My son who has autism adores hiking. He’s not particularly athletic in a traditional sense but he repeatedly has said, “Peace through Nature,” even going so far as to paint this motto in Latin on a piece of art he completed in art class at school. For that reason, we have gotten to know several hikes very well in the Austin area. Hiking the Bull Creek Greenbelt is a favorite for our whole family. However, our son was not able to stay safe on this trail until he was past the age of 10 because there are several cliffside drops. If you have a child with autism that does not understand safety rules yet or the stop command, then this hike is not advisable. For us, we are at a place where we can safely hike this. With this caveat, let’s begin.
Let’s head out…
Near the intersection of Spicewood Springs Road and Loop 360 in Northwest Austin is the trailhead to “Inga’s Trail” at the Inga VanNynatten Memorial Trail & Bull Creek District Park. After parking in the gravel lot across from the trailhead, carefully cross Lakewood Road on foot to begin the trail. There is a map at the trailhead with the “Inga’s Trail” path winding into the woods to its right.
Our family loves this trail because of its relatively flat terrain, the chance to see waterfalls and go swimming. However, I would not recommend this trail for anyone with children under 4, as we saw a family carrying their screaming toddler down the trail and they still had a ways to go before they were back to the calm of their car.
The terrain is uneven and water shoes are recommended. I mean this is Nature, with a capital N so wear sunscreen, bug spray, and watch for poison ivy. We have hiked this particular trail in all seasons, but the very best of all is late Spring when the wildflowers are in full bloom and the water’s coldness is refreshing instead of chilling.
There is no water source on this primitive trail. We are in a city park, but there are no facilities along this trailhead. Make sure you pack water in. There are no bathrooms along the way.
Walking the trail…
This trail is perfect to hike two days after a heavy rain (the day after is a mudfest) because of the seasonal waterfalls that sprout up, particularly on an offshoot of the main trail as soon as you enter.
Follow the sounds of water, watching where you’re going, and you will see foaming water making that sound that calms even the most anxious of souls. I just love that sound. My son with autism particularly loves it. But, BE CAREFUL. Do not let children run ahead of you. There are no rails, no way to keep from slipping on algae and there are steep drops. I would gauge how safety conscious your child with autism is before taking on the waterfall offshoot trails of Bull Creek. For us, as a teenager, our son knows not to get too close. His fear index has finally started registering. When he was under 10 we could not manage this. We have a younger child that is neurotypical, and she understands our commands to be careful and to hold our hands. Every parent knows their child the best, use your best judgment.
After meandering down and over the first waterway (oh, that’s cold, says my daughter), you will begin hiking on a rocky incline that will lead you above the creek and offer a few views on your right (again, not getting too close to the edge for that perfect picture, lest you lose your footing on a rock 30 feet above the road), and a steep hill on your left (as my son said, “It’s like a whole new kind of gravity,” when he looked up at the sheer vertical climb to a summit above our heads.)
After about 15 minutes of climbing up the rocky path (there is the occasional bench for resting), you will pop out into a “precious in spring/brutal in summer “open field where the distant hills rise up to look slightly like you’re in a different setting. Hopefully, if you’re hiking this in summer, you’ve brought a hat. The sun is pretty fierce during this portion of the walk.
Watch carefully, particularly in summer for poison ivy lunging at you from the wall of foliage you are hiking through at this point. Watch out for tree roots, and huge spider webs. It’s quite magical, but you know, watch where you’re going! One time I was hiking alone with my daughter and we came across the HUGEST spider web stretching ALL the way across the trail, with a huge spider sitting happily in the center, blocking the trail. There was no way under or over, so we had to detour off course, and walk through the creek itself in some fairly deep spots to join back up with the trailhead. I wasn’t about to disturb that spider.
At this point, you can hear the water roaring again, and the ground gets muddier as you are nearing the side trail off to the right, leading straight down to the water. You can see it as you walk. Or if it’s summer and overgrown, you can hear it. Follow the sound.
And after hiking for about 20-25 minutes or so, you’ve found the lower falls at Bull Creek Greenbelt. What’s great about this spot, is that you can swim, wade and play in this shallow rock ledge of a water expanse in almost every season. Deep winter, no. It’s much too cold. But, on warm winter days, we’ve hiked down here to see the change in grasses and trees during winter as well. In summer, we submerge fully in the water and walk back to the car wet. In springtime, it’s best for wading. Although falling in because of the slippery algae is a definite quick trip to splashtown. Hopefully you have a towel back in the car or one with you. Never a bad idea to carry a towel wherever you go (per Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
Now you’ve earned a rest…have a seat on the rock overhang, enjoy whatever food or small picnic you’ve packed in (and will pack out), lay on a towel, watch the dogs play. But, for sure watch your children! Again, you’re in nature, dude. There are snakes, etc. this is Texas. You will want to spend a bit of time here enjoying your hard-earned rest after your 20-plus minute hike, plus, something that’s always hard on my kids, you’ve got to hike back to the car if you’ve hiked in this far!