McKinney Falls State Park: The Complete Guide

McKinney Falls State Park
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McKinney Falls State Park

Address
5808 McKinney Falls Pkwy, Austin, TX 78744, USA
Phone +1 512-243-1643

Despite being located within Austin City limits, just 13 miles from downtown, McKinney Falls State Park feels like a world away from the city. The 641-acre park has 80 campsites and is home to Onion Creek, where park-goers can swim and fish or explore the hiking and biking trails and various points of interest, like a prehistoric rock shelter, the remnants of an old Texan homestead, and one of the oldest cypress trees in the state. The park’s serene natural beauty, a plethora of activities, and proximity to Austin make it a favorite among outdoor lovers in the state capital.

Things to Do

There’s plenty to keep visitors busy for hours, including hiking, fishing, mountain biking, swimming, bouldering, and picnicking. Onion Creek is a fabulous place to swim and cool off from the white-hot Texas heat. It’s super fun (and refreshing) to walk along the limestone ledges, relax near the falls, and submerge your body in one of the many pools of water. A fishing license isn’t required to fish here and the park has ample shoreline access to Onion Creek.

The park is home to one of the oldest bald cypress trees on public land in Texas, affectionately dubbed “Old Baldy.” The 100-foot tall cypress is estimated to be well over 500 years old. There are several other points of interest, like the historic rock shelter that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the former homestead of Thomas McKinney (who was a racehorse breeder and one of Stephen F. Austin’s original colonists). Interestingly, the park is also part of the 300-year-old El Camino Real de Los Tejas, which is a trail that was once traversed by French, American, and Spanish pioneers.

Read more about things to do in Downtown Austin.

Best Hikes & Trails

There are several trails in McKinney Falls State Park, which are all relatively short and easy. However, if you're in the mood for a long hike the trail system connects all the trails in a loop, so you could technically hike all of them.

  • The Onion Creek Hike & Bike Trail: This is an easy pretty paved 2.8-mile loop trail that goes past the Onion Creek waterfall and swimming hole. It's your best bet for an easy bike ride.
  • Homestead Trail: This 3.1-mile trail is moderately challenging, and you do have to cross the creek, but is also open for bikes. This trail bypasses several of the park’s historic sites, like the McKinney Homestead, the Gristmill, and the Smith Family Picnic Table. 
  • Rock Shelter Trail: This .6 mile trail is easy and flat, known for having many wildflowers when the season is right, and it is also good for trail runners.
  • Picnic Trail: This half-mile trail starts at the Horse Trainer's Cabin and finishes at the connection of the .1-mile Gristmill Spur Trail which will connect you to the Homestead Trail or the Homestead Trail shortcut
  • Flint Rock Loop Trail: A 1.5-mile loop trail, from which you can connect to the Homestead or Williamson Creek Trail
  • Williamson Creek Overlook Trail: This 1.1-mile moderate trail is a mostly flat trail that tends to be less busy.

Read more about when to visit Austin.

Where to Camp

There is just one main campground at the park with 81 campsites. The campgrounds are divided into different camping areas with multiple restrooms (Grapevine Loop, Little Oak, Moss Loop, Big Cedar, and Youth Group), but are all generally within the same spot circumscribed by the Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail. Every campsite has a tent pad, water, restrooms, and a fire ring with a grill. There are also six cabins on-site which can sleep up to four people comfortably. Cabin amenities include air-conditioning, a patio, microwave, mini-fridge, and a fire ring with a grill. Cabins do not have bathrooms, but the restroom and shower house is a short walk away. You’ll also need to bring your own linens, and pets aren’t allowed. You should reserve your campsite in advance online before you decide to stay overnight.

Read more about the best camping spots in Austin.

Where to Stay Nearby

When you visit McKinney Falls State Park, you technically haven't even left Austin, so you can use this opportunity to stay in a trendy downtown hotel or an outer limits resort.

  • Hotel ZaZa Austin: Centrally located to some of the city's best attractions and restaurants in the Warehouse District, this swanky hotel could be the perfect counterbalance to your day trip to the falls.
  • Lake Austin Spa Resort: If hiking has worn you out, this luxury resort sits on 19 shore-adjacent acres and offers a wide variety of wellness activities and nutritious restaurant offerings.
  • Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa: This classic grand hotel is a great place to wind back and enjoy some recreation with a 72-hole golf course and a 33,000 square-foot fitness center on the property.

Read more about the best hotels in Austin, Texas.

How to Get There

McKinney Falls State Park is located just 13 miles from downtown Austin. The drive takes roughly 20 minutes or less, depending on traffic. From Downtown Austin, travel south on I-35 and TX-71 to reach the park entrance. If you are arriving from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the drive is even shorter at just seven miles away. From the airport, you'll take US-183 south for three miles before making a right onto the McKinney Parkway. There is only one entrance and exit in the park.

Accessibility

This park does not offer much accessibility for wheelchair users, except for the paved Onion Creek Trail, which is four feet wide. Although you can access the Upper Falls from this trail, wheelchair users may require some assistance going up and down steep sections.

Tips for Your Visit

  • For those who plan to visit multiple Texas state parks throughout the year, it may be worth looking into the Texas State Parks Pass, which provides unlimited free entry to 89 state parks for you and your guests. Or, you may qualify for a Texas Parklands Passport; this pass grants free or reduced rate access to seniors, disabled veterans, and those who are medically disabled. 
  • If you’re headed to McKinney Falls with children in tow, be sure to check out the Texas Parks and Wildlife Kids page beforehand, where you’ll find a list of educational resources and ideas for activities to do with kids, including info on the Junior Ranger Program, which provides kids with tools to explore local nature. 
  • Pets are allowed, but they do need to be leashed.
  • If you want to experience other state parks in the area, nearby Bastrop, Buescher, Pedernales Falls, and Longhorn Caverns are all well worth a visit.
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A Complete Guide to McKinney Falls State Park