In Our Own Backyard

By Emily Ober

The ultimate outdoors bucket list to make your summer in Waco one to remember

One of the things that makes Waco so special are the beautiful natural spaces found throughout the city limits and beyond. The great outdoors has attracted thrill seekers, nature enthusiasts and more to Waco and with new places offering exciting activities, we’ve put together a list of ways to enjoy the great outdoors this summer. Whether you want to bring the whole family or just get a breath of fresh air on your own, there are plenty of fun activities to do right here in Waco that feel like you’ve entered a new world.

Catch a Wave at Waco Surf

Sun, surf and sand.

Waco Surf is perfect for a family outing or a relaxing stay at the pool with friends. Whatever your speed, you can find the ideal spot to enjoy your summer. Beat the heat by floating down the world’s longest lazy river. At exactly one mile — 5,280 feet — long, a single lap can take 45 minutes; an easygoing way to spend your summer day. Or lounge at the private beach club that’s perfect for a day in the sun. They also have cabanas to rent for your stay.

For those needing a little more action, you can catch a wave at the wave pool, go sky-high at the Wedge slides or take on the obstacle course at the cable park. They even have lemurs to keep you company. Fuel up by grabbing a bite at the surfside shack or wedge grill or relax with a cocktail at the Lakeside Saloon or The Star Bar.

You can even extend your stay with the many accommodations on the grounds. Whether you choose the luxurious Waco Surf Hotel, a cabin at Cable Park, a home on the ranch or a space to hookup the RV, have your vacation your way.

What it costs: Day passes are $19–$139 with price depending on which area of Waco Surf you want to visit. Cable Park passes and surf lessons are separate.
How long to get there: About 20 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Meet the Families: Taylor and Allison Vieger

Allison Vieger is an art teacher at Eagle Christian Academy, and is also a photo stylist. She and her husband, Taylor, moved to Waco two years ago with their son and daughter and they still feel new to the community. The Vieger family are discovering all the gems that the city has to offer and spent the morning at Waco Surf, catching waves and rays.

Does your family spend a lot of time outdoors? Yes, we are outside year round! We love trail running at Cameron Park and are always at the Cameron Park Zoo and Proctor Springs.

Summer bucket list: To visit the new art exhibition at Art Center Waco with Ty Nathan Clark and Vy Ngo, “Of Warm Impermanence.”

Perfect summer day in Waco: First we’d start with an early Farmers Market run in downtown Waco with the family and grab a dirty horchata from the Kurbside Coffee truck — we can’t live without some single origin coffee beans from Clay Coffee Roastery. Then, we love meeting up with friends for brunch at Harvest on 25th and we’d head over to Studio Grocery. Finally, a Saturday isn’t complete without an afternoon at Fabled. Both of our kids are in a graphic novel phase and the Fabled children’s collection is beyond! Bonus: If we can score a sitter, Taylor and I would indulge in a date night at MOROSO where everything on the menu is authentic Italian.

What was your favorite part about Waco Surf? There is something for the whole family to enjoy — from the water slide and lazy river to big waves that remind us of Hawaii!

Go on Safari

Take your family around the world without leaving the city. The Cameron Park Zoo is home to over 1,700 animals from all over the world, from the African Savannah to the forests of Asia to the ocean dwelling fish to critters found in our own backyard. Dedicated to the conservation efforts to protect wild animals, the Cameron Park Zoo offers not only a fun afternoon of visiting the over 300 species it houses but helps to educate future generations. School may be out for the summer, but learning can be fun as kids explore the various exhibits and read about their favorite animals.

Enjoy a lunch picnic at Gibbon Island where you can learn that they have an arm span of up to 5 feet as you watch the small family traipse through the ropes and tree branches. Spend a few minutes with Mei and Kerajaan the Orangutans next to the flowing waterfall and show off your musical skills. Slide through the otter exhibit at the Brazos River Country where Central Texas critters roam the exhibits. Grab a souvenir drink from the Treetops Café overlooking the giraffe enclosure. You can even share a snack with the long-necked animals at the Feeding Deck on Saturdays and Sundays. And if your young ones still have energy to burn, take them over to Grammy Nell’s Playspace where they can climb a treehouse and cool off in the splashpad.

