Adam Rankin Johnson was a just a 20-year-old surveyor from Kentucky when he first explored the Colorado River Valley in 1854, but he had big dreams for taming the wild river and harnessing its enormous power.
Before 1860, he had marked boulders on either side of the river to show where a dam should be built, and in 1887 (after losing his eyesight in the Civil War), he founded a city by “the great marble falls” a few miles downstream.
Buchanan Dam was completed in 1938 by the newly-created Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), about 80 years after Johnson marked the spot, and a series of dams down the river created the Highland Lakes chain along the Colorado River. The wild land has become a tourist and retirement paradise, and the five “Highland Lakes,” each with its own unique character, attract thousands of visitors every year.
Lake Buchanan is the first and the largest of the lakes. It is ideal for sailing and fishing, and its northern end (home of the Vanishing Texas River Cruise) is surrounded by unspoiled wilderness. Several waterfalls mark the points where creeks empty from the canyon walls into the huge lake, and a great variety of topographical features make for a fascinating boat trip up the lake.
Inks Lake is next. It is the smallest of the five lakes, but its eastern bank is almost completely occupied by Inks Lake State Park, so it offers a wide range of recreational activities along with its spectacular scenery. Devil’s Waterhole is one of the most popular attractions, offering cliff-jumping along with all the “normal” water sports. It was formed in 1939 by the construction of Inks Dam.
Lake LBJ is the central lake, and features a whole additional arm where the Llano River joins the Colorado at Kingsland. It is surrounded by beautiful hills and upscale retirement communities, with a multitude of inlets and canals which add to the visual appeal and the length of the shoreline. It was formed in 1951 by the construction of the Alvin Wirtz Dam.
Lake Marble Falls is the most accessible of the Highland Lakes; Hwy 281 crosses it at Marble Falls, and several quality hotels offer luxurious overnight accommodations on both sides of the lake. The legendary falls which gave the town its name now lie quietly under the lake, formed in 1951 by the construction of the Max Starcke Dam. The historic downtown which was built to harness the power of the river now basks in the charm and beauty of Lake Marble Falls.
As the Colorado River leaves Burnet County on its way to Austin, it becomes Lake Travis and winds its way through the eastern Hill Country toward Austin. Lake Travis was formed by the construction of Mansfield Dam in 1942, and is the longest and deepest of the lakes. Several parks and marinas provide access to Lake Travis from both sides of the lake.
Lake Austin was formed in 1939 by the construction of the Tom Miller Dam, and is located mostly inside the metropolitan area of Austin. It is a popular fishing and boating destination, and a beautiful view of the lake is available from the top of Austin’s Mt. Bonnell.
Lady Bird Lake is the portion of the Colorado River which flows through downtown Austin, and some authorities list it as the seventh of the Highland Lakes. Boat rentals and riverside parks offer an excellent view of the Austin skyline.
The Highland Lakes offer all kinds of water-based activities, from dock-fishing to world-class wakeboarding, and the area is dotted with lodgings for every taste and budget. Although the lakes themselves are the main attraction, several state parks and historic towns add to the appeal of this very special corner of the Texas Hill Country. In a state where water is prized so highly, there is no place quite like the Highland Lakes.