Great Hills Park

Great Hills Park History

Today, Great Hills Park is a unique recreational green space. Approved as a city park by the Austin Parks Board in 1994, Great Hills Neighborhood Park has grown and thrived over the years thanks primarily to the patience and determination of neighborhood volunteers.

In the mid 1980s a section of land totaling nearly 50 acres was donated to the city for a park. But the potential of the beautiful canyon land around Floral Park Drive remained untapped for several years.

Neighbors first approached the city in the early 1990s to request a playscape, but the Austin Parks and Recreation Department could not locate a suitable site. During the same period, people living in the Sierra Oaks area had become concerned about nine acres of beautiful but misused land abandoned in their neighborhood and abutting the parkland. These neighbors also wanted a playscape and a system of trails through the canyon. The two groups joined forces and held a meeting in the Fall of 1993.

The meeting revealed that some neighbors wanted a park but others did not. In an effort to resolve the impasse, residents of almost 1,000 homes surrounding the park were surveyed. The survey showed that a majority of neighbors wanted a park, and this convinced the city to proceed.

The Austin Parks Department made plans for a playscape near Floral Park Drive and presented them at a public meeting. After this meeting neighbors against the park advanced their own survey. The two opposing groups presented their findings and argued their cases before the Austin Parks Board in June of 1994. The board ruled that the park would be developed, that the nine acres in the Sierra Oaks area would be acquired, and that the playscape would be built at the Sierra Oaks end of the park.

The neighborhood created a Great Hills Park Committee (GHPC) and immediately began work on the park trails, which have been entirely built and maintained since that time by volunteers. The Austin Parks Department provides expertise, tools, and maintenance of certain park facilities while the neighborhood offers significant volunteer labor.

The Great Hills Park playscape was constructed in 1997 and dedicated at a rousing neighborhood celebration on July 4 of that year. Preparation for this large gathering highlighted the need for picnic tables, which were not in the budget. The GHPC decided to fundraise for picnic tables and order them, the group’s first project. When donations started to come in, it became clear that keeping the funds in a tin can was not appropriate. So PARD was asked for guidance. PARD recommended Friends of the Parks of Austin (FOPA), a 501(c)3 that was helping similar groups with management of funds. Great Hills Park Committee officially became part of the group on October 13, 1997. Since then, Friends of the Parks has been an important source of guidance as well as the 501(c)3 umbrella for GHPC.

Another organization instrumental in the development of the park is The Austin Parks Foundation (APF). Great Hills Park and APF grew up together. Both were getting started at the same time. APF proved to be the principal source of encouragement and know how in those early years. Due to its initiative, Great Hills Park became the first member of APF’s Adopt-a-Park program in 1996. The program makes use of volunteers to bridge the Austin Parks Department’s budget shortfalls. As the years passed, APF supported Great Hills Park with grants for various park projects. The initial grant was a modest one to help build the first chimney swift tower. Later, with plenty of encouragement and financial support from APF, a pavilion was built near the playscape. When neighbors complained that there was nothing for teens and adults at the playscape, another grant from APF helped to fund the installation of exercise equipment.

Volunteer energy has sustained Great Hills Park. At the playscape volunteers have added and cared for many plantings, constructed an information kiosk and a brick plaza, added picnic tables, and in 2002 added a chimney swift tower with a nature information center and native plant garden. The trails system continues to be improved and is a delight to its many users. In addition to building and maintaining the trails, the volunteers have provided maps, directional signs, benches, trailhead signs, and the five information kiosks.

Workdays, usually part of Austin’s citywide “It’s My Park Day,” occur twice a year. The GHPC seeks to enlist service-minded organizations to assist with these events. Volunteers from local high schools, Austin Community College, and the University of Texas have participated along with neighbors. Information meetings are held twice a year for all neighbors and other stakeholders and are frequently attended by city council members or their staff.

Hundreds of volunteers have contributed their time and money to park upgrades and maintenance. In the last 28 years a number of significant improvements have been made through cooperation between the city and the volunteers. One major improvement is the pavilion, constructed and funded by neighbors and APF with initial permission and ongoing maintenance from PARD. The outdoor exercise equipment area was jointly funded by APF and the neighbors, constructed by the city, and is maintained by the city. In 2019, replacement of the original 1997 play equipment was completed using new equipment chosen by a committee of neighbors who skillfully found items that would fit into the existing footprint of the old equipment. Other projects have included a flag pole and a telescope.

Each of the five trailhead entrances have kiosks designed by PARD, constructed by Eagle Scouts, funded by neighbors and other donors, and approved by the city. There is one swift tower and several bat nesting boxes constructed by Eagle Scouts.

The large chimney swift tower in the playscape area was designed and constructed by Paul Kyle, who along with his wife Georgeann founded the Chimney Swift Conservation Association. Paul also conducted training sessions for volunteers to learn proper maintenance procedures for the towers.

Throughout its history and continuing to this day, Great Hills Neighborhood Park serves as a testament to the value of collaboration between volunteers, benefactors, community organizations, and public officials. Season after season, children, adults, pets, wildlife, the neighborhood, the natural environment, hikers and adventurers of all ages benefit greatly from all the good work done.