From kids to adults, the Cameron Park Zoo is endless fun and enjoyment for anyone who wants to get outdoors and see a few of the animals of the world.

What it costs: Admission is $12–$14 and kids two and under are free.
How long to get there: Less than 5 minutes from Downtown Waco.

A Dreamy Experience

Get the benefit of a picnic without all the fuss. Dreamy Picnics creates unique experiences for families, friends and couples. Whatever the occasion, Dreamy Picnics has a set-up to suit your needs, with fun add-ons to make the experience special. You can choose your own location or one of the spots available to reserve, including a special picnic at Western Belle Farm.

One of the offerings is what’s called a ‘Kidnic’ for playdates or birthday party celebrations. This is a fun way to get the kids outdoors with crafts, games and a dress-up rack, including superhero, princess and dino capes. Or if you want a date night without the hassle, book the Coffee & Carbs picnic for a simple but delightful experience.

The picnics can be held indoors but we recommend taking advantage of those clear summer skies and some time out by the lake.

What it costs: Experiences range from $40–$475 depending on the size of your party, with additional add-ons available.
How long to get there: They come to you.

Take a Dunk in a Watering Hole

For a watering hole a little closer to home, Proctor Springs in Cameron Park is a secluded area that’s a hidden gem of Waco. The ice-cold water is the best way to beat the heat with the family. The watering hole is small so it’s accessible for younger swimmers and after a quick dip, you can enjoy the rest of the park and even try out one of the hiking trails or test your hand at disc golf.

What it costs: Free.
How long to get there: Less than 5 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Go Boating

Enjoy a day out on the lake without the hassle of owning your own boat by renting a pontoon through Waco Lake Rentals. Take the family out on their 10- or 15-person pontoons for a relaxing ride on the lake or get some thrills by attaching towing tubes and creating waves. On those bright summer days, the lake sparkles in the sun and you don’t want to experience the fear of missing out this summer as you look at all the boats coasting on the water.

What it costs: Boat rentals start at $449 for four hours and $649 for eight hours.
How long to get there: About 20 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Sunset Horseback Ride

Experience the beauty of the Brazos River in a new way. Brazos Bluffs Ranch is a vacation rental located just outside of Waco in the Gholson area. You can choose to stay at either the log home or the secluded cabin on the property and enjoy kayaking on the Bosque River, pickleball and hiking. Or you can take a sunset horseback ride through the trails overlooking the Brazos River. This unique experience makes for a fun evening out with the family with older kids or for a friends’ night out. The location is secluded enough for a quiet evening in nature but only a short drive from Waco, so even if you’re not staying on the property, you can go out for the roughly two-and-a-half-hour ride and be back home for the night. Snacks and drinks are provided with the ride with the perfect spot to enjoy the treats and the views of the river below the limestone bluffs. And if you don’t make it this summer, they offer rides in the cooler months with hot drinks and s’mores kits as the treat.

If late nights aren’t for you, they offer “The Rancher” riding sessions earlier in the day that are about 90 minutes. It’s also available for riders as young as 7 years old, while for the sunset ride, riders must be 10 years and older. It’s an unforgettable experience that will create fond memories this summer.

What it costs: The Lone Star sunset tour is $137 per person and The Rancher is $84 per person.
How long to get there: About 15 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Meet the Families: Ernesto and Claudia Fraga

Ernesto and Claudia Fraga have lived in Waco most of their lives and met at Lake Air Middle School. They have four boys, aged 6-14. Claudia is a Physical Therapist Assistant but has been a stay-at-home mom for the past three years. Ernesto is the owner of Platinum Universal Construction.

The Fraga family went horseback riding at Brazos Bluffs Ranch on the sunset ride where they got to experience the stunning views of the Brazos River.

Does your family spend a lot of time outdoors? Definitely! We love going to the beach, camping and seeing the sights.

Summer bucket list: Asheville, North Carolina for our 17th year Anniversary.

Perfect summer day in Waco: Good food, drinks and hanging out poolside with friends and family.

