Cool Off on Lady Bird Lake with Paddle Boards, Kayaks, and More Water-Worthy Vessels

Make a splash in Austin’s downtown reservoir.

Photo by Mark Bowers, courtesy of Rowing Club
Photo by Mark Bowers, courtesy of Rowing Club

With the Texas summer upon us, it can often seem the only solution to beating the heat is staying in the breeze radius of an AC unit. But, don’t resign yourself to going stir-crazy in your apartment just yet, as there is another way to tolerate the temperatures within your own backyard: Lady Bird Lake. This dammed reservoir of the Colorado River is accessible from downtown Austin, and—undeniably—one of the best things about living in the city. And we’re here to provide all the 4-1-1 you need to make the most out of your time on the lake: what to bring, what to do, where to grab a cocktail afterwards.

What to know before you go

Maximize your time living that Lake Life with some minor preparation beforehand. The first thing to consider is transportation. Although Lady Bird Lake spans 400 acres, the amount of parking space around it is far smaller. (If you live within biking, walking, or scootering distance, you can—and should—avoid this particular problem.) However, for those of us without a boujee downtown condo, driving is the only path to an aquatic adventure. Some of the best places to park are South Lakeshore Boulevard, near Festival Beach, or in Zilker Park itself.

No matter what your form of transportation ends up being, there are two items you should bring on your ride: sunscreen and water. The words Texas sun may sound sweet when Leon Bridges croons them, but the reality of the summer weather is much more harsh. Nothing will ruin your Lake day, and the days that follow, quicker than heatstroke, dehydration, or severe sunburns. Stop by one of the two bodegas on Barton Springs Road, Thom’s Market and The Austinite Market, to snatch some SPF and H2O.

overview shot of Lady Bird Lake with paddle boarders.
Make a splash. | Photo by Marcus Clark, courtesy of Rowing Club

What to do on Lady Bird Lake

As enticing as the water might look on a July day, swimming is not allowed in Lady Bird Lake due to water pollution. Motorized boat traffic is another no-go when it comes to the area. While, at first glance, that may sound limiting, there are still plenty of ways to explore the shores.

Rent a paddle board, canoe, or kayak

Without a doubt, your best, and easiest, options for hitting the water are stand-up paddle boards (a.k.a .SUPs), canoes, or kayaks. And, with the reservoir boasting a plethora of equipment rental spots, there’s no need to drop big bucks at REI.

Rowing Dock
At this spot west of MoPac, the chill vibes and encouraging staff will make even self-proclaimed klutzes confident they can balance on a SUP. In addition to paddle boards, Rowing Dock also has kayaks, pedal kayaks, and canoes for rent. A popular destination for Lady Bird visitors, their first-come, first-serve policy, and small parking lot, means you’ll want to get there early — especially on weekends.

Live Love Paddle
Located in Riverside, Live Love Paddle is further east than many of the other rental companies, and, consequently, is less congested with tourist traffic. Their watercraft choices include paddle boards, canoes, and both single and tandem kayaks. Part of what makes this place a top choice is the small, but much-appreciated, amenities found there. Any canoe-renting regular will tell you how rare it is to find a rental spot with plentiful parking spots, free storage lockers, and back supports included in every kayak rental.

Zilker Park Boat Rentals
Started back in 1969, Zilker Park Boat Rentals is truly the OG of Austin’s boat rental scene. The dock is technically located on Barton Creek, a tributary which feeds into Lady Bird Lake. For those looking to spot some Texan wildlife while they raft, the Creek is a tried-and-true location to observe all kinds of critters. Great egrets, snapping turtles, and leopard frogs are a few of the fauna you could glimpse from inside one of Zilker Park Boat Rentals’ canoes, SUPs, or kayaks.

Courtesy of EpicSUP

The site of EpicSUP’s barnyard dock makes it an ideal choice for outdoor enthusiasts to get a double dose of Lone Star nature. Stationed in the southeastern part of the Lake, this rental service is basically a stop itself on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail. This proximity means you can take in the best of the Lake from the land as well as the water — and, accordingly, there’s plenty of secure bike parking to be found on site. EpicSUP offers rentals of paddle boards, single kayaks, and double kayaks, and, it only takes a glance at their Instagram to confirm these boats are pet-friendly.

Texas Rowing Center
Texas Rowing Center may be best known as a rental spot, but there’s a lot more behind this business’ doors than just oars. There’s a deep desire to engage with the community, so much so that you can even use their dock to launch your personal boating equipment. But, if you’ve yet to invest in a watercraft of your own, they have plenty of kayaks, SUPs, and canoes available to rent. Should you want to dip your toes deeper into the boat life, the Texas Rowing Center also has all levels of rowing classes to sign up for.

Pick up a rod and go fishing

Don’t let the proximity to skyscrapers fool you. Despite its urban location, Lady Bird Lake is a fisher’s paradise. The lake has been specifically stocked with several species for the sole purpose of recreational fishing. While you can hook catfish, sunfish, and carp from the shores, the large population of bigmouth bass in the river-like reservoir means they are the most frequently caught flippers. However, before you cast off, be sure to purchase a fishing license, and review the Lake’s bag and size limit regulations.

Lounge out on a river cruise

If you’re looking for a lakeside activity that involves less movement, and more merlot, book a ticket for a river cruise. Taking a tour on a larger craft will allow you to see way more of Lady Bird Lake than you could paddling (and doesn’t give you sore arms, to boot). And, the most popular local cruise companies, Capital Cruises and Lone Star Riverboat, even offer a few different choices to cater to the experience you want to have. Both offer daytime sightseeing tours, where you can catch the full spectrum of the flora and fauna that calls the Lake home. As well, both host a bat-watching, sunset tour, where you’ll get a front seat for the winged creature mass exodus that happens every night under the Congress Avenue bridge. Should you crave this kind of peaceful float, but the thought of mingling with tourists gives you the heebie-jeebies, you can take your own private tour in a donut boat. These small, electric boats come with a shaded umbrella, a table for snacks, and enough room to fit ten of your friends.

Where to refuel post-lake session

After spending the whole day basking in nature, you need sustenance. In Austin, nothing says ends a good day quite like margaritas and queso. Both are in high-supply at Mexican restaurant, El Alma, which is a walkable distance from where the Lake meets Auditorium Shores. Also near that stretch of the water is classic Austin snack shack, Sandy’s Hamburgers. Established in 1946, their menu of patties, hot dogs, malts, and sundaes will make you nostalgic for the summer you watched Grease on repeat. For a healthier option, head to the Zilker-adjacent location of local chain sensation, Juiceland. The always-killer flavor combination of banana and peanut butter in the Wundershowzen smoothie will make you forget they snuck in spinach. Then there’s the high-end nibbles at glamorous restaurant, Nido. Located on the rooftop of The Loren Hotel, a building which literally hugs the banks of Lady Bird Lake, you can indulge in ricotta gnudi while taking in the breath-taking sight of the water at night.

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Molly Moltzen is a writer living in Austin, TX. You can find her on Instagram at @molsquared.