There is one Texas State Park that is located right in Austin: McKinney Falls State Park. For Austinites looking for a local park where they can spend the whole day outside- look no further!
Today we’re heading to McKinney Falls State Park, a park just 13 miles from the Capital and the perfect place for hiking, fishing, biking, camping, and enjoying the outdoors in Austin.
If you are looking to visit McKinney Falls for the first time, then this guide is for you. Get acquainted with the trails and plan your hikes, especially if you are planning on hiking with kids!
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Visiting McKinney Falls State Park
To get to McKinney Falls from downtown Austin it is very simple. You drive on the I-35 South and get off at exit 228 taking a left on E William Cannon Dr. Take a left on McKinney Falls Parkway and then a left into the park.
Note, that all Texas state parks are currently requiring reservations for entrance. The day use fee is 6 dollars per adult (children under 12 free). Go online to reserve your tickets!
When you enter the park you will pass the entrance booth where they check your tickets and you can pick up a map. Once you’re in the park you have two choices of where to park, right or left. Here’s how to decide.
The Two Sections of McKinney Falls State Park
Williamson Creek and Lower Falls
Generally speaking, there are two sections of McKinney Falls: the part north of the Lower Falls hugs Williamson Creek and it’s small tributaries. To access the trails here, you must cross the Lower Falls. This involves getting your feet wet!
There is a wide variety of trails in this part of the park and some points of interest to see. Park at the Lower Falls Parking Lot. More details below. This is our favorite area for hiking!
Onion Creek and Upper Falls
The section south of the Lower Falls is bordered by Onion Creek and the McKinney Falls Parkway. This part includes the long Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail, and well as the Upper Falls area.
Here you will find all of the campsites, both primitive sites for tent camping and cabin rentals. There is also extensive parking, an amphitheater, the Smith Visitors Center, and dining hall.
This is the best area for hanging out for the day and enjoying the large picnic area!
Parking at McKinney Falls State Park
If you are coming for camping or hiking in Onion Creek you will want to take a left from the entrance road to Upper McKinney Falls Parking. For the rest of the trails, head to the Lower Falls Parking.
Hiking at McKinney Falls with Kids
For our first visit, we tried to check out several trails, combined with some shortcuts, so we could make it back before dark! I will highlight the points of interest and trails we were able to access and complete with our four kids (9,7,4 and baby).
Head to the official Texas State Parks website to download the trail map.
As it’s name would suggest, the Picnic Trail is a flat trail right behind the parking lot with plenty of picnic tables. We had a quick meal before beginning our hikes.
Rock Shelter Trail
Down the hill from the Picnic Trail lies the Rock Shelter Trail. This is again a short trail and we began walking down it, hoping to see the Prehistoric rock shelter, a limestone overhang used by Native Americans for more than 8000 year. Both times we have visited the shelter has been corded off.
Tip: You can combine the Picnic Trail and the Rock Shelter Trail with visiting either the Lower or Upper Falls (or both)!
Old Baldy is a 100 foot tall cypress tree. You walk by it on the Rock Shelter Trail, and there are wooden walkways around it so you can get pretty close. It is definitely impressive, so much so, that we couldn’t even get a great picture. It was so big!
Crossing the Lower Falls
To access the rest of the trails, you must cross the Lower Falls. Walk from the far end of the parking lot into the vast expanse of McKinney Falls. From there you will see the bend of Onion Creek with water on both sides. Near the center of the bend are the water falls.
This is a great area to hang out in and explore. You can walk down to see the falls from below. To cross the falls you need to wade in the shallow water right above the water fall.
As you can see from the pictures, our visit was during the winter. This meant that the water level was very low- just a few inches where we were crossing. However, it was also absolutely freezing!
I carried our four year old daughter across and tried to walk as quickly as possible being careful not to slip on the moss. Thankfully, I was wearing my barefoot sandals which made it easier (more on that in a post to come).
Immediately after you cross the falls, take a right and you will see the Gristmill. This is a flour mill installed in 1852 that was powered by the creeks.
To access any of the other trails you must walk on the Homestead Trail. This long windy trail loops up and down. There are also shortcuts along the way!
Some of the short cut trails are wide enough for a vehicle to pass. We used some of the Homestead Shortcut trail to cut some time on our way to the farther trails.
Flint Rock Trail
The Flint Rock Trail is a mile and a half long. The first part is one way, more narrow, and pretty rocky and then the second part is a loop. This was a really enjoyable trail to hike with the kids. You pass a tiny pond and there are a couple bridges along the way.
In particular the far end of the loop the trail flattens out and you are surrounded by the forest that is quite magical!
This far end is where you can reach the Williamson Creek Overlook Trail. We started to walk it, and then back tracked when we realized we were losing daylight.
To return from the Flint Rock Trail we took the Homestead Trail section that runs along Williamson Creek.
This final section had us walking by the McKinney family home. This homestead was built by enslaved people in the late 1840s. After Thomas McKinney’s death, the home was sold to J.W. Smith. Farm families working for the Smith family lived in it until the 1940’s when the home was burned.
To return back to the parking lot, we again had to cross the freezing water of the falls as the sun was setting. All in all it was a really great day!
Next time, we are hoping to visit more of the Onion Creek section, and maybe even go camping when the weather warms up!
McKinney Upper Falls
If you are coming just to hang out in McKinney Falls, then the Upper Falls area is the place to be. There is extensive parking, and several small trails to get from the parking to the huge picnic area that runs next to the river.
There are plenty of picnic tables and grilling stations and the area has so many trees you can definitely hang a hammock and enjoy being under the tree canopy.
If it’s a hot summer day, you can definitely swim near the Upper Falls!
Onion Creek Trail
The main trail that goes around and by the Upper Falls is the Onion Creek Trail. This trail is mostly paved and would be great if you are biking or pushing a stroller. It circles the entire camping area.
For our family, it was not super exciting, and we found the trails near the Lower Falls a lot more interesting for hiking purposes.
McKinney Falls Things to Do
As I mentioned above, there are so many options of things to do in McKinney Falls State Park. Bring your gear and enjoy hiking, biking, fishing and more. Don’t forget lots of water, and be prepared to get your feet wet!
Check out are our gear recommendations!
Have you been to McKinney Falls? How about other Texas State Parks? Any more recommendations for us?
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