Mountain Biking

The 5 Best MTB Trails in Austin

By Adam Pellerin 12/21/2018 10 minutes

Austin, Texas is situated on the Balcones Escarpment, a millennia-old fault line that marks the end of the East Texas plains and the beginning of the Hill Country. This characteristic geography has shaped the city’s culture, growth, and, more recently, mountain bike trail development. On the east side, the black soil and rolling hills can offer flowy trails and hard pack singletrack. On the west, the punchy, craggy hills offer a rockier and often more technical experience.

Historically, Austin trail builders have seen little oversight. Most local trail networks started as grassroots initiatives, often led by an individual or a small, dedicated group. Flying under the radar as they were, these trails usually didn’t gain legitimacy or city recognition until the shovels were set aside and the lines were in place. Due to the shadowy nature of their inception, there are very few comprehensive maps of the trail networks in Austin. The woods are full of serpentine singletrack that coils around finger valleys and twists up climbs. The creative trail building and jagged terrain make it easy to get turned around. A local guide is essential for anybody unfamiliar with the trails, and a guided bike tour is a good way to familiarize yourself with the trails. Now, here’s an overview of the five best mountain bike trails in Austin, Texas.

The Austin Greenbelt

The Greenbelt is represented on a map by a swath of green leading up from southwest Austin to Barton Springs, just across the lake from downtown. It follows Barton Creek, and most trail segments involve at least one water crossing in the wetter months. The trails here can be very intimidating to unfamiliar riders, especially as few of the lines are marked or mapped. The Violet Crown trail is the most well-mapped section in the Greenbelt, and it offers a quick survey of the area. Most of the more exciting trails, however, exist off of the VC trail. The rocky singletrack meanders through ash juniper woodlands, up and down the steep sides of the creek-carved valley, and over rolling limestone slabs. There are technical climbs, ledge-drop descents, and enduro shred lines scattered throughout. It’s easy to get lost, but it is a constant source of excitement.

Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park

Walnut Creek is arguably the best planned and most thoroughly mapped trail system on this list. Its growth and development has been led by the Austin Ridge Riders, a local trail advocacy group. The tightly twisting trails lead through manicured sections such as the BMX Loop, which is centered around a set of BMX trails, and gnarlier lines like Endo Valley, which plummets down ledges and over roots. There are a few small water crossings, but they can all be avoided with a properly planned route. These are some of the less technical trails in the area. The clearly marked trails, deliberate design, and excellent infrastructure make Walnut Creek a popular destination for riders, runners, and hikers of all skill levels. You can expect to see families hiking, dogs running off leash, and all types of riders. Be courteous, be kind, and don’t be afraid to say hello!

South Austin Trail Network

Colloquially referred to as the Southie Trails, this network epitomizes the grassroots trail-building philosophy that has been a controversial hallmark Austin’s mountain biking culture. The Southie Trails are actually composed of many different trail networks on neighborhood holdings, easements, parkland, floodplains, and occasionally private property. Some sections were constructed by neighborhood associations. Some were built by lone trail bandits whose backyards abutted on greenways. Some are old horse trails, relics of another time in Austin’s past. These many paths, disparate as they are in origin, have been laced together to create a network that runs a vascular course through the south side of the city. They are best experienced with a knowledgeable guide.

NOTE: You should never trespass, especially in Texas, and it would be wise to turn around when you see Private Property signage.

Brushy Creek Trails

Venturing farther from the city center, the Brushy Creek trails are located in the suburb of Cedar Park on the northwest side of Austin. These trails were constructed around Brushy Creek Regional Trail, a paved bike path that runs through the 90 acre park Brushy Creek Lake Park. The signature trails of this system are called Deception and Mulligan. They are aptly named. These trails are rocky, technical, and twisty. There are punchy climbs and quick hit descents. Most people recommend full suspension for these trails, especially for a less experienced rider. Over the last few years, the trails have seen an increase in signage, but they are not always clearly marked. There are some newer, less intimidating loops on the north side of the paved path that serve as a good warmup for the trickier trails on the other side. These trails are best experienced by following a specific directional flow, as it’s easy to get turned around and end up accidentally repeating sections.

McKinney Falls State Park

McKinney Falls is a definite outlier on this list. The trails were professionally built, it’s a State Park, there’s an entrance fee, and it is relatively short at right around 3 miles of trail. That said, these interlocking loops of singletrack provide a beginner friendly experience that offers a unique value to Austin trail riders. The trails circle around a historic homestead site and later pass by some rusty artefacts from the era. The trail leads riders past a shaded picnic table in the middle of the woods and a beautiful swimming hole at the bottom of a waterfall. The majority of the singletrack is shaded, and there is a boardwalk on the lowlands. Despite the boardwalk, however, there are still often muddy sections after any rains. Be careful on the boardwalk -- those planks turn into a slip ‘n slide when they get wet. Precipitation concerns aside, McKinney Falls is a great destination for families and new riders any time of the year.

With these five trail networks in mind, you should have an idea of what best suits your needs. Are you looking for big miles and big drops, or a flowy scenic loop? Whatever your style, Austin has plenty of singletrack in these trails and more. If ever you need a guide, we recommend Texas Bike Tours, whose MTB guides know the ins and outs of the area. If you’re ready to explore on your own, get out and get to it! And don’t forget to bring an extra tube.

Is there something we missed? Leave your favorite trails in the comments!


Adam Pellerin

What's your hometown?
I was born and raised in Austin, Texas!

How long have you lived in Austin?
I've lived in Austin off and on for my whole life. Every time I get pulled away, something brings me back.

How long have you been riding?
I've been riding bikes since I was four, but I first got serious about riding when I was 12 or 13 years old and bought my first "real" BMX bike. It's been non-stop ever since.

Why do you ride?
I ride for transportation, fun, and freedom. There's something liberating in the feeling of providing input on every level, moderating the interface between man and machine.

What bike do you ride?
Most days, I ride my commuter, which is a 1988 Raleigh Technium that has seen many different builds over its lifetime. When trails are calling, I ride my '07 Raleigh XXIX set up single speed and fully rigid. On race day, I ride my Ventana El Padrino.

What is your most memorable ride?
My most memorable ride was a race in Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosi, Mexico. It was a MTB ultra- marathon that started in an abandoned mining town on top of a mountain. The race was called Wirikuta. It was the only time I've been physically unable to complete a race due to exhaustion, and the level of support from the community was staggering. The history of the area was shaped in part by its unique geography, and the cultural significance was apparent in the style of the trails. I look forward to going back to give it another shot later this year.

What's your favorite trail in Central Texas?
My favorite trails in Central Texas are clustered around the Mulch Hill area of the Austin Greenbelt. They have everything from flowy hard-pack to enduro-style drops and loose ledgy climbs. These are the kind of trails that can follow a finger ridge for an hour and only go a few miles.

What's one tip a beginner mountain biker should keep in mind?
It's okay to walk sections! Every rider is responsible for knowing their own limits, and a technical feature in the middle of the woods is no place to get hubristic.