in 2012. It features several bridges, underpasses and connections to the Austin Tennis Center, the East Communities YMCA, and the Driveway racetrack. Eventually it will connect with other trails. You can learn more about the details of the trail (if I may pun: the deTrails?) at the City’s official site.

The trail: well-made, usually well-tended, and always a joy to ride

But that’s the technical stuff; who cares, right? You want to know what it’s like. Well, the best way is to ride it for yourself. But if you’re across the pond (or several) and can’t get here, the SWCT (or, “The ‘Nut” as I call it), I’ll just tell you what it’s like. With the exception of a few places where the trail comes close to or goes under a street, or you actually see the town or cars, it feels as if you’re far away from the city. Of course you have to pay attention to where you’re going, but you can let all your worries about cars slip away. Except at the three places you do have to cross a street, where of course please remain alert. (The world needs more lerts!)

If you start at the lowest end of the trail, Govalle Park, you’ll find
a parking lot if you drove a car there with your bike on it. There are also bathrooms and a water fountain, plus a sign with a map of the trail. Starting out flat, the path begins it’s northeasterly curve. Paralleling the eponymous creek and crossing the first road, you’re immediately ensconced in greenery. Which is awesome. Look out for a bright art mural under the first overpass. Starting to climb a bit, but not too much, with plenty of curves, the path takes you further east. Soon you’ll hear and see Highway 183. Looking out for other trail users, you quickly descend a lumpy hill where you can go watch the Driveway bike races on Thursday evenings before dark if you like.

Plenty of Shrubbery

The trees, the sky, the clouds… plus occasional airplanes lumber overhead

Quickly turning under a railroad bridge, if you’re there near dusk, look up and you’ll see an electric tower covered in turkey vultures. But keep moving, you don’t want any, er, deposits falling on you. Eventually you’ll come to some flat stretches with a canopy of trees that are just great… unless you’re there at dusk and forgot your clear glasses. In warmer months there are plenty of gnats.

Also be careful of wildlife crossing the path at whim. Another bunch of curves and some climbs, and you can choose to ascend a hill to the aforementionedY. There’s a handy pump and bike tool station at the top, and when it’s open, the friendly staff usually don’t mind if you ask to use the loo. They also have a healthy snacks vending machine and free wi-fi.

Returning down the hill, beware of the occasional water patch after it rains. Passing a view of a golf course, you’ll hear players at soccer fields and pass an area where people play cricket. Handy signs mark the mileage and how far you have to go. As the path climbs more, get ready, it’s going to get steeper. Breaks in the trees reveal great views, then there’s a pond, and crazy big plant fronds that look like they’re straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Sometimes you’ll hear bullfrogs.

Crossing under Loyola Lane bridge, another possible access point, the going gets tough. There’s a hill, a downhill, a flat, and another uphill. By no means impossible, if you’re not ready for it you may need to get off an walk a bit. But at the top, you’re rewarded with a great view of the Austin skyline. Someone even put some lawn chairs up the hill to watch the sunsets.

Skyline view of Austin, Texas

As the trail flattens, you’ve conquered the hills! Savor the victory, snap a photo, and then for a break, you can veer off to the Austin Tennis Center. When it’s open, it has bathrooms and even ice water. There’s some fun graffiti and the former working farm is now more of a prairie. While the quaint houses are gone, there’s still wildlife, trees, and a big expanse of sky.

I once road the trail at night and it was at this juncture I came upon a pack of wild javelina. I was as respectful (i.e., scared) of them as they were of me, so I waited while they moved on. Another time near here I had a staring contest with a deer. On a third occasion, I had to bunny hop a slithering green garden snake. Beware because I have seen a young rattlesnake and other snakes out there. It’s nature, baby!

The Top of the Trail

Rounding out the main portion of the trail, you come to Johnny Morris Road. There’s a concrete bench perfect for snack time and photo opportunities, especially at sunset. The City has kindly installed a crossing light so it’s not as deadly to get to the other side. It’s only a few more miles to the end. Some industry is here including a beer distributor, a mobile home park and a school. At Decker Lane, you must be wary of the hill cars come screaming over. Beyond another bench and a large thicket of trees and bushes is a perfect spot for heeding nature’s call if you didn’t go at the Y or need to go again. Not that I can advise you to do that, you know.

Glimpses of Walter Long Lake are possible (and the smell is pretty likely) while you descend to a flat section. This area is slated for development which is sad but I doubt there will be housing right on the trail because there’s not way to get to it. After a bit, the ‘Nut rises slightly until its end where there’s a skeet shooting and model airplane center. The first time I rode this section and and heard gunshots, I was understandably a bit freaked out.

Another bench affords a great view to watch the planes and to take a rest. From there, you can continue on a two-lane country road to connect with other roads either to small town Manor, Texas (they used to stock pickle juice at the convenience store on Main Street at my request), or for the more adventurous comfortable riding with fast traffic, to go around the lake. I sometimes take the shared use pathway that goes along side Highway 290 East back into town, making about a 25-mile loop.

My Strava ride of the upper section of Southern Walnut Creek Trail

On this ride, I went out and back. Looking at the view going the opposite direction gives one the sense of not really having seen it all the first time, because you didn’t, not exactly. The uphill is also easier going back, though there are still plenty of the uphills. You can jump off at the Y, or go all the way back to the beginning.

You’ve conqured the trail and earned your reward. A nearby convenience store is available as are a greasy spoon diner and more trendy hipster restaurants and a brew pub. At some point the swimming pool in the park will be completely reinstalled, so a dip in the water will be a perfect way to end your ride. (Unless you have to remount your bike to get home like I usually do and don’t like chafing!)

In conclusion, it’s a great place to ride a bike. If you’re in town and haven’t yet, you should check it out. (Get in touch with A Dude and I’ll be your guide!) I really love this trail and consider it my stomping grounds. I have many fond (frond?) memories of riding it both alone and with friends. My double century for the MS 150 featured a ride with friend Saurabh (currently contemplating coming out of self-imposed bicycle retirement after a visit to get his own bum knees checked out) and a run-in with awesome cyclists Rafael and Jenni.

If you aren’t here, hopefully my description has given you a taste and you can find a trail like it near you. Happy biking, y’all!

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