Truth time: the documentary photographer in me loves nothing more than watching children lose themselves in a sensory experience and become covered head to toe in muck. Is there anything more satisfying for a family photojournalist than observing and documenting that, plus the horror / amusement / disgust / resignation on the faces of parents? NOPE.
There is something so primal and pure about children letting go of decorum and expectations and fully immersing themselves in the exploration of nature. As a parent, the aftermath can be a bit of a nightmare, and one that I used to shy away from. I’ll admit it. But the more I watch these kids’ focus, creativity, teamwork, and pure joy grow as they dig their hands in (literally and metaphorically), the more I find it to be worth it.
I look forward to these cooler Austin months so we can reach beyond just swimming and really dig in deep.
PRO TIP: never forget extra pants.
Austin is brimming with spectacular natural spots, so this list could be dozens long. But to keep it simple, here are MY top five ways to cut loose and get messy this gorgeous outdoor season:
Hike in to the Greenbelt
If you haven’t checked out the Barton Creek Greenbelt yet, cancel all your plans for this weekend and DO IT NOW. Plenty of access points. Kid-friendly hike distances. An easy drive from wherever you live. A fascinating topography of cliffs, limestone, forest, prairie, and – when the rain gods are with us – the creek running through it.
Living a mere mile away from this gem, we visit the Greenbelt year round and often. Our favorite access point is the Tacodeli on Spyglass where street parking abounds, you can fuel up with the best tacos in town, and the hike down to the creek is short and easy to follow.
Turn left at the bottom of the hill, and in less than a quarter mile you’ll find yourself at Campbell’s Hole, a striking open area with curious creek-dug limestone channels, plateaus for hopping off, high cliffs that lend a private feel, and – on sunny days – more than a handful of colorful Austinites with their hoola hoops, bongo drums, dogs, and – ahem – refreshments.
Or turn right at the bottom and hike a mile and you’ll find yourself at Gus Fruh, a natural creek-fed pool with a rock pebble beach, a rope swing, and ample natural shade.
Hit Roy Guerrero Park
I’m hesitant to share this one, y’all, because it’s such a special hidden gem. My first visit to this glorious park was with AUSTIN FREE FOREST SCHOOL (which, by the way, you should check out), but we’ve been back many times since. Secret Beach is a combo rock/sand area right on the Colorado River just a bit East of the Pleasant Valley bridge, accessible from Grove Blvd. We spend hours skipping stones, looking for treasure, and burying ourselves in sand down here on the regular.
Even more favorite is the less-known park entrance on the East side of Pleasant Valley Rd just before crossing the bridge, heading northbound. Behind the softball fields is a trail that leads to the most magical arroyo / natural space I’ve found so close to downtown. In this wonderland we excavate fossils, discover turtles, mold with clay, and build rafts. Bonus: there’s a great view of the Pleasant Valley Dam, which leads to interesting talks about rainwater, flooding, lakes, and rivers.
Kick back with a beer at Jester King or St Elmo
What, a brewery isn’t on everybody’s Top 5 list for kids? Hey now. Just because we’ve got kids don’t mean we gotta stop liking adult things, like drinking beer with friends! And it just so happens that Austin is home to some marvelous breweries that don’t bat an eye if your child strips down to just his underpants on bluegrass night and dances in the rain (don’t tell me that’s just my kid).
Jester King out 290 toward Dripping Springs sits on a massive tract of mostly undeveloped land. Uphill is the creative, one-of-a-kind brewery itself, with its beautiful oak trees, picnic tables, rotating taps of inventive house-brewed beers, and cornhole games to play (or, in toddler language: climb on). Downhill is Stanley’s Farmhouse Pizza with its delicious pies, large selection of local beers, barn-converted-to-dining-hall, massive truck-and-bucket-filled sand pit, big boulders for climbing, an enormous field, and a seemingly ever-present and strategically placed mud puddle.
St. Elmo is a much smaller space with fewer options, but right in the heart of Austin, and just as kid-friendly. Both owners of the business have little ones themselves, and they’ve taken care to stock the corner with games and outdoor-friendly kid supplies like dump trucks and bean bags.
My own family has made a commitment to go camping at least twice each spring and twice each fall, and so far so good. Some of our best times together have been when we remove ourselves from the routines of everyday life and slow down in a quiet, natural settings. Favorite local spots include McKinney Falls State Park, Pace Bend, Long’s Fish & Dig, Colorado Bend, and Garner SP – though the options are seemingly limitless. Camping with little ones can seem daunting, but here’s the thing: kids were MADE for this kind of setup. An excuse to get dirt under your nails, stay up late, spend time without devices or other tech distractions, eat marshmallows, and sleep all snuggled up with your family? What’s not to love?
Get wild right at home
OK I hear you, this one can be tough. The mess. The clean up. The pinterest searches for just the right activities. But really? It doesn’t have to be so hard. And my wild ones love to sink deep into a full-body experience regardless of whether we’re out in nature or right in our own back yard (or bathtub, as the case may be).
A few activities to get your mind rolling:
-A plastic container filled with shaving cream (add colors, glitter, gemstones)
-A hose, some large containers, cups, and watering cans
-A treasure hunt for items hidden throughout the yard
-Building a fort under a tree (provide an old sheet, some bamboo spears, etc)
-Baking (let them do as much as you can handle themselves – prepare yourself mentally for a good sweep/mop afterward)
-Bathtime with paint (here: corn starch / soap / food coloring combo)