Located a mere 13 miles from the Capitol, McKinney Falls State Park can seem worlds away from the hustle and bustle of a growing city. The 725-acre park was once the home of Kentucky-born Thomas F. McKinney, who helped finance the Texas Revolution and had a long history as a trader. As one of Stephen F. Austin’s 300 original colonists in an area then known as San Felipe de Austin, McKinney arrived in 1830 and had a stone house, gristmill and quarter horse track built upon the property. Onion Creek forms most of the the northern boundary of the park and spills over limestone rocks at the Lower Falls into a popular swimming hole.
The State Park offers camping, hiking, mountain and road biking, geocaching, bouldering, fishing, swimming and picnicking. You can also take advantage of periodic hikes and other events, as well as the Junior Ranger Program for kids ages 6-12. Dogs are allowed in the park if they are on leash, but not in the water. McKinney Falls is particularly beautiful during wildflower season when bluebonnets greet you from the roadside.
There is an entrance fee of $6 for ages 13 and up, although visitors 12 and under are free. Restrooms and water fountains are located throughout the park. When you visit the ranger station at the park entrance, make sure to grab a map of the park and trails so you have it handy while you are out in the park.
One of the primary draws to McKinney Falls are the three hiking trails:
The 2.75-mile Homestead Trail starts north of Onion Creek and showcases the ruins of Thomas McKinney’s residence and a gristmill, as well as the stone picnic table the Smith family, who donated the property for the park in 1970, once used.
To access the trail, follow the clearly marked signs to the Lower Falls. Then, take a short path over limestone which you might imagine being similar to the moon’s surface, which leads to Onion Creek. To your right, you can hike down to the swimming hole, where there is a (rocky) beach entry. Visibility and water level vary, depending on the time of year, but keep a close eye on your swimmers, as depth can change quickly and drownings have occurred.
Depending on the time of year and recent rains, you may have to cross over a few inches of water to reach the trailhead. Footing can get slippery over the limestone rocks, so skip the flip flops and opt for Teva-like sandals or just wear sneakers and have a pair of dry shoes to change into after your hike.
The dirt trail is mostly shaded, but you’ll want to head out early in warmer months, as it can heat up quickly. After going past about McKinney’s residence, you’ll wind through a wooded and narrow path with some elevation change that is manageable with kids. Toward the end of the hike, the trail will come close to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Headquarters, which boasts a large field which becomes a carpet of wildflowers in the springtime.
You can also explore two other trails in the park:
- The 0.9-mile Rock Shelter Trail takes you alongside the limestone cliffs which offer a welcome break from the Texas sun.
- The 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail, which is the only trail in the almost-9-mile system which is stroller (and road bike) friendly. The trail takes you by what remains of Thomas McKinney’s horse trainer’s home, the Upper Falls and a picnic area.
Whatever path you take, you are likely to leave McKinney Falls already thinking about the next time you can return.
–> Looking for more great trails to visit with the kids? Check out:
- Top 10 Family Hikes in Austin
- River Place Nature Trail
- Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve
- Bull Creek Greenbelt
About the author: A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole Basham uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau’s words, her mission is to “suck out all the marrow of life”, or in her son’s words, to cultivate in him a love of adventures.