Steel meets sky in Austin’s Zilker neighborhood

Anna-Kay Reeves

Amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Austin, traffic has not yet drowned out the sounds of birds in the trees of Zilker Park and the splash of Lady Bird Lake.

With skyscrapers peeking through the trees, the Zilker neighborhood offers the combination of a thriving urban center and natural beauty. Although the area is thick with hallmarks of a city — fusion restaurants, electric scooters zipping by and modernist decor — the neighborhood’s many businesses and cultural centers focus on providing opportunities to explore and appreciate nature.

One such long-time Zilker business is Zilker Park Boat Rentals. Owners Howard and Dorothy Barnett, both UT alumni, have been helping people get out on the lake and into the beauty of nature since 1969.

The idea for Zilker Park Boat Rentals came to Barnett nearly 50 years ago as he drove across the Lamar Bridge and looked out at the lake.

“It was a beautiful day and I could see people out on the water,” Howard said. “I wanted to help them get there, so I made my proposal to the Parks Board and we set up shop.”

According to their website, Zilker Park Boat Rentals offers canoes, one-seat and two-seat kayaks and stand up paddleboards for $18/hour or $54/day. They are open seven days a week from dawn until dusk.

Just up Barton Springs Road is Barton Springs Bike Rental and Tours, a business that provides Zilker explorers a chance to see the neighborhood from solid ground, according to shop manager Devon Lampman. He said in the 10 years since opening its doors, Barton Springs Bike Rental and Tours has become increasingly focused on the touring aspect of their business.

“We have the bikes available to take out on your own, but we also have great tours lined up for electric bikes and regular bikes,” Lampman said. “Our guides are people that love Austin and really enjoy taking people to see the sights.”

Regular bike tours range in price from $35 to $60, and electric bike tours cost $75. The expert-led tours range from family friendly to a Rainey Street Pub Crawl and can last anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours.

For nature and culture all in one, Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum is an option. The garden is across Azie Morton Road from Barton Springs with an admission fee of $5. Short walking trails weave through the collection of statues, leading to dirt trails for the more adventurous.

Umlauf’s regular hours are Tuesday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m.

“(The garden) is the perfect respite from city life,” executive director Sarah Story said. “We feel very lucky to be where we are in Zilker, close to downtown but still very much in nature.”

Story said the garden is a peace- providing home for culture and the arts.

“Aside from the garden itself, we do events like yoga at Umlauf on Wednesdays and Fridays and Umlauf After Dark, where we’ll have live music and vendors selling artisan crafts,” Story said.