A Day Trip to McKinney Falls: Just Me And My Shadow

Upper Falls-McKinney Falls State Park

Upper Falls

On the last Friday of this past September, with an overcast day on the forecast and the first reasonable temperatures in over three months, I threw my pack in the car and set out with my dog, Shadow, for a day of hiking at McKinney Falls State Park.  It  was the first day in a long line of Fridays that I could chance taking her on the trail without risking heat exhaustion.  I had missed it, and was in desperate need to shed the daily noise and distractions.  Over the previous three months, my agitation had been building for far too long and I knew there was only one thing that would bring balance and renewal.  I needed to be back under the trees with the breeze on my skin and nothing but the sound of the trail under my boots and water flowing in the distance.  Like good medicine, the first step on the trail brought a sigh of relief.  It wasn’t long before I was sitting on a rock next to the creek which was still flowing in spite of the drought.   I was outside on the trail and all was right again.

Located in  Austin, and only a short 30 minute drive from home, this park was an easy addition to my goal of 12 parks in 2012.  While this park is not at the top of my list of favorites, it was good to be in a campground again, even if it was just for the day.

We started off on Onion Creek Trail between the Walk-In Primitive Camping Area and Upper Falls.  The park was pretty empty that day and surprisingly quiet considering its proximity to the airport and downtown Austin.  I only met three other hikers on the trail and one family swimming at the falls.


Picnic Area

Hike In Camping Area-McKinney Falls State Park

Hike-In Camping Area

Onion Creek Trail is a short, 2.8 mile trail that surrounds the camping and picnic areas and follows a short distance along Onion Creek.  The trail leaves the creek side just past Upper Falls and The Smith Visitor Center.  A short distance from the visitor center, your path will reach the ruins of the Horse Trainer’s Cabin before crossing the park road and continuing on past Park Headquarters.

Horse Trainer's Cabin

The Horse Trainer Cabin was once a two room house where John Van Hagen, Thomas McKinney’s horse trainer, lived.  Thomas McKinney was one of Stephen F. Austin’s original 300 colonists and once owned the land here at McKinney Falls SP.  After helping Texas win it’s independence and co-founding Galveston, he retired here to raise horses in the mid 1800’s.   The ruins of his homestead, his horse trainer’s cabin, and the gristmill lie within the park.  The homestead and gristmill can be found on the Homestead Trail, which is also 2.8 miles long and begins at Lower Falls.

Lower Falls

Lower Falls

Depending on rainfall, it might be tricky getting to the Homestead Trail since the trailhead is located on the other side of the falls.  Reaching the trail requires crossing the creek.  With the drought, Shadow and I had no problem crossing the relatively dry limestone bed just above the falls.  Depending on what time of year you find yourself here, though, you might want to be prepared to get your feet wet if this trail is high on your to do list.

Once you cross Onion Creek at Lower Falls, the trailhead is well marked.  Apparently, this trail is popular with mountain bikers which tend to begin the trail loop by going left.  It is recommended by some for hikers to go to the right and hike the loop counter clockwise in order to keep good visibility between hikers and bikers.  However, the park was relatively empty that day, and since it was approaching midday, the heat and humidity were on the rise.  Spotting the homestead ruins at the trail junction, we proceeded left toward the homestead.

McKinney Homestead Ruins

McKinney Homestead Ruins

McKinney Homestead Ruins

We hiked about a third of the Homestead Trail that day and then had to head back home to pick up the girls from school.  Later I learned about the Rock Shelter Interpretive Trail and knew I would have to return to hike this short, but beautifully shaded historical trail.  With three camping trips planned before the end of 2012, it was not until after the new year that Shadow and I returned.

Shadow ready for the hike!

Shadow ready for the hike!

Rock Shelter Interpretive TrailRock Shelter Interpretive Trail

Bridge to Rock Shelter

Bridge to Rock Shelter with Onion Creek in the distance

Thomas McKinney was not the only one to have chosen this area to call home.  A short, well shaded one mile hike on the Interpretive Trail begins at the Smith Visitor Center and follows Onion Creek between Upper and Lower Falls to a limestone rock shelter overlooking the creek.  This place was believed to be inhabited by Native Americans intermittently between 500 AD until the late 1700’s.  The last occupants here were closely related to the Tonkawa.

Rock Shelter

Rock Shelter

Onion Creek just below Rock Shelter

Onion Creek flowing just below Rock Shelter

We discovered so many beautiful parks in 2012, many of which we would like to revisit.  Although we didn’t camp at McKinney Falls, it’s nice to know such a quiet place exists so close to home.  With Austin’s rapid population growth, it’s sometimes difficult to find a secluded place to return to nature.  There are so many beautiful hiking trails in Austin, but many of them are over-crowded, even during the week.  While we probably won’t return to McKinney Falls to camp, I’ll keep it in my back pocket next time I’m between trips and feel the need to put on my boots, grab my pack, and shake the city off for a while.

On the way to the Homestead Trail