McKinney Falls was actually a series of two waterfalls - an upper and lower falls. It could also very well be the only waterfall within the city limits of Austin (Texas' state capital). Given the heat and humidity that can often times hit the area most of the year (especially the Summer months), we came to the understanding that these waterfalls were really an excuse for locals and visitors to cool off in Onion Creek (as well as Williamson Creek), which the falls flowed on. However, during our visit in early March 2016, much of southern and eastern Texas had been hit with persistent rains that swelled up the creeks and made both waterfalls gush. This was especially the case with the more scenic Lower Falls, which expanded from a segmented 15ft falls with lots of limestone bedrock exposed to an impressively wide contiguous line of water (as shown at the top of this page). Nonetheless, I'd imagine that the way we saw this waterfall would be atypical of what most visitors to this park would see, and swimming in either Onion or Williamson Creeks would not be wise given the high bacterial levels from storm runoff as well as the fast flow of the creeks themselves.
We first began our visit by doing a short 700ft walk from the Lower McKinney Falls car park and trailhead (see directions below) all the way to the waterfall itself. The trail was wide and well-signed from the parking area. A short distance down the slope, we encountered a junction where the left fork followed Onion Creek along the so-called Picnic Trail to the Smith Visitor Center and the Upper McKinney Falls. We kept right at the fork, which then traversed a large field of exposed limestone before it abruptly sloped down to both the base of the Lower McKinney Falls as well as provided access to the brink of the falls. We were able to do this walk in about 30 minutes (and this included the time spent at the waterfall itself in addition to the short walk).
We then resumed our visit by driving to the car park by the Smith Visitor Center (see directions below), then hiking the even-shorter trail down to the brink of the Upper McKinney Falls. This waterfall was much narrower than the lower waterfall so its appearance wasn't as scenic as the lower one. The base of this waterfall and the banks of Onion Creek also appeared to be not safely accessible, especially since the dropoffs were sheer, and this included an overhanging section where fences were erected to prevent people from trying to walk over the potentially unstable overhang. There was also a picnic area a short distance upstream of the brink of the falls.
There were other trails and picnic areas as well as a pretty big campground within this state park. But since we only focused on the two waterfalls, our visit only was for a little over an hour (especially since we opted not to do the Picnic Trail between the two falls). Nevertheless, for a scenic natural spot like this within the Austin city limits, this rare combination made this place memorable, and it further added to the rather unique allure of the city of Austin, which seemed to us as a city quite unlike any other we encountered in the state of Texas.
Since McKinney Falls State Park was within the Austin City Limits, it made sense to explore the city. One of the attractions was the State Capitol Building, which was very educational
Our visit to Austin just happened to be during the SXSW Festival (South by Southwest), which made the city quite the happening place, especially along 6th Street which came to life in the evenings
Austin was also home to the mass bat swarm from the South Congress Avenue Bridge, shown here. They'd typically come out at dusk though I read that August was the best month to see them
While it was a bit of a walk from downtown Austin, Zilker Park was a great place to relax and unwind in its massive greenspace when a festival wasn't taking place here
The car park and trailhead for the Lower Falls
Tahia pointing to the right fork, which led us down to the Lower Falls. The left fork was the Picnic Trail, which followed Onion Creek upstream to the Upper Falls
We then had to cross this big exposed limestone field, which was full of potholes (that Tahia liked to splash in) before getting to the Lower Falls
At the end of the limestone field, we then had to get down this slope to the base of the Lower McKinney Falls. Ordinarily, this part would be trivial, but since the terrain was very wet from all the rains, we had to be extra careful not to take a nasty slip and fall here
Julie and Tahia checking out the Lower Falls
Closer look at the expanse of the Lower Falls
One of the main reasons why it wasn't wise to swim in the water during our visit was this field of litter that accumulated by the plunge pool of the Lower Falls. The water was also foaming and brown, which indicated to us that the water could very well have been polluted from all the storm runoff
Tahia and Julie going back up the limestone slope before returning to the car
Before joining Tahia and Julie back at the car, I checked out the brink of the Lower Falls
Another look at the impressive limestone field as I made my way back to the car
This was the car park for the Smith Visitor Center as well as the Upper Falls
This was the Smith Visitor Center, which was closed for repairs at the time of our visit
This was the short trail from the Smith Visitor Center area to the brink of the Upper Falls as well as some picnic tables further upstream
Sideways look at the Upper McKinney Falls though we had to be careful not to get too close to the edges of the dropoffs
Looking downstream at the swollen Onion Creek. Note the overhang to the right side, which was intriguing but appeared to be off limits, especially with the somewhat flooded conditions
They erected this fence to try to prevent people from trying to walk on the potentially unstable overhang
We noticed these graceful big birds flying high above the Upper Falls vicinity though we weren't sure what kind of birds they were
Long movie showing a view from further downstream along Onion Creek back towards the full extent of Lower McKinney Falls before scrambling back upstream closer to the start of the plunge pool of the falls
Sweep of the area around the brink of Lower McKinney Falls
Sweep of the area around the brink of Upper McKinney Falls
Although there are many ways to get to McKinney Falls State Park, we'll just describe the way we did it from downtown Austin sticking to mostly highways.
So once we got onto the I-35 southbound, we then drove south to its junction with the eastbound Hwy 290. We then continued on Hwy 290 east for about 4 miles before taking the ramp for the Hwy 183 south. After around 1.3 miles south on Hwy 183, we took the exit for McKinney Falls Parkway. We'd continue on McKinney Falls Parkway for about 2.8 miles before turning right into the park entrance. Roughly a 1/4-mile from the entrance, we stopped by the visitor center to pay our day use fee of $6 per adult. One benefit of this day use fee was that it was also good for other Texas State Parks on this day, including the relatively close Pedernales Falls State Park.
Shortly beyond the visitor center (roughly 500ft), we turned right and followed this road for about 0.3 miles to its end. This was the car park for the Lower McKinney Falls.
Backtracking 0.3 miles to the main park road, we then turned right and followed the main road for about 0.1 mile before turning right and following this road for the next 0.2 miles before making another right into the parking lot for the Smith Visitor Center and the Upper McKinney Falls.
Overall, we spent about 20 minutes on the road to get from downtown Austin to the state park, and most of this time was spent waiting at traffic lights. On the way out, we took a local shortcut by turning left onto Burleson Road instead of backtracking all the way to the Hwy 183 along McKinney Falls Parkway. Burleson Road ultimately led us about 2.7 miles to Ben White Road, then we turned left onto Ben White Road, which led us to the westbound on-ramp for the Hwy 290.
Just to give you a sense of geographical context, Austin was about 195 miles (3 hours drive) south of Dallas and 169 miles (2.5 hours drive) west of Houston.
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