McKinney Falls State Park is something of a hidden gem of the Austin area, offering its namesake falls, remarkable sightseeing and miles of wooded trails all nestled within a 700-acre corner of Austin city limits. With a surprising wealth of activities, particularly hiking, biking and swimming opportunities, McKinney Falls is perfect for a short getaway or for unwinding peacefully after exploring the city.
The site is named for Thomas McKinney, one of the earliest American colonists in Texas, who built his home near the falls. A day of hiking will take you past the remnants his house, as well as those of his horse trainer’s cabin and his flour mill, the first to be built in this area. Also of historical interest is “Old Baldy,” a 500-year-old bald cypress tree thought to be one of the oldest in Texas, and the impressive rock shelters, natural limestone cliffs that provided a respite from the elements to indigenous people for over 8,000 years.
Only 15 miles from the heart of downtown Austin, McKinney Falls is convenient and easy to find. But don’t let the schools and subdivisions on the way fool you – the park feels remote and secluded once you’re in it. Though the peak season runs from March to November, it’s not unusual to feel mostly alone on the park’s nearly 10-mile trail system; locals tend to swarm the nearby Barton Creek Greenbelt for summer nature outings, leaving McKinney Falls a solid option for those in search of more peace and quiet and less beer-fueled crowds in their outdoor adventures. Be sure to take note of the $6 daily entry fee per person. This is in addition to overnight camping costs, and is waived for children 12 and under.
McKinney Falls offers 81 campsites with water and electric hookups and close access to restroom facilities (that are repeatedly called out for their cleanliness), ranging from $20-24 per night. Eight more walk-in campsites are held as non-reservable and go for $15 a night, so don’t hesitate to grab a tent and take your chances on a spur-of-the-moment trip if you live close by. The park also offers six screened shelters for $40 a night. Each shelter houses eight bunks, but you’ll need to bring your own mattress pad and bedding. Other than a hot water sink and an electric hookup, the accommodations here are minimal. No pets are allowed in the shelters.
With a drop of only around 5-7 feet, don’t expect to be wowed by the immensity of the two sets of falls. However, the water cascading through the Texas limestone has created a uniquely interesting sight of its own, as well as some excellent swimming holes. Just be sure to call ahead and check the water conditions — too much or too little water in the creek can make for unsuitable swimming conditions, and the periodic accumulation of trash in the water can be a deterrent as well.
Despite just four relatively short trails, McKinney Falls boasts a variety of hiking options that should suit everyone but the most hardcore of hikers. Those looking for a casual stroll through the woods will enjoy the Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail, a 2.8-mile tarmac trail that passes the Upper Falls and loops around the camping areas and also serves as a great place for dog-walking. The shorter Rock Shelter Trail, only 1 mile long, ups the difficulty with a natural, rocky trail surface and steep cliff edges as it passes the limestone shelters. The 2.8-mile Homestead Trail is another natural path that winds through the northern half of the park, and includes steep slopes and multiple water crossings. To reach the site of Thomas McKinney’s home, you must cross over the Lower Falls, which can prove difficult after heavy rains; even in normal conditions, the water may reach your knees at some crossings. Flint Rock Trail is only accessible at the far end of the Homestead Trail, and adds another 2 miles to your hike through the rocky hills. Even though the area is wooded, keep in mind that it’s still Texas and prepare accordingly for sun and heat and rapidly changing weather.
McKinney Falls is unique in that it has excellent options for both mountain bikes and road bikes. The smooth, 6-foot-wide tarmac of the Onion Creek trail is often used by cyclists in training, while equally catering to casual riders and families in search of pleasant and scenic ride. Mountain bikers can enjoy the narrower Homestead and Flint Rock trails, with sections of exposed rock and roots and elevation changes suitable for beginner and intermediate riders. Bikes are not allowed on the Rock Shelter Trail.
In addition to the rock shelters and the falls, the limestone prevalent around McKinney Falls provides some of the best spots in the state for rock climbing. The park has designated an area near the lower falls where bouldering is allowed.