What was your favorite part about horseback riding? Getting to the top just in time for the sunset. The weather was perfect and the view is spectacular, especially when you get to share it with your family. Having everyone unplugged and outdoors interacting with the horses makes everything worth it.

Take a Hike

The extensive hiking trails that run through Waco offer plenty of routes for every level of hiker. Choose from any of the easy trails, including the one across the Waco Dam where you can enjoy the sunrise before the sweltering heat arrives, the Twin Bridges River Trail at the base of the limestone bluffs of Cameron Park that runs along the Bosque River or the nearly three-mile loop trail in Woodway Park.

For those who want more of a challenge, try one of the moderate trails in Cameron Park. Winding through the bluffs, the elevation of the trail changes as you ascend and descend through the wooded area. Trails include the California 56, the Outback and Cedars Trails, and mountain bikes are welcome. You can even join in on weekly rides with Waco Bicycle Club on their all-level Sunday ride at The Redwood Shelter in Cameron Park and their beginner level rides on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

If you’re wanting to ride but want to avoid the difficult terrain, they also offer flat surface rides on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at various locations.

What it costs: Free.
How long to get there: Ranges from less than 5 minutes to 15 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Paddle Your Way Down the River

Paddle board, kayak or canoe? During the summer, you’ll find an assortment of these watercrafts on the river as people take advantage of the warm weather and the scenic views along the Brazos and the Bosque Rivers. However you want to get on the water, Waco Paddle Company and Pura Vida Paddle have you covered. Waco Paddle Company offers rentals from a couple of hours to a full day on the water, and they are located next to Indian Spring Park on the Brazos River. Or start your adventure at Brazos Park East and rent a paddle board or kayak from Pura Vida Paddle. They also offer fun activities including a kayak tour, stand-up paddle board yoga and private lessons for beginners.

What it costs: Waco Paddle rentals are $20–$25 for the first hour and full day $60–$65, depending on the watercraft. Pura Vida Paddle rentals start at $20 for the first hour with full day rentals $65.
How long to get there: Both are less than 5 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Go Camping

Waco’s newest resort offers a whole host of outdoor activities so you can check off several items on your bucket list with a day pass, or rent out a cabin or a space for your RV. Most notable is the giant water playground. It’s the first thing you see as you enter the activities area, with the towering hydrostorm bucket and winding water slides. For a more relaxed swim for the adults, they have a pool with a swim-up No Dive Bar, and a basketball hoop and volleyball net. Dry off with a round of mini golf or yard games like bocce ball, cornhole and horseshoes, soar on the jumping pillow or hit the basketball or tennis courts. You can also enjoy the Bosque River that runs along the campgrounds by renting a kayak or paddleboard which was recently added to the lineup of activities. Also new to the campground is the wiffle ball field, laser tag and fishing pond where you can find fishing contests.

On top of all the fun amenities, Camp Fimfo offers daily activities in the summer that bring out the creativity. From painting birdhouses to tie dye to water balloon fights to trivia to painting activities, keep an eye on the daily calendar to make sure your family gets the most out of their day.

Camp Fimfo has everything to make sure that your stay — whether just for the day or overnight — is filled to the brim with fun and you can leave your cares at home. Stock up on all your needs at the General Store, grab some Waco Nachos at Squirrely’s Tavern and rent a private cabana to stay cool. You can even rent a golf cart to get around the campgrounds with ease. Let your pup enjoy the fun as well at their fenced in dog park.

What it costs: Day passes are $41 per guest.
How long to get there: About 12 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Meet the Families: Drexel and Johnna King

Drexel and Johnna King have lived in Waco for six-and-a-half years. They have nine children, ages 12 and down. Johnna homeschools her children at her school named King’s Academy and Drexel is a project manager at Magnolia.

The King family tested the fun activities at Camp Fimfo on Memorial Day weekend to see what all the hype was about around Waco’s newest campgrounds. After painting birdhouses, they enjoyed bouncing on the jumping pillow.

