Chris LeBlanc takes in the sunset at the Pennybacker Bridge overlook on Jan. 3, 2020. Pam LeBlanc photo

I’ve lived in Austin most of my life, but until Sunday had never climbed to the overlook at the Pennybacker Bridge on Loop 360.

I made the steep walk up a pitifully eroded trail to reach the top, where I discovered a flat, rocky area with a nice view of Lake Austin. A small crowd had gathered to snap photographs and watch the boats passing far below, so I walked 50 more yards and perched on a vacant boulder.

The view, though, wasn’t the first thing I noticed.

The place is littered with discarded plastic bottles and beer cans, and the cast-off trappings of everyday life. Apparently, people climb the ridge with bags of chips and candy bars and decide, after they’ve had their fill, to discard the wrappers right there. Some people have even painted the rocks with graffiti.

All this really pisses me off.

I don’t understand the mentality of trashing a place that you’re visiting because it’s pretty. (I also fantasize about loading all those cigarette butts and Styrofoam hamburger boxes into a dump truck and leaving them on the front lawn of whoever dropped it there, but maybe that’s just me.)

Still, the view is nice.

If you make the trip, watch your step. There are no fences or guardrails to keep you from tumbling off the cliff. In 2012, a 63-year-old man from Denison died after falling 50 to 75 feet down the ledge while posing for a photo.

The steel bridge itself was opened to traffic in December 1982, just seven months after I graduated from Johnston High School on the east side of Austin. One of my classmates recounts the story of crawling out on the bridge supports late one night while it was being built. I’ve waterskied underneath it and swam near it dozens of times.

The 1,150-foot span and its 600-foot central archway was named for Percy V. Pennybacker, who designed bridges for the Texas Highway Department. It’s made of 600 tons of steel produced in Japan (a controversy at the time) and bridge structures fabricated in Korea that were shipped to Houston, then trucked to Austin. The metal was sandblasted to make sure it would weather into an even patina, which it has. The roadway itself is made of 3,400 tons of concrete.  

The $10 million project took first place in the 1984 Federal Highway Administration’s Excellence in Highway Design competition.

I like it. So do lots of other folks, based on the number of vehicles I see parked there regularly.

According to a 2012 story in the Austin American-Statesman, the state owns the right of way around the bridge, including the cliff, and the Transportation Department maintains it. Officials have posted no parking signs along the road (they’re ignored) and falling rock warnings. A well-trodden path leads up the hillside.

Please, wear a mask if you go, and be careful when you park and back out onto the southbound lanes of Loop 360 to access the trail. Car break-ins have been reported here, so don’t leave any valuables in your car or truck.

And please, pick up your trash!





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