Trail of Lights gifts the delights of winter

Catie Graves, Staff Writer

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Every year, for two weeks in December, Central Texans celebrate the spirit of the holidays at the Zilker Trail of Lights. The Trail of Lights is an Austin holiday tradition that has been occurring for 54 years.

There are two main parts to this celebration: the “Fun Run” and the Trail of Lights itself. Last year, there were 315,000 people in attendance at the Trail, 8,000 fun runners, 66 displays and 77 live performances. This year the Trail of Lights runs from Dec. 10 to Dec. 23.

The Trail of Lights Foundation is the host of the event. Foundation President Leah Davies said the Trail provides a place for family and friends to celebrate the holiday season together.

“There’s this sense of tradition and togetherness that the Trail brings Austin which I think is pretty unique,” Davies said.

Every night, there is a performance from a local artist, as well as local food trucks. Davies said that the foundation always tries to keep the Trail fresh and exciting while still maintaining the traditional aspects of the Trail that keep families coming back. Junior Elijah Esteves said the Trail of Lights is a unique way Austin celebrates its community.

“I think it’s a neat way for the city of Austin to get together to celebrate Christmas and all the lights help contribute to that and all the festivities,” Esteves said.

The Trail of Lights also has several programs aimed at accessibility for all members of the Austin community. To enter the trail, for half of the nights, the entrance fee is $3, but children 12 and under are free. For the other half, there is no entrance fee at all, making the experience more accessible to families tight on money.

Another community program is STARS. STARS at the Trail, a program run by the Foundation, dedicates three nights on the Trail exclusively to non-profit organizations. These organizations receive special access, a VIP tour and a unique opportunity to visit the Trail.

“Every year, in addition to there being new things on the Trail, new displays, new things to see there’s almost always new community involvement,” Davies said.

The Foundation finds volunteers and community support to help with the Trail in the months leading up to the event. The Foundation also relies on its sponsors, including corporations such as HEB. The Texas grocery store has been a title sponsor of the Trail of Lights for seven years, and gives away free books at the Trail to encourage children’s literacy.

Being with friends and family is one of the main appeals of the Trail of Lights, said freshman Lillian Long. She often spends time with friends at the Trail.

“Everyone comes together during the holidays to go on this really amazing nature walk, and the environment is so nice,” Long said.

The main attraction of the Trail is the row of lights strung around the trees and other Christmas decorations, props and cutouts. However, there are other attractions as well.

“My favorite part is probably seeing the big tree, stand under and look up and be amazed by it,” Esteves said.

The Zilker Tree is a centerpiece of the Trail of Lights, with workers setting it up weeks beforehand. It consists of a pole with lights attached to the top and stretching out to the ground below. Guests at the Trail of Lights can go underneath the tree, look up, and spin, creating their own kaleidoscope effect. For junior Eli Walther, the food is the best part of the Trail.

“I really like all the different kinds of food, especially the funnel cakes,” Walther said.

There is a variety of food available for purchase at the Trail, along with some games. The Trail includes rides like carousels and ferris wheels, in which riders can see the rest of the Trail and downtown Austin.

The Fun Run is one of the biggest attractions for the Trail. It happens before the actual Trail of Lights, occurring this year on Dec. 1 with participants making their way through a 2.1 mile course starting at the Zilker Tree and weaving its way through the Trail itself. After finishing, participants receive a free beverage and commemorative t-shirt.

Into its sixth decade of operation now, Davies said the Trail of Lights offers Austinites and their families a chance to slow down and enjoy the season of giving.

“I hope people continue to support the Trail and make sure it’s part of Austin’s future,” Davies said.