The legendary Highland Lakes—Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis, and Austin—wind like a meandering blue ribbon through the green canvas of the Central Texas hills. These waters also wind tranquilly through my memories.

Come on in, the water's fine! A secluded cove at Inks Lake State Park shelters Devil's Waterhole, a heavenly Highland Lakes highlight. The park lies on the lake's east shore. (Photo by Kenny Braun)

Come on in, the water’s fine! A secluded cove at Inks Lake State Park shelters Devil’s Waterhole, a heavenly Highland Lakes highlight. The park lies on the lake’s east shore. (Photo by Kenny Braun)

For four decades beginning in the 1950s, my aunt and uncle ran a motel on Lake Buchanan, where I spent many childhood holidays and summers fishing and swimming. In high school, I learned to scuba dive in Lake Travis, and later camped with college friends at Inks Lake State Park and at Black Rock Park on Buchanan. When I moved to Austin, I swam and picnicked at City Park on Lake Austin. And shortly after marrying, my husband and I purchased a Hobie Cat and spent countless weekends sailing from Windy Point on Lake Travis. When kids arrived, we traded the catamaran for a more stable fishing boat, which proved adequate for teaching them to water ski.

These six lakes were created by the Lower Colorado River Authority between the 1930s and 1950s to supply water and electricity and minimize the effects of flooding on the Colorado River—projects made possible thanks to supporters like Lyndon Johnson. Obviously also a recreational draw, each boasts a distinctive personality and variety of activities. On these pages, we only hit the lakes’ highpoints, but you won’t want to stop there.

Highland Lakes

Water levels in the individual Highland Lakes vary according to rainfall and demand for water. Low levels may curtail some activities—check with your destination or the Lower Colorado River Authority (800/776-5272) for current levels. For details on LCRA parks, go to the parks’ Web site. For Highland Lakes information, go to the visitor and tourist guide. Check with local chambers of commerce and CVBs for more details. Following is information for sites mentioned in the printe edition of this story.

Lake Buchanan

The river first spreads behind Buchanan Dam, built in 1938. As a child visiting Lake Buchanan from the big city, I spent nights marveling at the splash of Milky Way across the black sky, a sight many gather to enjoy during stargazing events (Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, weather permitting) at Canyon of the Eagles Lodge & Nature Park (at the end of FM 2341). Established by the Lower Colorado River Authority, the privately managed lodge sits on 940 acres on the northeast shore. In addition to the 62-room lodge, it includes campgrounds, a pool, a beach, fishing piers, and
the Canyon Room restaurant, which serves gourmet cuisine seasoned with breathtaking views. Don’t miss the Hill Country vistas at sunset from Rattlesnake Point, a promontory near the restaurant. Miles of hiking trails traverse wooded lakeshore and rugged hills, and people also come for excellent birding (including bald-eagle sightings from November to March) and wildlife watching. The 120-passenger Vanishing Texas River Cruise vessel offers a variety of outings (lake levels permitting), including one that crosses the lake for a tour and tasting at Fall Creek Vineyards, founded by Ed and Susan Auler in 1975 and winner of too many awards to list. You can also arrive by car on County Road 222 (near Tow) for winery tours and picnics on the patio.

Family-owned lodges dot the shores of Lake Buchanan, from Thunderbird Lakefront Resort on the east side to Cedar Lodge Resortactual log cabins-on the west. Camping and limited-use cabins (beds, electricity, AC, but no bathroom or kitchen) are available at LCRA’s Black Rock Park. When water levels are up, this park offers a nice swim beach and a spot to launch your boat, too. Cast for striped bass and catfish on your own, as my grandfather and I did, or with a guide. Many guides serve both Buchanan and Inks lakes.

Canyon of the Eagles Lodge & Nature Park, at the end of FM 2341, 512/334-2070.

Vanishing Texas River Cruise (at Canyon of the Eagles), 512/756-6986 or 800/474-8374.

Fall Creek Vineyards, 1820 CR 222, Tow, 325/379-5361.

Inks Lake

Inks Lake State Park occupies the better part of the east shore of this slim lake (created in 1938) with activities that include fishing, hiking, swimming, and boating. Campsites fill up quickly, as do the park’s limited-use cabins, many of which sit just a short hop from the water. My vote for best swimming spot: Devil’s Waterhole, an inlet at the far end of the park surrounded by a jumble of granite boulders. Travel there by kayak-available for rent at The Park Store, and scan the shoreline for turtles, herons, and jumping fish on your way. A kayak also provides a great vantage point to watch daredevils leap several stories from a cliff into the water. While I did this way back when-answering in the affirmative that age-old question: If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?-do so at your own risk. Or paddle to the far end of the waterhole and splash around in the picturesque waterfalls. While the campground and shoreline attract summer crowds, the park’s miles of scenic trails seldom do. Pick up a trail map from park headquarters and explore routes that traverse pecan flats, granite ridges, lakeshore, and brush-covered hills with panoramic views.

Inks Lake State Park, 3630 Park Rd. 4 West, 512/793-2223, reservations 512/389-8900.

Lake LBJ

The Colorado and Llano Rivers and Sandy Creek flow into Lake LBJ, completed in 1951. Private homes line most of LBJ’s shoreline, though, so it’s best enjoyed by boat. If you don’t own a boat, rent one. Guests at Horseshoe Bay Resort can choose from WaveRunners or pontoon or ski boats, and also arrange guided fishing tours.