Does your family spend a lot of time outdoors? We have some plants, and we like to farm. We have animals and we play a lot and spend a lot of time on our land and with other families in and around Waco. We like to be outdoors, meeting people, connecting with the community. We spend a lot of time at Hawaiian Falls.

Summer bucket list: We’re gonna try to do a lot of state parks this year. We’re going to make a list of all of them. Hiking, we’ll go swim for the day, we’ll do day trips in different areas of Central Texas.

Perfect summer day in Waco: We’ll have a slow breakfast and hit either Hawaiian Falls and swim or go to our friend’s house and swim and then we’ll eat takeout in the driveway in all of our bathing suits.

What was your favorite part about Camp Fimfo? The laughter on the bounce pad but we would love to go swim there! It seems like a great place for locals to use a day pass.

Ride Around Downtown

Parking downtown can be a battle of circling the streets, looking for an open space only to find one several blocks from your destination. With the summer heat that we get here in Texas, dragging your feet through the concrete sidewalks will leave you sweating before you’ve stopped by your first shop. With so many local boutiques, breweries, restaurants, galleries and more, there’s so much to see downtown. Explore all that downtown Waco has to offer by renting a Blue Duck scooter and getting from Point A to Point B without succumbing to the Texas heat. Just download the app and you can get around with ease. Start at the Waco Suspension Bridge, get a cold drink at the Dr Pepper Museum, check out the shops at Spice Village and grab a bite at Union Hall. Or enjoy a ride along the river for the scenic views and stop by Pecan Bottom Park in Cameron Park to cool off in the splash pad.

What it costs: $1 to start and $.25 per minute.
How long to get there: Use the Blue Duck app to locate a scooter scattered throughout Downtown Waco.

Explore the Lake Waco Wetlands

Get up close and personal with nature this summer. The Lake Waco Wetlands are perfect for the curious explorer who wants to learn more about the critters that call Waco their home. The Lake Waco Wetlands were created to mitigate the habitat loss after raising the Lake Waco water levels in 2000 and provide a haven for the wildlife of Waco. There is the Research and Education Center for visitors to learn about the wetlands, but even when the center is closed, you can still visit the grounds. There are several walking paths to explore the area, including wooden bridges over the waterlogged ground.

What it costs: Free.
How long to get there: About 25 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Take a Leap Over the Falls

Just a short 30-minute drive to our neighbor city of Crawford is a little-known park that’s the perfect outdoors adventure for the family. Tonkawa Falls City Park is home to a 15-foot waterfall cascading into a watering hole. The draught has made swimming at Tonkawa Falls unsafe but when the water levels are higher, the limestone cliffs provide the best jumping spot into the cool water below. (Editor’s Note: As of June 10, the watering hole is open for swimming, but be sure to check Tonkawa Falls City Park’s Facebook for the latest information about swimming at the falls.)

You can explore the elevated cliffs above, taking in the sights and sound of the waterfall. Old stone steps lead you down to the water where you can dip your feet in if you don’t want to take the plunge. Beyond the waterfall, the park includes a horseshoe court, basketball court, picnic area where you can enjoy your snacks (visitors are asked not to eat by the water to keep trash out of the beautiful space) and an event center if you’re looking to host near the falls. The park also has some history etched into the stones, with petroglyphs from the Tonkawa Tribe still visible in the area.

Note that there is no lifeguard on duty at the falls and so visitors swim at their own risk. Lifejackets are recommended.

What it costs: $10 per vehicle.
How long to get there: About 30 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Visit “The Jewel of Woodway”

After extensive renovations kept the Carleen Bright Arboretum closed over the last few years, it’s now open and ready to make your summer magical. The botanical gardens are a peaceful outdoor outing for the family or even for a solo stroll through the trail of flowers. Among them you can find an award-winning cactus garden and rosebushes, as well as a certified monarch butterfly waystation for the migrating butterflies as they travel across North America. Take a break from the stress of everyday life at the Massey Meditation Grove or take a hike through the native woodlands. Kids can make a splash at the newly installed splash pad and the kid’s area provides fun, interactive games. You can even bring your furry friend as long as they are leashed.

