Starting last week, Austin is requiring reservations for several parks, including the Barton Creek Greenbelt. While this may seem like a major inconvenience, in the grand scheme of things, when you dig in beyond your initial reaction, this is not the end of the world, just a speed bump along the way.
So, before everyone gets all riled up about "my freedoms" and what you used to be able to do months ago, let's keep in mind that we are in the middle of a pandemic and with more than 500,000 Texans infected and close to 10,000 deaths to date, let's put all of the judgement on the side and not get into that fight, it is what it is.
The Reservation System
First, there is an online reservation system that is required if you are going to be on the Greenbelt between Thursday and Sunday. You can go online at this address to schedule a reservation and that will cost you a whopping $0. This reservation is only required for Thursday through Sunday, from 10:30 AM to 7:30 PM.
When you go online you first choose which of the trailheads you will be at. Choices are:
- Zilker Park
- Hill of life
- Mopac / Gaines Creek
- Loop 360
- Gus Fruh
- Homedale Drive
Once you choose your location you can either choose 10:30 - 3:00 or 3:00 - 7:30, there are only 2 time slots so pick the one that corresponds with your ride.
The system will push out a ticket to your email; print or or have it on your phone, because they will ask at those trailheads on those days.
Yeah, it's a clunky system and less than optimal, but let's face it, nobody is taking the greenbelt away from anyone, just trying to make sure it is not overcrowded. In the grand scheme of things, if this limits the large parties that leave all the trash is that so bad?
In realistic terms, if you think you are going to ride the greenbelt next weekend, just make a reservation and be done with it. In a world where our restaurants, bars and some of our breweries are no longer open, I'll take this over a closed greenbelt as it has been for quite a while.
At the Trailhead
I made a reservation and rode down the the Gaines entrance this morning to check things out. There were 5-6 people there at the trailhead to make sure that everyone had a reservation. I had mine but most of the people coming did not know about it and got turned away. The city people there were really nice and made recommendations about other places that they could go that did not require reservations. Luckily there was not a Karen incident there while I was present.
They checked my reservation, and told me I could go on, the whole thing took a couple of seconds.
Let me just say this: BE NICE. These all appeared to be some college kids that thought they were gonna be lifeguards this summer and now they are stuck here enforcing the rules. These are not their rules, they're just doing their job. Take it easy on them. They said the weekends are the worst because you have bunch of people that have packed all their crap and headed down to hang out, only to get turned away. We've all had jobs that sucked. I once worked at a Toys R Us. Just cut them some slack, they're stuck in the middle trying to do their job.
I used this opportunity to ask a few questions. Let me stress that these are the questions were answered by the people manning the station at the trailhead and should not be construed as the official answer (because Austin has been less than clear on some of these details.) Remember, we're in the middle of uncharted territory so if all of this feels a little squishy, welcome to 2020.
What if I start somewhere other than the locations that where reservations are required?
The reservations are for the specific trailheads. If you are starting somewhere else you do not need a reservation (but be sure to read the next question).
Will the greenbelt be patrolled, will someone stop me and ask me for my reservation?
They could not give me a straight answer. I am guessing that it falls into the "hey, not my job" category. My *guess* is that they probably aren't checking everyone on the greenbelt but that they *could* check if they wanted. We've all seen police on the greenbelt (a good thing) so I think you should ride on the assumption that this could happen and you'd be well served to have a reservation on you just in case.
If I am not starting at one of the trail heads, which one do I choose for my reservation?
They could not really answer this, but I'd look at the selection and figure out which one still has open reservations and choose one. Pick one close to where you are starting, but if the only option is somewhere else, hey, as I see it, it doesn't matter, you're simply reserving a spot.
What if I am riding early and will be done by 10:30 AM anyway or starting after 7:30?
No reservation needed.
How long will this go on?
Nobody can say. My guess would be that once we get past Labor Day, all of the pool help will melt away anyway so this may be a temporary thing. Nobody will say for sure.
Do I have to wear a mask?
Follow the city of Austin rules. If you are exercising, as a biker is, masks are not required. I've been wearing a bandana in 95-100F heat for weeks now, doing 20 miles for a couple hours and it sucks but it is not the end of the world. Use your best judgement and follow the city rules, but if you are exercising you are technically exempt. However, when I think about some of the people I have seen on the greenbelt and the trash they leave behind, they don't strike me as the cleanest and most conscientious folks.
What if I start before 10:30 but I am leaving after 10:30?
*Technically* you would need a reservation but I did not see anyone checking the people who were leaving, the people coming in (after 10:30) were the real issue. My guess is that the later it gets the more of an issue this becomes. Getting stopped at 10:35 on the trail with no reservation is going to look a lot better than 1:30. Nobody at the trailhead really addressed this head on other than "you need to have a reservation" so I can't really give any legit advice here, only what I think would probably happen.
The Bottom Line
We do know a few things about this - it is only sustainable in the short term and this is not a huge deterrent to hikers and bikers. In my conversation it felt pretty clear that hikers and bikers were not necessarily being targeted but that large groups of partiers might be the real issue. This is a challenge in a pandemic but that particular problem has been long-standing with the greenbelt for a long time. Just plan early, get a reservation. If you neglect to do that, there are plenty of other places to ride that don't require reservations.
Yes, this is a total pain in the ass and I would have hoped that we would not have gotten to this, but it is a compromise. And by god if you're pissed about it, point your comments at your city council member, not the people trying to do their job at the trail head.