Anyone 21 and older can rent personal watercraft and ski or pontoon boats at LBJ Yacht Club and Marina at Granite Beach, right next to Wirtz Dam. But you don’t need a boat to enjoy the swim beach, water park, or well-appointed waterfront cabins. The club’s Granite Beach Grill, open weekends, overlooks the water park and serves hamburgers, wraps, and more, indoors or out

LBJ himself had a lake house on the Sandy Creek arm, where today, the Lake LBJ Resort and Marina rents boats and serves lunch and dinner-the latter by reservation only. An Austrian-inspired menu includes filet mignon, lobster, and a variety of domestic and international wines. Skip the drive home by booking one of the suites, which sleep from two to 12. This area’s smooth water makes for great water skiing, as does the Colorado arm up from Kingsland, where dozens of small resorts line the shores.

Horseshoe Bay Resort, 6 miles southwest of Marble Falls, 877/611-0112.

LBJ Yacht Club and Marina, 200 S. Wirtz Dam Rd., Horseshoe Bay, 830/693-9172.

Lake LBJ Resort and Marina, 667 Sandy Mountain Dr., Sunrise Beach, 325/388-9393.

Lake Marble Falls

A!so completed in 1951, this small lake is accessible through two public parks operated by the City of Marble Falls. Pecan trees shade the picnic tables and barbecue pits at Johnson Park, which also has a boat ramp, a beach volleyball court, restrooms, and a leash-free area for dogs. Lakeside Park, on the north shore just a few blocks off US 281, offers a swimming pool and tennis and basketball courts in addition to picnic tables, a boat ramp, and restrooms.

If you’d rather not grill your own lunch, dine on a burger, sandwich, seafood, or one of a variety of entrees at River City Grille restaurant, on the north shore of the lake right next to the US 281 bridge. Pull up a chair on one of the outdoor decks and enjoy live music on Saturdays from Texas artists such as Shelley King and The Band of Heathens (there’s also live music indoors a couple of other nights during the week). Save room for the homemade desserts, including the spicy and delectably gooey carrot cake.

Lake Marble Falls parks.

River City Grille, 700 1st St., Marble Falls, 830/798-9909.

Lake Travis

A number of public parks scattered along 286 miles of shoreline provide easy access to the waters of Lake Travis. These include Grelle Recreation Area, with a swim beach, campsites, and a two-mile hiking trail climbing a plateau with lake views, and Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area, where mountain bikers love the 6.5-mile, rugged trail. Others include Arkansas Bend Park, with primitive camping, hiking, picnic tables, and a boat ramp convenient to Lago Vista, and Pace Bend Park’s rocky cliffs and gentle shoreline, campgrounds, and trails for hiking and horseback riding. Ramps at these and many other parks contribute to Travis’ popularity for sail, ski, and party boats.

Windy Point Park caters to scuba divers with on-site air fills and gear carts. Below the surface, you can swim through a tunnel, sit on a motorcycle, and search for other unusual items sunken for your diving pleasure. Divers and non-divers alike can camp or picnic here, too. Bob Wentz Park, a Travis County facility next door, attracts windsurfers, sailors, and swimmers.

Some eight miles north, on FM 2769, experience Volente Beach Waterpark’s whiplash-inducing Sidewinder and giant Twister waterslides, or more serene chills in its Lazy
Lagoon, a waterfall-cooled pool, or on the sandy beach. Harness up for a parasail ride over the lake, or order a tall, cold drink and listen to an eclectic selection of live music (Fridays and Saturdays) at The Blu Parrot restaurant.

Sunset at The Oasis restaurant, off Comanche Trail on Lake Travis’ east side, deserves its far-reaching reputation. A series of open decks facing west over Lake Travis make the circadian phenomenon hard to miss, and frozen concoctions and piled-high nacho plates help you bide the time until that big yellow orb paints the sky with a flaming palette. Patrons have been known to cheer a particularly impressive display. Don’t forget your camera.

Travis County parks.

Windy Point Park, 6506 Bob Wentz Park Rd., Austin, 512/266-3337.

Bob Wentz Park, end of Bob Wentz Park Rd. off Comanche Trail, 512/854-7275.

Volente Beach Waterpark, 16107 FM 2769, Leander, 512/258-5109.

The Oasis, 6550 Comanche Trail, Austin, 512/266-2442.

Lake Austin

Just minutes from the bustle of Austin sits Emma Long Metropolitan Park (also known as City Park), an 1,100-acre lakeside oasis. Camp out-the restrooms have hot showers or just spend a day enjoying the picnic area, sand volleyball courts, fishing pier, swim beach, motorcycle and mountain bike areas, and the almost three-mile-long Turkey Creek hiking trail. The Civilian Conservation Corps established this park on a hilly swath of oak, ash, and juniper woodlands back in 1939. Arrive at nearby Ski Shores Waterfront Cafe by car or boat to enjoy a variety of burgers, catfish, pizza, and live music by local musicians. On a covered deck overlooking the glassy surface of Lake Austin, sip a cold beer while an evening breeze caresses your face. It’s a good spot to contemplate your exploration of the Texas treasure that is the Highland Lakes, and decide: Which one will you return to tomorrow?

Emma Long Metropolitan Park, 1706 City Park Rd., Austin, 512/346-1831.

Ski Shores Waterfront Cafe, 2905 Pearce Rd., Austin, 512/346-5915.


From the August 2009 issue

Get the Magazine

Save up to 62% off the cover price


Sign Up for Our Newsletters

Sign up for magazine extras, upcoming events, Mercantile specials, subscription offers, and more.