On a McKinney Falls State Park camping trip, plunge into an Austin swimming hole, hike to historical ruins, and immerse yourself in the beauty of the Texas Hill Country.
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McKinney Falls State Park
I discovered McKinney Falls State Park quite by accident. I had crossed the Texas state line the day before on a month-long camper van trip, and was headed to Austin with pitstops at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, the LBJ Presidential Library, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
The weather forecast predicted rain for the next 2-3 days in the Austin area, and although I love rain, I knew it would inhibit outdoor activities and affect the quality of my photos.
Early on in my journey, I was learning that boondocking without hookups and WiFi was not my thing. The process of buying and outfitting a camper van had dominated so much of my time that I was not able to plan a detailed itinerary like I usually do.
I had a general idea of where I was headed, but I had not booked my campsites in advance.
I posted a request for Austin-area camping recommendations in an online group, and before too long, someone suggested McKinney Falls State Park. Because of the impending rain, I decided to book two nights by way of the Reserve America website. The rate was only $20, plus $6 park admission, per night.
The rain was coming down when I pulled into the park, but the lady ranger was totally unaffected by the weather. She gave me a warm welcome with park maps, a gate code, and a receipt to tape to my windshield.
Click the image above to download a PDF map of McKinney Falls State Park and campground.
McKinney Falls State Park Camping
The park campground features 81 campsites, all with water and electrical hookups, as well as six newly-remodeled cabins. Restrooms, bathhouses, a dump station, and park hosts round out the amenities.
My campsite, #77 in the Big Cedar Camping Area, was a spacious wooded plot with a unique horseshoe drive-through.
The rain continued through the night and into the next day, but I was cozy inside my van and used the down time to research and make reservations for upcoming campgrounds.
Mid-morning there was a break in the rain, so I headed out to visit the upper and lower falls and even hike some trails.
After returning to the van, wild turkeys visited my campsite and kept me entertained through the afternoon.
McKinney Falls State Park Hiking
The best way to explore the park is with a copy of the Trails Map. If you are a first-timer, the ten highlighted points of interest are a great place to start.
You can pick up a paper copy at the park, or download a PDF in advance by clicking the image below.
McKinney Falls State Park is named for politician and businessman Thomas McKinney who settled the land with his wife Anna in 1850. Ruins of his two-story limestone house (#8) and gristmill (#9) can be found along the park’s Homestead Trail today.
After Thomas passed in 1873, Anna sold the property to James Woods Smith. One hundred years later in 1973, the Smith family donated 641 acres to the state of Texas. The park opened to the public in 1976.
The ruins of an ancient stone cabin (#1), is easily accessed along the hard-surfaced Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail. Constructed in the early 1850s, the 2-room structure once housed Thomas McKinney’s horse trainer.
During my visit to the park, a section of the Rock Shelter Trail was closed, so I missed seeing the Prehistoric Rock Shelter (#4) and Bouldering Rocks (#5).
I was, however, able to catch a glimpse of “Old Baldy” (#3). Measuring in at 103 feet tall and with a diameter of 60.5 inches, the giant bald cypress is estimated to be more than 500 years old,
While hiking the back section of the Rock Shelter Trail I met up with a local, believed to be a harmless and beneficial prairie kingsnake.
Spring wildflowers were in bloom throughout the park. I was surprised to learn that blue mealycup sage (salvia farinacea) that we grow as an ornamental in Florida is actually a Texas native species.
It wouldn’t be Texas without prickly pear cactus, also in bloom.
By the time I visited, the park’s Bluebonnet Meadow was past its peak, but stragglers along the trails satisfied my desire to see the famed state flower (lupinus texensis).
With delicate tissue paper-like petals, the prickly poppy (argemone munita) was also a showy favorite.
Upper McKinney Falls
Upper McKinney Falls (#2) is just a short walk from the parking area. During dry periods, the flow of Onion Creek is channeled through a chute into the pool below.
Greater Austin has no shortage of swimming holes, and the deep natural pond below the Upper Falls is a lovely one.
No one was swimming during my visit, but I have read that the limestone ledges above the pool are great for cliff-jumping. There are no lifeguards on duty, and I highly recommend scouting out the area for submerged rocks before taking a plunge.
The morning of my last day at the park dawned with clear skies, so I returned to the falls in hopes of capturing better photos.
Cumulative rainfall had increased the flow of Onion Creek substantially, creating more dramatic falls and raising the water level in the pond.
I am no expert, but I would advise against swimming after heavy rain. Better to enjoy the view from the bank due to the rapid current and potential chemicals and bacteria in runoff water.
Lower McKinney Falls
The trail from the Lower Falls parking area leads to a clearing where a broad limestone rock bed extends to Onion Creek, the falls, and beyond.
A path to the right leads through a picturesque tree tunnel, like something out of a storybook.
Wagon wheel indentations from a branch of El Camino Real de los Tejas (#6) are still visible today. Between 1680 and 1845, missionaries, soldiers, government officials, and traders traveled the historic road between Natchitoches, Louisiana, and Mexico.
I am not positive that I photographed the exact site of the original trail, but it sure looks like it.
The limestone bed is pitted with “tinajitas,” shallow circular panholes created by erosion.
I was totally captivated by the shapes and light reflected from a myriad of pools dotting the rugged landscape.
Young people casually leaping from rock to rock along Onion Creek reminded me of my waning youth. The 12-year old boy inside me wanted to jump, but the experienced old guy on the outside knew better.
The Lower Falls (#7)are located at a spot below the confluence of Williamson Creek with Onion Creek.
During drier periods, the swimming hole at the Lower Falls is smaller and shallower than the one at the Upper Falls.
Hikers must ford the creek above the Lower Falls to access the Homestead Trail, Flint Rock Loop Trail, and Williamson Creek Overlook Trail.
Rising waters and a swift current after the rain made the route above the falls impassable, barring access to the trails on the other side.
In addition to camping, hiking, and swimming, the park offers fishing, mountain biking, geocaching, bouldering, picnicking, and other activities
Whether opting for a day visit or overnight camping, McKinney Falls State Park deserves a spot on your Texas Hill Country itinerary.
The full-color 88-page Texas State Parks: Official Guide is your best resource for planning day excursions, weekend getaways, or extended road trips. The guide is available in print, as a PDF, and as a mobile app.
An Additional Resource
For more itinerary options, check out my North Texas Road Trip, a wild ride through the Lone Star state from Amarillo to Lubbock, Grapevine, Waco, and Granbury.
I Would Love to Hear From You
I enjoy dialogue with Backroad Planet readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever done a McKinney Falls State Park camping trip? If so, I would love to hear about your experience. I invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and I always respond!