In the heart of Austin is the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake, a lush, urban path that meanders along the water’s edge and passes by skyscrapers, neighborhoods, ball fields and cultural attractions. With more than 1.5 million visits a year, the 10-mile hike-and-bike trail is Austin’s most recognized and popular recreational area.

But the Trail is more than a great pathway—it is a place where Austin thrives. For many citizens and visitors, it represents the best Austin has to offer: outdoor recreation; a scenic, natural environment; and a diverse, vibrant mix of people.

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The Trail grew out of a sense of community spirit and responsibility, and it is that same enthusiasm and devotion that will protect it for future generations. The Trail came to life during the 1970s thanks to a unique public-private civic effort led by the Citizen’s Committee for a More Beautiful Town Lake and its Honorary Chairwoman, Lady Bird Johnson. In 2003, the Town Lake Trail Foundation (now The Trail Foundation) was formed to continue the work of the Citizen’s Committee and ensure that the Trail remains one of Austin’s outstanding places.

LBJ Library Photo by Frank Wolfe

Lady Bird Johnson poses by Town Lake 04/07/1974
LBJ Library Photo by Frank Wolfe

History of the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail

In the 1960s the banks of Austin’s Colorado River were nothing like the lush oasis they are now. In fact, the area was nearly barren. Floods, common in the Hill Country at that time, regularly swept trees and brush away. The tree-lined shores of today are a result of the stability introduced by damming the river.

Austin’s first dam, where the current Tom Miller Dam resides, was constructed from 1890 to 1893 and named The Great Granite Dam. That structure was destroyed by a massive flood and later rebuilt as Austin Dam from 1909 to 1912. This second dam was also destroyed by flood. Each of these floods wiped out the great majority of trees that lined the river. The current Tom Miller Dam was built from 1938 to 1940 atop the remains of the previous structures.

In 1959 Austin was growing greatly in electric demand because the population was increasing and TV and air conditioning use was growing. The Seaholm Power Plant did not have room for more units and Austin needed another power plant. The Holly land was available but there was not a source of cooling water. Longhorn Dam would create a lake that would provide a reservoir for cooling water and also create a lake through Austin. Brown and Root designed the dam and H.B. Zachary built it. The name of the dam relates to the use of a crossing at that location as a ford across the Colorado for longhorn drives as part of the Chisolm Trail in the late 19th century.

Roberta Crenshaw laid the groundwork for Austin’s Town Lake parklands. The Town Lake Beautification Committee was formed in 1971. The committee included many notable Austin citizens including honorary chair Lady Bird Johnson, Les Gage, Ann Butler, Carolyn Curtis, Emma Long, Betty Wilson, and Jim Pfluger among others. In cooperation with Mayor Roy Butler, they set out to create a scenic corridor of hiking trails and landscaping that would allow residents and visitors the opportunity for a rural escape in an urban setting. Gazebos at Auditorium Shores (S. 1st St. at Riverside) and Lou Neff Point (where Barton Springs flows into Lady Bird Lake) were dedicated around this time. In 2007, following the death of Lady Bird Johnson, the lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake. In 2011 the Town Lake Hike-and-Bike Trail was renamed the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail.

Listen to a 2011 KUT interview with Ann Butler and Les Gage, members of the Town Lake Beautification Committee.

Ann and Roy Butler and the Trail

Ann and Roy Butler were instrumental in the beautification of the Trail. Roy Butler was elected Mayor of Austin in 1971 and was re-elected two years later. During his time in office, he—along with Lady Bird Johnson, Ann Butler, Les Gage, Betty Wilson, Carolyn Curtis, Lou Neff, and Joy Scott, among others—formed the Town Lake Beautification Committee, aimed at beautifying the banks of what was then known as “Town Lake.” At that time, the banks of Lady Bird Lake, as it is known today, were polluted, barren and covered with weeds.

The beautification of the hike-and-bike trail began as a vision by Lady Bird Johnson—the wife of former President Lyndon Johnson—and Mrs. Butler. In 1971, Mayor Butler was asked to go to Switzerland as a delegate to the International Conference of Mayors. After the conference, he and Mrs. Butler went to Russia with the delegation of mayors, and passed through London on their way home. While in London, Mrs. Butler met up with Lady Bird Johnson, who she knew was staying at the same hotel. The two women were admiring a stretch of the Thames Path—a beautiful, green trail—from the balcony when Mrs. Johnson asked Mrs. Butler if it was something that could be created along Austin’s Town Lake. Mrs. Butler said yes, and looked to her husband, Mayor Butler, for help. It was on that balcony that Mr. and Mrs. Butler, and Mrs. Johnson, came up with the idea of a beautification committee.

In December 1971, the Town Lake Beautification Committee was formed to make the vision a reality. To complement the public-private effort to beautify the area and make it a more attractive and useful public space, the committee raised funds to plant hundreds of trees along the banks of the lake and spent two years beautifying the trail. Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Butler coordinated the committee’s largest fundraiser at the LBJ Ranch in 1973. Mrs. Butler even persuaded Texas International to fly significant donors to the LBJ Ranch from Houston. Additionally, Mrs. Butler personally enlisted the services of all of Austin’s garden clubs to help with the maintenance of the beautification project, allowing them to adopt portions of the trail, grow seasonal plants and maintain sprinklers, among other things.

Decades after its birth, the Trail stands as a testament to the vision and hard work of many individuals and the support of the citizens of Austin. It is The Trail Foundation’s resolve to see that their work is carried forward for generations.