Stories in Texas

Freshwater Protection: Five Fantastic Natural Places Around Austin

A clear creek lined by dense, green trees.
Lifegiving Waters Barton Creek flows through TNC's Barton Creek Habitat Preserve. © Pierce Ingram

For more than 20 years, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has helped protect iconic natural places in and around Austin. Check out our top five local conservation areas and fall in love with them the same way we have!

1. Barton Springs

A summer in Austin isn't complete without an afternoon spent sunbathing in Zilker Park and dipping into the 68-degree waters of Barton Springs Pool. The pool is one of Austin’s most popular watering holes, pumping 31 million gallons of water each day and serving upwards of 400,000 people a year—natives, newcomers and people just dropping in on the capital city. It’s also the largest of four natural springs that comprise Barton Springs, and TNC has worked closely with the City of Austin to make sure it stays healthy. Our partnership has resulted in the protection of nearly 30,000 acres of land.

A few people float in a blue pool of water surrounded by green trees.
Barton Springs Pool Over 800,000 people visit Barton Springs Pool each year to enjoy its cool waters in the heart of Austin. © Bryan Roschetzky

2. Edwards Aquifer

Many a Texas fortune has been made from oil, but another one of the world’s greatest natural resources is in Austin’s own backyard. The Edwards Aquifer is one of the most productive aquifers in the world and home to nearly a half-dozen unique and vulnerable species. The layers of limestone and sediment that comprise the aquifer are largely hidden underground, but their functions are impressive: Edwards discharges 900,000 acre feet of water every year and directly serves about two million people. Barton Springs is Austin’s main discharge point for the aquifer, and many of our conservation efforts have a direct impact on the highly sensitive recharge zone, which stretches some 1,250 square miles and filters water from area creeks.

Water trickles over limestone rocks covered in green ferns and moss and pools in a creek.
Edwards Aquifer This critical natural resource forms a narrow belt stretching beneath nine Central Texas counties, providing freshwater for people and nature alike. © R.J. Hinkle

3. Barton Creek Habitat Preserve

Our presence around Barton Creek isn’t just focused on the wet stuff—we’re all about wildlife as well. Nestled along four miles of Barton Creek in southwest Travis County, our Barton Creek Habitat Preserve protects prime habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, two species of rare songbirds. The warbler is exclusive to Texas and has seen its home destroyed by flooding, overgrazing and rampant development. Barton Creek Habitat Preserve provides about 1,800 acres of habitat for the warbler, and since 1994, we’ve completely restored 100 acres to create suitable habitat for the vireo. It may not sound like much, but the land was once slated for development that included plans for 4,000 homes.

The clear waters of a small creek reflect the thick green vegetation that lines its banks.
Barton Creek Habitat Preserve Barton Creek, which flows through TNC's 4,050-acre preserve, is one of the principal sources of water for Barton Springs. © Wynn Myers

4. Balcones Canyonlands Preserve

With a tank of gas costing about as much as dinner for two (or a family of four in some cases), most of us aren’t too willing to jump in the car without a destination in mind. But we encourage you to set your GPS due west and make a day of it at the Balcones Canyonlands, a system of parks and preserves that encompass more than 28,000 acres in western Travis County. With a bevy of hiking trails and some amazing views, Balcones Canyonlands Preserve is on track to become the largest—and one of the most popular—urban preserves in the country. Early in its existence, TNC helped to add a 13,500-acre expansion to the preserve, which protects the golden-cheeked warbler and six endangered invertebrate species. The network of preserves also helps alleviate water quality issues within Austin’s Bull Creek.

A field of yellow wildflowers overlooks a hilly vista with a city skyline in the distance.
Balcones Canyonlands Preserve As one of the nation’s largest urban preserves, this expanse consists of more than 140 individual tracts, including over 60 karst features, caves and springs that contribute to the Edwards Aquifer. © Pierce Ingram

5. Hamilton Pool

Mother Nature knew what she was doing at Hamilton Pool. Created when massive erosion collapsed the dome of an underground river, the natural pool is a gorgeous green grotto with moss-covered limestone walls and a 50-foot cascading waterfall, rivaling any Hollywood creation. It’s situated about 30 minutes west of Austin, and visitors flock to enjoy a serene swim and more than 230 acres of nature preserve. In a push to make a good thing better, TNC partnered with Travis County in 2011 to acquire nearly 800 acres of open land to connect Hamilton Pool Preserve and the neighboring Milton Reimers Ranch Park. The result: public access to another 4.5 miles along the Pedernales River, the conservation of 3,500 adjoining acres of the Texas Hill Country and the preservation of water quality at Hamilton Pool.

A waterfall falls over a jagged grotto creating a pool of water.
Hamilton Pool Hamilton Creek spills over limestone outcroppings to create a waterfall, helping keep the pool's waters a chilly 50 degrees in some spots. © Purwanto Nugroho/TNC Photo Contest 2019