Cedar Park and Austin, Texas for Christmas

From Minnesota at the beginning of the week to Cedar Park, Texas at the end of the week, and we had gone from -5 degrees to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and gained nearly 1 hour and 45 minutes of daylight. ☀️ Hallelujah!  We were here through Christmas, and enjoyed our first 85 degree Christmas day by going for a bike ride and reveling in the sunshine.

Downtown Austin

After settling in, we headed to downtown Austin to look for some new shoes and explore.  After  lunch at Shoal Creek Saloon, we popped in and out of several shops, but were having a hard time finding what we were looking for given the continued challenges of supply shortages.  As luck would have it, we found a small shop called The Loop, and finally found the shoes I wanted.  Yay!  The shop attendant was also fun to talk with, sharing our favorite places to hike and backpack with each other.  This part of downtown had its fair share of homeless and some unpleasant smells, but there are plenty of places to wander nearby, such as the Texas state capitol grounds, the venue for Austin City Limits, and numerous riverfront parks.

Hiking…or maybe we call it walking?

If you are accustomed to the elevation of the western states, these hikes may not seem that exciting to you.  But, if you want a few ideas for getting out and enjoying some fresh air, they fit the bill.  Our biggest challenge was finding places where the trails were neither private nor fee-based.  I’m not paying $10 to hike your mediocre 5-mile trails!

Beach privatization in action

Crystal Falls Loop:  If you head away from Austin, your chances of finding a hiking area improve.  This 2-mile hike was in a canyon that couldn’t be built on, between housing developments and a golf course.  Nevertheless, it was peaceful, we didn’t see a single soul on the trails, and were able to explore to our heart’s content.  The creeks were running, so I enjoyed looking in the pools of water and checking out the flora in the region.  

Brushy Creek Regional Trail: This is a biking and walking path that alternates between paved and tightly packed gravel.  It runs east/west for about 7.5 miles one-way and is well kept.  We went here twice, once walking and once biking and enjoyed it both times.  There were lots of birds on the Brushy Creek Lake, some informational signage on common plants in the area, and parking was easy.  If you enjoy natural areas and getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city, this area can help you relax and wander for a while.

Austin Greenbelt:  It’s a little confusing trying to find a complete map of the Greenbelt, but the link I provided gives you the most comprehensive list of areas to park and walk.  Once you are on the greenbelt, it’s pretty easy to figure out where to exit or continue along it.  We started at the bottom of the “V” and parked in the Barton Creek/Twin Falls lot.  Within that park you can enter the Barton Springs Pool for a fee.  What I didn’t realize is that this trail mostly runs along or across creeks, and is fairly rocky.  We headed northwest and saw lots of mountain bikers and dog walkers along the way, and even a few climbers near our turn-around point on the trail.  It was a quiet and rugged area that I wasn’t expecting in the heart of Austin…at least where we walked.

Balcones Canyonlands (Vista Knoll and Ridgeline Loops): Heading northwest from Cedar Park you will see signs for the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge and Doeskin Ranch, both areas in which you can hike.  We did one of the “larger” loops, called Vista Knoll and Ridgeline, which was just over 3 miles in total and about 300 feet in elevation gain.  There was a nice view of Lake Travis and its tributaries from the Sunset Deck, and we found 14 rocks along the southern/lower portion of the Cactus Rocks Trail with both a number and a warbler painted on each.  In talking with some other hikers, apparently they had bigger plans for this area and those numbered rocks were supposed to be part of an interpretive hike guide that never happened.

Christmas concert at the Haute Spot

We couldn’t go to Austin and not see some live music!  Matt found a venue nearby called the Haute Spot that had a Christmas concert featuring an Austin band called Quiet Company and an opening band from San Antonio called Buttercup.  The venue was clean, organized and reasonably priced for food and drink.  The concert had Christmas-themed music, and was also promoting and benefiting the work of SIMS foundation, which provides mental health support for people and their family members within the music industry, no matter if you are musicians or in other roles.  The foundation is looking to spread this service nationwide, and we were happy to contribute toward such a great organization. 

Pre-show entertainment
Sample from Quiet Company show

Torchys Tacos

Thanks to the recommendation of a fellow wanderer and cyclist Mike Hardy, we enjoyed some kick ass tacos at one of the local Torchys Tacos locations.  I was impressed!  The service was friendly and efficient, and the tacos were delicious.  I am sad that I didn’t take photos, but it’s only because we were so hungry that we dug right in and devoured them. 😋 Matt and I had two tacos each, totaling four different kinds, and they were equally scrumptious.  Check them out and you won’t be disappointed.  I swear!

San Antonio

A fun part about traveling is catching up with friends and family who live nearby our destinations.  One of my high school friends Julie now lives in San Antonio, so we headed down to see her and her husband Dan.  They met in the military and Dan is currently working at Fort Sam Houston Base, which is surprisingly close to downtown.  The base has a constant population of peacocks and deer wandering about the grounds.  We also went inside the base museum, which had displays of many older uniforms, guns and other items used throughout different periods in history.

We went to lunch at La Gloria near the riverfront, and it was very good.  From there we set off on the San Antonio River Walk and headed toward the Alamo.  Matt and I were surprised at how clean and peaceful most of this riverfront area was, and we didn’t run into too many crowds until we got closer to the Alamo where there are more restaurants and shops.  During the holidays, they have a river float parade and lots of lights and decorations, so it is quite beautiful at night.  The riverfront was one of our favorite parts of visiting San Antonio.

We did arrive at the Alamo, but didn’t go inside due to a long entry line.  However, we did go to the Menger Hotel, “the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Mississippi,” according to their site.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but some of the featured furnishings and decorations give a nod to the historic nature of this hotel.  In the middle is a courtyard, where we all relaxed in rocking chairs and enjoyed the quietude and beautiful landscaping.  I was amazed at how quiet it was with the cacophony of sound just outside the hotel walls.  

New Braunfels

We enjoyed our time with Julie and Dan so much that we decided to meet them again in a town  between San Antonio and Austin called New Braunfels, known for its German heritage and history.  It is home to Gruene Hall, the oldest dance hall still in operation, the town hosts a Wurstfest each year, and has a 51-acre park in town called Landa Park.  

We met up at the large Landa Park and went for a stroll in the misty morning weather as we headed toward the Alpine Haus for lunch.  This quaint but nice restaurant in town features traditional German fare and beer.  Afterward, we stopped in at the oldest bakery in Texas just down the street to pick up some strudels and other delights. 

We finished our outing by circling back to the park and enjoying the waterfronts’ flora and fauna.  This park is also home to the largest group of aquifer-fed springs in Texas. We had a great time simply relaxing, enjoying the beautiful park and the mild weather.  

Central Texas took us through Christmas and now we are headed farther south to the Gulf Coast and we can’t wait!  The unseasonably warm weather and mild humidity has been great after being in the drier western states, and colder midwestern areas.  We truly feel like snowbirds now and look forward to more adventures down south this winter.

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