To find this place, you have to walk into a bee’s hive of sunbathers, joggers, and shy couples on blankets giggling and toying with blades of grass, as frisbees fly and frantic dogs race across the park with their tongues hanging out. You also have to park under an overpass that shades kayakers and paddleboarders in bikinis streaming across the Colorado River. I always feel like a monk walking into an arcade when I have to start a hike in a popular summer spot. Hard for me to get my Mr. Miyagi on with all of the Instagram posedowns going on right before my eyes. I winced, flopped out of my fishbowl, and laid my pink blanket down on the ground to begin my warm-up (a.k.a. Dad exercises).
As much as I didn’t want to walk through this glittery arcade, I knew a secret spot. And it was only secret because it was so hidden. The three times I’ve been there, I’ve never crossed paths with a soul. Remember how Batman’s hideout was behind a waterfall? Well, this place is like that. Batcave status. There are two main entrances. One has no parking and the other no sign to show it’s there. The other entrances are basically in an alley, and the trailhead we were going to enter was hidden behind trees. You have to know it’s there and you have to duck under the branches to find the wooden steps half-covered in dirt. We walked by the paddleboard rental spot as students sped off in SUVs and sunbathers walked back to their cars. I spotted the wooden steps, and ducked into a wilderness. My wife followed and we both gasped as we beheld the stairway leading us into an enchanted wood, the leaves and trees shaking, shimmering with jewels of the Spring bloom. I continued ahead and heard a deep thump on hard dirt behind me. Wipe-out. I turned around and saw my wife laying on her side, tripped up, four steps into the hike. She dusted herself off, undeterred.
I tried to convince her that I had brought her here 3 years ago, but she didn’t remember, which of course, made her think it was another girl. But that’s how lush it is, and how much of a feast of nature stands before you. It’s like North Carolina in here. A biosphere of 70 foot trees, 100 foot cliffs, limestone creek beds, and chickadees singing, perched above, curiously surveilling the woods like twitchy robots. If a brontosaurus would have stepped out of the treeline, chewing on grass, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
We crossed a large creek bed and followed a trail beneath rows of billowing, sapling trees. It was as if they were fanning us, beckoning us inside as we passed. We stopped by a tree growing in a bed of whitewashed rocks in front of a 100 foot cliff. We read a sign there that said we were standing above the Edwards Aquifer, an underground lake. (I love how that was mentioned so casually as if the idea of an underground lake didn’t BLOW MY MIND. I could hear the THX movie sound effect after I read that. Maybe I WAS near the Batcave as Alfred watched on, drinking tea and laughing at the West Texan reading educational signs.)
We continued on and found some trail markers. A trail weaved up the hill and we followed its path up to “Lookout Point.” We made it to the top, and found strange rock formations with a view of downtown Austin. It looked like a Frontier Stonehenge. They’ve since removed the sign, but if I recall, this was the site of an old homestead. We climbed the stones and enjoyed the views. Monarch butterflies frolicked in the air, beating their wings, floating eyelashes of the woods. We took a couple of pictures and hiked down to the Meadow Trail and leaned on a worn, wooden fence overlooking a meadow of Indian paintbrush and cacti where bees hovered for nectar like tattoo guns.
We walked further down to the Medicine Wheel Trail, and reached a wide, flat bed of rock that looked like concrete. We decided to follow the empty riverbed to see what we could find. We climbed over broken boulders and seashells and reached a dense wood. My wife noticed an old slab bench in the middle of the woods and we started to climb onto the bank to take a closer look. We heard rustling and saw two deer standing tall with their chests out, tails and ears fluttering in the tall grass. As I moved closer, one of the deer charged for me, stopped short, and snorted at me in disdain, counting coup. I’ve never seen that before, but then again, I was disturbing their secret domain. They drifted off into camouflage and we took a closer look at the bench, altar, or whatever it was. There were empty water bottles and runoff trash scattered around the bench and no good reason for it to be built here, nowhere near a trail or overlook.
We noticed another large rockbed ahead. It looked like an empty, shallow swimming pool made of smooth limestone. It even had a surf rock wave that curled around itself. We played inside of it like children, running up & down the quarter and half-pipes of the pond. We then headed back to the trail to find the exit.
I finally convinced my wife we had been here before. I showed her the picture where my son and I posed near this spot by the exit. She laughed and we walked toward the place she took the picture. As we explored, we both noticed a white dress gently draped over the trunk of a tree. We examined the soiled, white dress which lay by a lone wildflower. My wife asked why a dress would be out here like that. I said, “Many people come to the woods and do things to commemorate their pain. Who knows why.” We will never know. The dress represented adornment and innocence, and its placement in these woods, sullied, and from another time, imbued us with a strange sadness, like coming upon an unmarked grave.
We made our way to the exit and heard the swooshing of cars on the highway. We read the sign there, which was a map of the preserve, and my wife noticed that it said “You are Here,” in two places. I decided to walk down by the underpass and I noticed some unique graffiti. Painted on the underpass was the Solar System and Milky Way. We took some pictures and decided to head back.
As we walked across the preserve, I told her that I used to bring my son here to the Nature Center so he could play in the sand and pretend to dig for dinosaur bones. One day I learned there was a bird exhibit outside the center, with owls and snakes and all sorts of creatures.
At the very back of the exhibit there was an open fence and a path that led down the hillside. Before I was a hiker, and just a single dad in boots and jeans, I decided to carry my four year old down that trail, into the prettiest, most secret wood I’ve ever encountered in all my years.
Zilker Nature Trail