Barton Creek rises six miles northeast of Dripping Springs in northern Hays County (at 30°13' N, 98°11' W) and flows east for forty miles to its mouth on the Colorado River, at Town Lake in southwest Austin (at 30°16' N, 97°46' W). It passes between limestone bluffs, sheer cliffs, and heavily wooded hills that characterize the Hill Country and drops 1,000 feet between its source and its mouth. It falls through the limestone fissures of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone in southwest Austin and reemerges several hundred yards downstream at Barton Springs. The shallow clay and sandy loam near the creek supports juniper, oak, cottonwood, pecan, willow, dogwood, and redbud trees, as well as at least seven endangered plant species.
Tonkawa and Comanche Indians camped in the Barton Creek area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Spanish explorers in the eighteenth century commented on the site's beauty. William Barton, for whom the creek is named, built a home near the springs in 1837. The creek subsequently became a popular resort. An Austin newspaper referred to Barton Springs as "Austin's Eden" in the 1880s, and the swimming hole at the springs was built into a more modern pool in the 1930s.
Although sections of the creek carry little water during dry spells, periods of extended rainfall and high runoff can make the stream ideal for canoeing and kayaking. For decades Barton Creek has provided area residents and visitors opportunities for swimming, hiking, biking, rock climbing, and simply enjoying long stretches of unspoiled natural beauty. However, increased development of southwest Austin in the 1970s and 1980s began to threaten both water quality and wildlife, and the creek became the subject of numerous studies and greenbelt proposals and a bone of contention between developers and environmentalists. More and more frequently the pool at the springs was closed after heavy rains because of contamination from runoff and seepage from sewer lines. Public outcry against development near the creek forced the Austin City Council to adopt the Barton Creek Watershed Ordinance in 1980 and the Comprehensive Watersheds Ordinance in 1986. A 1990 proposal to develop 4,000 acres within the creek's watershed prompted unprecedented opposition and resulted in the passage of the Save Our Springs Citizens Initiative of 1992, an ordinance that severely limited the construction of impervious cover within the watershed, limited exemptions, established pollution-prevention standards, and attempted to reduce the risks of accidental contamination.