Category Archives: Hiking In Texas

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.

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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

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Once In A Blue Moon

When I made our reservations for South Llano River State Park many months ago, I had no idea our first night would be spent under a blue moon.  As fate would have it, though, that’s exactly what happened.  We arrived much later than we had originally planned and on a Friday night, no less.  It was overcast and very dark, so choosing a spot that was easily accessible, but tucked far enough away from the main trail wasn’t easy.  Once we found our campsite, the clouds rolled back and we set up camp, no flashlight required.

After we set up the tent, we stayed outside for a while to enjoy the second full moon of August.

The next morning, we were pretty pleased with our campsite selection.  While most campers had moved further down the loop, we were the only ones at the top and our campsite was nestled alone in the trees.  We had no one around us.

I was a little concerned about tent camping in August.  For those of you who don’t live in Texas, August is dry and brutally hot.  The days were topping out at 100 degrees, but the nights dipped into the sixties.   We were fortunate to have a nice breeze for most of the trip.  After breakfast on our first full day, we packed a cooler and went down to the river to enjoy being outside the only way possible…in the water.  We spent the entire day swimming, tubing, and hanging out under the pecan trees along the river banks.

The South Llano River flow rate depends on rainfall, but springs ensure the river constantly flows.  The 2600 acre park, which was donated by Walter Buck to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1977,  boasts two miles of river frontage, majestic pecan trees, over twenty miles of hiking and biking trails, and is one of the most biologically diverse parks in the area, particularly with regard to wildlife.  For over a hundred years, the Rio Grande turkey has made this location along the river its roosting spot.  Every year, between October and April, over 800 turkeys come to roost at South Llano River State Park.  In order to protect the turkeys and ensure their return to roost every year, although the park remains open to visitors, some areas of the park are closed during this time.

South Llano River State Park marks the beginning of a 6.3 mile paddling trail ending at Junction City Park on the north bank of Junction Lake just east of the bridge.  There are several outfitters that will rent canoes and kayaks and provide drop off and pick up services.  The river character is slow with quiet pools and gentle rapids.  The float time is 2-4 hours depending on the water level and river flow rate.  We are looking forward to a return trip when the weather cools off to stay a little longer and kayak the river.  Being on the water offers an entirely different experience and the seclusion will offer some great opportunities to see the wildlife.

In the evening, once it became a little cooler, we took the two mile hike up the hill behind our campsite to the scenic overlook.  Hiking a little later in the day would have yielded some much better photos.  Still, it was quiet and beautiful.

Overall, we loved the park, but everyone agreed some cooler temperatures would have made this trip much more enjoyable.  The park has so much to offer, but when it’s over 100 degrees outside, it’s hard to do anything but stay in the water.  We will definitely come back to kayak the river, hike a few trails, and hopefully see some turkeys.

Camping keeps trying to teach me to let go a little and enjoy the ride.  Unable to arrive early on Friday, I wondered what sort of campsite would be left to choose from.  The bottom of the barrel, I imagined.  The same thing happened at Colorado Bend.  I got the leftovers.  And you know what?  I ended up with the perfect spot both times.  I’ve learned that you can’t make the perfect camping trip happen.  It happens when you let it.  It’s hard for me to remember that, but once in a blue moon, I get it right.

Guadalupe River State Park

When I think of summertime in Texas, there are several rivers that immediately come to mind.  Among my favorites are Medina River, Comal River, Frio River, and The Guadalupe.  I have heard South Llano River is well worth the trip and one we plan to take later this summer for the first time.  When the temperatures were warm enough for tubing, we took a trip to Guadalupe River State Park.  This park is tucked away in the Texas Hill Country between Blanco and San Antonio. If you find yourself in the Texas Hill Country, don’t miss the opportunity to visit, or even better, set up camp for a while.  On our way to the park, I envisioned myself hanging out by the river reading my book.  Instead, I found myself staring at and listening to the river for hours.

We arrived Friday afternoon and pitched our tent in the Wagon Ford Walk In Campsite Loop.  The campsites at the end of the loop are more spacious and surrounded by trees which give them a secluded feel.   Although the park was booked for the entire weekend, our campsite was quiet and felt worlds away from civilization.   The walk-in or hike-in sites are becoming my favorite areas in most campgrounds to set up camp.  It requires a little more planning and effort, but the reward is experiencing nature more and my neighbors less. Nature is what pulls me out there, so it’s worth it to me to go out a little further.  I’m learning the importance of becoming a minimalist, though, which I am convinced will only improve everything.

The trail to our campsite

Wagon Ford Walk In Tent Area

Our campsite

 On the second morning of our stay, I took a hike down the trail behind our campsite.  The trail disappeared quickly with overgrowth and I almost turned around, but decided to keep moving forward, hearing the water in the distance.  I’m glad I did.

The nights were cool and the days were warm.  We spent our days down by the river, swimming and tubing.  There is a large day use area down by the river.  We took a picnic and a few chairs and set up under a cluster of bald cypress trees along the riverbanks.  Occasionally, we would hike upstream with our tubes and float back down to our spot.

