Camp Out, Close In
At McKinney Falls, you can experience a lush hideaway only 10 miles from the state capitol.
By Bernadette Noll
Nearly 20 years ago, when I first moved to Austin, a bunch of urbanite friends and I decided to embark on a group campout. It was late afternoon when we finally departed Austin, but McKinney Falls State Park was just a stone’s throw away, which made it feel accessible despite our lack of planning. We loaded up a cooler, packed the car with sleeping bags and blankets, threw in a couple of borrowed tents and drove the 15 minutes out of town to McKinney Falls. We were novice campers without a doubt and showed this by sending out for tacos in the morning from a nearby taco stand. Though we weren’t exactly roughing it, we all appreciated the ability to access the great outdoors in such close proximity to our inner-city dwellings. Despite the fact that Austin has sprawled in several directions since then, McKinney Falls still feels like a great outdoor escape just 10 miles from the Texas Capitol.
Since then, I have had many escapades at McKinney Falls, and each time I have been astounded that this gem of a park, so fertile and so wild, exists just minutes from downtown Austin. Since that first discovery it has become our family go-to place for last-minute day trips. It is the place we take out-of-town visitors to show them the other wild side of Austin. It is a place I go alone, with my partner, with my four children, with friends and family or with a class trip of second graders. Each time I go I am revitalized and grateful that this green space has been preserved and kept open for public use. Having been there countless times now, McKinney Falls feels so completely familiar to me, yet each time I go I am shown something new, because of the season, the company or the paths I take.
The land that is now McKinney Falls State Park was originally settled by Thomas Freeman McKinney, who came to Texas in the 1820s as one of Stephen F. Austin’s first 300 colonists. After statehood, McKinney served in the Texas House of Representatives. McKinney settled along Onion Creek in Travis County around 1850 and there built his home, stables, a horse track and a gristmill. He lived on the land grinding flour, ranching and raising and racing thoroughbred horses until his death in 1873. McKinney’s wife sold off small bits of land and sold a large portion of it to James Smith in 1875. Though floods destroyed the mill in the late 1800s and the house was taken by fire in the 1940s, the ruins of McKinney’s stone house and his horse trainer’s cabin are there still. It was Smith’s grandson, J.E. “Pete” Smith, who donated the land to the State of Texas in 1970. The land was appraised then at nearly $750,000, and the state received a matching federal grant to develop the park. The park was opened to the public on April 15, 1976.
The name McKinney Falls is for the two falls that are part of Onion Creek, which winds around the western edge of the park, flowing north. For years I knew only of the Upper McKinney Falls, though the name of course implies the existence of a Lower Falls. I have seen the Upper Falls with barely a tepid trickle in the dead of summer, and I have seen it raging so frighteningly high across the entire limestone shelf after a torrential rain that I wouldn’t let my kids get within 10 feet of its edge. Each time a new atmosphere is created.
The Upper Falls empty into an incredibly clear, deep limestone pool lined with mammoth cypress trees on one side, time-worn limestone on another and a small sandy beach along the far edge. There are even a few island-like rocks in the middle, which serve as a perfect landing point for a tired swimmer. I have spent whole days at the Upper McKinney Falls, exploring the life in the tiny limestone pools with kids, swimming off the sandy shore and lounging on the water-smoothed and sun-baked limestone cliffs.
From the Upper Falls you can head in several directions. If you head south, you will be on the Onion Creek hike and bike trail, which is a 3-mile asphalt loop. This trail follows the creek for a while through the cedar elm-filled picnic area, past the eight walk-in campsites, the amphitheater and the group dining hall. It then loops away from the water and comes back around the edge of the 84 drive-in campsites, nears the main entrance and heads back to the Upper Falls. At different times throughout the year there are several good birding spots along the way, and many migrating species stop in this green oasis for a chance to rest before continuing on their long journey. Among many others, kingfishers and great blue herons can be spotted flying along the water’s edge or perched in a tree; red-tailed hawks can be seen catching thermals overhead, and, in the winter, copious numbers of American robins call this area home. During one winter walk we found three owl pellets right in the middle of the walkway, which we immediately dissected with a couple of sturdy sticks.
Near the parking lot for the Upper Falls is the Smith Visitor Center. The visitor center has information on Thomas F. McKinney, the history of the park’s land use and other information about the park. Interpretive nature tours and discussions are held in the center on many weekends throughout the year.
