Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Escape city vibes in this urban state park

We lived in the Austin, Texas area for many years before discovering a delightful state park located almost in our backyard. But once Larry and I visited McKinney State Park, it became a place we return to often.

Located 13 miles from the state capital and on the outskirts of Austin’s city limits, this delightful state park is known for its history and natural beauty.


Artifacts found in the park indicate that Native American tribes occupied this area more than 8,000 years ago. Later, a portion of the El Camino Real do los Tejas ran through it from the late 1600s to early 1800s.  During this period, missionaries and friars intent on converting Native Americans to Christianity, government officials and soldiers wanting to defend Spain’s interest in the New World, and traders needing routes for commerce travelled through the area. 

Perhaps they even crossed Onion Creek where its waters flowed near the Lower Falls in today’s park.

Thomas McKinney (the park’s namesake) was one of the first 300 colonists that Stephen F. Austin enticed to settle in Texas in 1830. He was a successful businessman and became very influential during the Texas war for independence and later a senator to the first legislature. By 1850, McKinney had built a house along Onion Creek near a crossing of the El Camino Real, and he continued to grow his ranch and other business interests.

The park opened to the public in 1976 after the land was donated to the state by the James W. Smith family, who owned and farmed the land for several generations after McKinney died.


Without knowing any of that history, we first came to the park to enjoy the scenery. Onion Creek flows over expansive limestone ledges and splashes into pools where visitors can fish or swim—no license is required to fish from shore in state parks.

We explored the park on foot. There are nine miles of trails for hiking or biking in the park (check the Interactive Trails Map). The 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail has a hard surface that can accommodate strollers and road bikes. History buffs can find remnants of McKinney’s homestead and gristmill on the Homestead Trail. Picnic tables, open grassy areas (great for flying kites or playing ball games), a group hall that can be rented, six cabins, and 81 campsites are also available for visitor use.

As we discovered, there are different parking areas, so check a map beforehand and then park near the area where you wish to be. Trails lead to the Lower Falls and huge expanses of limestone boulders that are easy enough to walk on. If you want to walk in the woods, trails near Onion and Williamson creeks are filled with bald cypress trees and bright wildflowers. Near the Upper Falls, look for Old Baldy. Estimated at more than 500 years old, this 103-foot tree is thought to be one of the oldest bald cypress trees on Texas public land. On wooded trails you might even glimpse white-tailed deer, raccoons, armadillos, squirrels and a variety of birds.

Take time to just wander and explore. This is not a park to hurry through but to slow down and absorb nature’s beauty through a variety of elements, including water, rock, and trees. It’s especially pretty in fall.

Upcoming events

Several programs are scheduled in the park for December 4, 11, and 18, 2021: Birding with a Ranger, Watercolor Holiday Cards, and Prehistory in the Park. Check the website for times and additional ranger-led programs. As for all Texas state parks, reservations are recommended and can be made online. 

Entrance fee for McKinney State Park is $6 per adult for a day pass, and it’s free for children 12 and under. Pick up a free Junior Ranger Activity Journal  at headquarters if your party includes kids.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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