What it costs: Free.
How long to get there: About 16 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Experience the Brazos and Bosque Rivers in a New Way

The number one rated boat tour in all the United States in 2023 according to USA Today readers is located right here in Waco. Spend just over two hours cruising the Brazos and Bosque Rivers as the sun sets while learning about iconic Waco landmarks and history. Even Wacoans will love this evening cruise.

Starting at the McLane Stadium docks, enjoy the voyage down the Brazos River through the Downtown Waco area. In the no wake zone, you go at a slow speed as you cross under the beautiful bridges that span the river, from the two railroad bridges — one of which is still in use — to the sweeping Waco Suspension Bridge that was a percussor to the Brooklyn Bridge to the steel bars of the Washington Street Bridge, the oldest running Pennsylvania through truss bridge in the United States.

Once you cross the no wake zone, the boat revs up and you’re flying through the river alongside the gorgeous limestone bluffs that make up Cameron Park and Lovers Leap. The tour takes you down Bosque River all the way to the fork near the dam before returning to the McLane Stadium docks.

And at the end of the tour, there’s a surprise treat waiting for you that is uniquely Wacoan and perfect for those warm summer nights. You’ll also get to groove with the fun disco light with your guide and captain.

What it costs: Tours are $79–$99 per person.
How long to get there: About 5 minutes from Downtown Waco.

Meet the Families: Jeff and Kristen Knapp

Jeff and Kristen Knapp live just outside of Waco in the small city of McGregor and met at MCC where Jeff played baseball and Kristen was on the dance team. Their three children attend South Bosque Elementary with their youngest starting kindergarten in the fall. Jeff is the president of the Knapp Group which flips gas stations. Kristen is a hip hop and dance company instructor at Joy’s School of Dance.

Kristen’s family is from Waco and Jeff’s parents recently moved to the area to be closer to their grandkids. Both sets of grandparents joined Jeff, Kristen and their three children on the river cruise offered by Waco Tours.

Does your family spend a lot of time outdoors? Our family spends a lot of time outdoors! We live in McGregor by the river so if we’re not spending time outdoors at our house, we’re always looking for other fun outdoor activities in Waco and surrounding areas.

Summer bucket list: One thing we’d like to do this summer is go fishing at Woodway Park and have a picnic.

Perfect summer day in Waco: We’d start with a trip through Shipley’s drive thru and visit to the new White Hall Park playground. We’d probably pick up Chick-fil-A for lunch then swim with friends and maybe ride our bikes on the Cotton Belt Trail. Visit Ohana’s or Bahama Buck’s for a snow cone or ice cream. We’d end with a pizza picnic from Luigi’s and watch the sunset at Woodway Park while skipping rocks or fishing.

What was your favorite part about the river cruise? The kids say the Dr Pepper floats! But mine and Jeff’s favorite part was the sunset and cliff views.

Experience a Starry Night

Fill your night with stars at the Paul and Jane Meyer Observatory located a short drive away in Clifton. The observatory is run by the Central Texas Astronomical Society and it’s open to the public during the open house on the third Saturday of every month. Otherwise, visits to the observatory are by appointment. The Astronomical Society also hosts star parties which can be found on their calendar of events.

What it costs: Open house nights are free, but contributions are appreciated.
How long to get there: About 1 hour from Downtown Waco.

Take the Plunge

Make a splash this summer at one of the towering waterslides at Hawaiian Falls. This is the ultimate waterpark with thrills and obstacle courses for kids and a lap pool and lazy river for parents to escape the heat. This large waterpark is located near McLennan Community College, a short drive from Camp Fimfo so if you need even more time in the water during your camping stay, you can add a day pass for your family.

The waterpark is designed with every age in mind. Younger swimmers can enjoy the shallow pool with smaller slides at Kiki Kove and slightly more advanced swimmers can enjoy the 48-foot Tiki Tower. Older swimmers who are ready to take the plunge can choose between the towering Pineapple Express or the winding Tempest Tower.

What it costs: Day passes are $17.99–$25.99, or get The Best Deal for $39.99 which includes a meal voucher and all day drink wristband.
How long to get there: About 13 minutes from Downtown Waco.