Although not high in adventure, this trip was just what we needed at the time.  A couple of lazy summer days spent on the banks of the river.  Summer makes an early appearance in Texas.  Although it wasn’t officially summer yet, the thermometer had it’s own opinion on the matter.  I was concerned it would be too hot to sleep, but the nights were cool enough to need blankets.  When we camp here again, we plan to visit the nearby Honey Creek State Natural Area.  Entry to the area is only permitted with a guided interpretive hike which focuses on the history and geology of the area.  Although I am sure the hike is beautiful, I have a feeling our favorite place will still be underneath a cypress tree, on the banks of the river.

Return to Colorado Bend State Park

After visiting Colorado Bend State Park for the first time with my daughter’s troop back in January, I knew a return visit would be top priority for our family in the spring.  We have since added this park to the list of our top favorite places to camp in Texas.

My intent was to stay in the same campsite as before.  I loved that spot.  It was shady, with a nice, slightly elevated view of the river. I realized the day of our trip I had reserved a spot in the walk-in camping area by accident.  Unable to change our reservation since the park was full, I decided to remain optimistic.  After all, there was nothing I could do, and we had all been looking forward to this camping trip for some time.  After our last camping experience, a few friends suggested we stay in a hike-in or walk-in campsite to help weed out those noisy neighbors.  I’m a believer.  This was quite possibly the best camping “mistake” I’ve ever made.   When we arrived late, there were only three spots available, so at check-in, I asked which site was best of those that were left. I was worried. Usually I go to great lengths to make sure we get a beautiful spot. It turns out fate had better plans. We ended up in the most beautiful and peaceful campsite. All the planning in the world could not have rendered better results.

Our campsite

So, I’m learning to let go more and allow myself to be surprised every now and then.  It may not always turn out the way I imagined, but I think it makes for a much better experience.  That might be true with just about anything, really.

We arrived late Friday night.  We were exhausted from the long day of work, packing, driving, and then setting up camp.  When we were finally still and in our tents, I smiled at the only audible sounds; the river and the frogs.   The next morning, we were able to see just how fortunate that mistake really was.  Although we had no shade at our campsite, the open feel was perfect against the backdrop of the neighboring Colorado River and drastic cliff walls on the opposite side.

A trip to Colorado Bend State Park is incomplete without a hike to Gorman Falls.  I have not been able to take a picture that does this breathtaking place any justice, but I am determined to keep trying.  After hiking through the rocky hills with surrounding mesquite and cedar trees and blooming cacti, the trail’s end descends steeply into another world.  It feels as though you’ve been dropped into a rain forest, millions of miles away from Central Texas.  If you have the chance to visit the park, don’t leave without visiting Gorman Falls.  It is worth every step and more.

On the trail to Gorman Falls

Gorman Falls

Gorman Falls

Gorman Falls is a living travertine waterfall.  Over 65 feet tall, this waterfall is growing instead of eroding.  The water from Gorman Spring slowly dissolves the limestone bedrock below.  The water that surfaces is rich in a mineral called calcite.  As it spills over the falls, the calcite is deposited over time creating travertine which is porous and contains nutrients to allow the unique plant life you see here to flourish.

Photo credit for photo above: Scott Siebert

If you follow the trail beyond the falls, you will reach the Colorado River.  The falls spill into the river here and it’s a perfect spot to just sit for a while and take it all in.  We stayed here for the rest of the afternoon.

You won’t find electricity or showers at the park and there are rare pockets of cell phone service, but I love it that way.  The natural beauty here has been relatively untouched.  After driving 8 miles down a dirt road from the park entrance to the campsites and making the descent from the hills down to the river, and yes, even losing that cell phone service, it’s just you and this beautiful place.  Worlds away from the daily grind, distractions, and the calendar that’s always too full, it doesn’t take long to let that all go and just be.   A few deep breaths and you’re good.  Warning:  You may never want to go back!

Flora, Fauna, and Fairy Dust

Sacred Space

When I think of the magic of my childhood, two places readily come to mind; Inks Lake State Park and The Medina River. My sister and I spent weeks at a time every summer with my grandparents in Kerrville, Tx. Now, I know most of you would wince with an eye of scepticism if I told you that magic lived there, but trust me, it does. As a child, I knew enchantment could be found in a tent that my grandfather would put up for me in their backyard. It was my own space and I loved being there. The possibilities were endless when that tent was up, and I could decide which mysterious land I lived in each time I opened the front flap. Few things would entice me to leave that tent, hunger was one, although brief, motivator, but a day at Medina River was something I waited on all year long and was the most magical place of all.

It took me twenty years to go back. I can’t say why. It’s funny, the things that have kept me from the most memorable moments are things that now, I can’t recall.

Scott and I packed up food for a day and took both of the girls up the switchback mountain from Kerrville to where I hoped we would find the same spot my grandparents took my sister and me when we were kids. I wasn’t sure what I would find after 20 years, but I was relieved to find Medina River to be much the same. That day, I found a long lost friend. The magic is still there.