Behind the Smith Visitor Center, heading downstream is the trailhead for the nearly one-mile long Rock Shelter Trail. The trail name is for the Indian Rock Shelter, which is a natural limestone overhang and was used as a shelter by Native Americans from as early as 500 until the 1700s. The last known occupants of this shelter were believed to be related to the Tonkawa Indians. The shelter, also known as the Smith Rock Shelter, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Along this trail one spring afternoon we stopped for lunch and dipped our first-of-season shoeless feet in the cool clear water of a tiny subsidiary creek, which flowed under a small footbridge.
Approaching the Lower McKinney Falls is like walking across a stark moonscape as the extensive span of flat yet erratically pocked limestone stretches down to the water. Grasses and flowers randomly poke up through the cracks, and tiny puddles serve as home for all manner of miniscule life. Once at the falls a welcoming pool of water waits below and explorations galore can take place all around the water’s edge. Though sometimes high water prohibits access, the Homestead Hike and Bike Trail goes through the woods, up to the McKinney homestead ruins, and loops back down through a gloriously green and wild trail thick with all manner of flora and fauna.
In spring of this year I revisited McKinney Falls on a weekday afternoon. Every bit of meadow was filled with wildflowers and butterflies of every size, shape and hue. The water was flowing pleasingly over the falls and a few migrating warblers could be spotted in the canopy of the cedar elms. Near the outdoor amphitheater I startled a painted bunting, which had been perched on the stone wall. With every step, butterflies rose from the flowers and the grass, and I was amazed that all of this existed just a few miles from the airport and downtown. Whether you go for a lunch break, a day trip or an overnight excursion, you will be amazed at all this urban park has to offer, and hopefully you, too, will return time and time again.
For information about hikes and water levels at McKinney Falls, call the park at (512) 243-1643 or visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/mckinneyfalls>
Tips for Last-Minute Camping Trips
Long ago, when my husband was an art student in downtown Chicago, he and his arty classmates embarked on a weekend campout. No matter that he had no camping experience or equipment to speak of, with gusto he hit the woods with a willingness to wing it. He constructed a tent out of abandoned artists’ canvases, found sticks for poles and created, if not the most wildlife-proof, at least the most colorful tent in the forest, and somewhat waterproof too.
But you need not create an installation piece on your next campout. Even last-minute can be easy if you know what you need. After our first few camping trips we finally made a master list, which allows us to pack up on a moment’s notice. There are only a few things that are absolutely essential. Stay dry. Stay warm. Stay fed. Stay quenched. Everything else is optional.
What’s on our list?
- Sleeping bag: Or a homemade bedroll will suffice.
- Sleeping pad: If you don’t bring it the first time, I almost guarantee you will the next.
- Tent: Tents can be begged, bought or rented cheap. Online classifieds are a great source for buying inexpensive used tents — often used just once or twice. Many camping stores will even rent tents for a day or week rate. Before embarking on your adventure, however, make sure you practice setting up your tent before you hit the forest at dusk. Tents are simple in the daylight and even in the dark if you’ve done it a dozen times, but there’s nothing straightforward about an unfamiliar tent in the woods after dark.
- Fluids: Most parks will have drinkable water, but it is a good idea to bring water in with you too. A frozen gallon jug or two will provide cold drinking water and keep your cooler cold for a few days in the field. Freeze some smaller bottles, too, for day hikes. Any other drinks are pure luxury, which is not to say luxury is a bad thing.
- Food: To cook or not to cook, that is the question, but also half the fun of camping. Tortillas are handy and can even work in lieu of plates.
- Bacon is yummy and greases up your pan, serving as a vehicle for anything else you might cook. Eggs are good and you can hard-boil a few in advance for an easy handheld meal. Nuts are handy too — easy and quick for a hike. Hotdogs or sausages are undemanding and require only a stick for cooking. Some sturdy fruit like apples or oranges are easy to throw in a cooler. A can of beans or a foil-wrapped potato stuck right in the fire are easy side dishes.
- Utensils: Pocket knife, cutting board, can opener, cast-iron skillet, spatula, metal plates or pie tins for each person, forks, metal cups for all beverages. We keep all this stuff ready to go in a mesh bag. And of course you’ll need a cooler. One with a strong latch is best to ward off any hungry raccoons.
- Fire: Matches, newspaper rolls.
- Light: Flashlight for each person and/or a lantern.
- Cleanup: Multipurpose soap and a towel.
So look at a map and see which parks are near your house. A road trip could turn out to be just a 15-minute drive out of town.