Medina River

There are times still that I miss my grandparents so much that I ache. My throat tightens up and I wish more than anything that I could hug them, or talk to them. I didn’t feel that longing for them that day at the river like I thought I would. Maybe it’s because I knew they were there, and they were smiling.

A Beautiful Beginning: Our First Day Hike at Palmetto State Park


On New Year’s Day, we hit the road in the early afternoon to go on our first hike of the year. We chose Palmetto State Park because of it’s wealth of beauty and proximity to home. Just over an hour’s drive, Palmetto is a little known hidden gem that is surprisingly diverse and abundant in landscape and wildlife. Although close to San Antonio and Austin, the feeling is remote. With the San Marcos River winding through the entire park, over 240 species of birds, and well-kept trails through swampy marshes, there is no shortage of scenery that is pleasing at every turn. We couldn’t have chosen a better hike to kick off the new year.

San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park

First Hike, New Year's Day

Mesquite Flats Trail

This park is named after the tropical Dwarf Palmetto plants that grow here. Their presence gives the park a tropical feel and in a way, it seems this place doesn’t belong, which makes us appreciate it and realize it’s value even more.

Palmetto State Park
Dwarf Palmettos, San Marcos River Trail


My husband and I came back the following week to camp for a few nights without kids for our anniversary. It was the perfect, quiet getaway we both needed. Sometimes I wonder if I could live in a tent and then other times, I know I could. There is something so freeing about only taking what you need and leaving behind all the stuff. It is a simple way of living that my whole family seems to appreciate.

At night, the coyotes sang to us and the owls spoke to one another across the twenty foot cliffs with the river running between. Each morning we woke to a dream-like fog that lifted mid-morning and seemingly brought to life more birds than you could ever imagine in one place. This little red-headed woodpecker was our campsite friend. Notice all the holes he’s already made in this one tree!


Here is a picture of our campsite. The river lies just at our back door.


Here’s another view of our campsite. The campsites are spacious, shaded and have a nice, secluded feel.

The next morning, we were lucky enough to spot this Blue Heron. We even watched him catch a couple of fish.

Blue Heron

Given the beauty we experienced at this park in early January, I can’t wait to return to see what it looks like in the spring. I think this is the first New Year’s Resolution I can remember making that I actually feel good about. I think I’m on to something, and I think it’s pretty good. I can’t wait to see what the rest of 2012 holds.

Scenic Overlook on Park Road 11

Unexpected Joy


I consider myself a fair weather camper. I like it cool at night, warm during the day, and I really like my air mattress. I don’t camp in storms, hail, or freezing temperatures. At least, not by choice. A handful of times, I’ve found myself camping in these situations. Most of them were not at the top of my list of great camping experiences, although, they have persuaded me to improve the quality of my gear. But one in particular, turned out to be one of the best camping trips I’ve experienced so far.

We arrived at Colorado Bend State Park on a Friday night in January around 10pm and found an empty site. The night sky was brilliant and beautiful and although we could hear the river in the distance we couldn’t see it. It was freezing, but we went to work and pitched our tents. Soon, we had tents up. Even though we couldn’t feel our fingers or toes, we crawled into our sleeping bags and tried to sleep. It was a clear, beautiful, and very cold night. We did not stay warm.

The next morning we woke to a layer of frost on the inside of our tents. Even though it took an hour for us to feel our hands and feet again, it turned out to be a beautiful day. We found this in our backyard:

Our backyard
Good Morning

My daughter went underground and explored caves with her Girl Scout Troop and a couple of guides, with nothing more than a light on her helmet, some knee pads and a pair of gloves. I never thought I would have any interest in going into these caves. I was actually looking forward to sitting in my chair reading my book while I waited on them to complete each cave. I am certain, though, had it not been for recent knee surgery, I would have been in that cave with them. I am already planning our next trip.

Kyla exiting Turtle Cave


In the evening, back at the campsite, I took a short walk by the river.

Saturday night, we stayed warm. A few suggestions for keeping warm: change your socks before you go to bed and make sure they are wool socks, wear something on your head, layer your clothing, and, my favorite, hand warmers.

Determined for adventure the next day, we went on a hike to Gorman Falls. If you go to Colorado Bend State Park, do not leave without visiting the falls. I was intimidated by the three mile hike there, but the majority of the trail was easy. The last 50 feet were a little challenging and probably not what my physical therapist would have recommended, but the view was worth every step. These pictures do no justice. This place is so magical, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had actually seen a fairy, or two.

Gorman Falls

Gorman Falls

Gorman Falls

It’s impossible to regret the experience of camping in below freezing temperatures when I walk away from this realizing what I might have missed out on waiting for the perfect time and the perfect weather. If I go on backing out of situations just because the conditions are less than ideal, I’ll miss out on, well…life. I’m thinking this might have been one of those bits of wisdom that I might have lost along the way. Now, I’m trying to say yes more often.