McKinney Falls

Austin, Texas, USA

About McKinney Falls


Hiking Distance: 1/2-mile round trip (lower falls); 1/4-mile round trip (upper falls)
Suggested Time: 30 minutes each

Date first visited: 2016-03-10
Date last visited: 2016-03-10

Waterfall Latitude: 30.18857
Waterfall Longitude: -97.72107

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McKinney Falls was actually a series of two waterfalls – an upper and lower falls.

The Upper McKinney Falls was where Onion Creek was channeled into a chute that was on the order of 15-20ft tall or so.

McKinney_Falls_026_03102016 - Lower McKinney Falls
Lower McKinney Falls

The Lower McKinney Falls was where the combined flow of Williamson Creek and Onion Creek dropped over a wide 15ft limestone bench.

It would typically have a segmented appearance exposing its underlying limestone bedrock, but persistent rains that hit the area during our March 2016 visit made it swell to an attractively wide singular block.

Given its propensity for higher flow, we thought the Lower Falls was the more attractive of the two waterfalls, but it was still worth visiting both during our time here.

I’d imagine that the heat and humidity that can often times hit the Austin area most of the year (especially the Summer months) would make these waterfalls an excuse for locals and visitors to cool off or chill out fishing.

McKinney_Falls_079_03102016 - Upper McKinney Falls
Upper McKinney Falls

The state of our visit to the McKinney Falls was probably atypical of what most visitors to the park would see given their high flows.

So no one was swimming in the creeks given the high bacteria levels from the storm runoff as well as the fast flow.

Nevertheless, any unexpected waterfalling surprises are always welcome, especially when we’re talking about possibly the only waterfall within the city limits of Austin (Texas’ state capital).

Experiencing the Lower McKinney Falls

We first began our visit by doing a short 700ft walk from the Lower McKinney Falls parking lot and trailhead (see directions below) all the way to the waterfall itself.

McKinney_Falls_015_03102016 - Tahia walking across the uneven surface of the limestone bedrock on the way to the Lower McKinney Falls
Tahia walking across the uneven surface of the limestone bedrock on the way to the Lower McKinney Falls

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.

This eventually led 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.

McKinney_Falls_056_03102016 - Looking across the Lower McKinney Falls in high flow from its brink
Looking across the Lower McKinney Falls in high flow from its brink

We were able to do this walk in about 30 minutes, and this included the time spent at the waterfall as well as the short amount of walking.

Experiencing the Upper McKinney Falls

We then resumed our visit by driving to the parking lot by the Smith Visitor Center (see directions below).

From there, we hiked the even-shorter trail down to the brink of the Upper McKinney Falls.

The terrain around this waterfall a bit more rugged so we weren’t able to safely access its base.

McKinney_Falls_083_03102016 - Tahia standing back from the flow of Onion Creek as well as the dropoffs around the Upper McKinney Falls
Tahia standing back from the flow of Onion Creek as well as the dropoffs around the Upper McKinney Falls

Moreover, the banks of Onion Creek also appeared to be not safely accessible, especially since the dropoffs were sheer.

This included an overhanging section where fences were erected to prevent people from trying to walk over the potentially unstable overhangs that could collapse at any moment.

There was also a picnic area a short distance upstream of the brink of the falls to extend a visit here.

There were other trails and picnic areas as well as a pretty big campground within this state park.

McKinney_Falls_086_03102016 - Looking downstream at the overhanging limestone benches from the Upper McKinney Falls
Looking downstream at the overhanging limestone benches from the Upper McKinney Falls

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.

Indeed, 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.

Authorities

McKinney Falls resides in the McKinney Falls State Park in Austin in Travis County, Texas. It is administered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

McKinney_Falls_003_03102016 - Tahia starting on the trail leading to the Lower McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_006_03102016 - Tahia pointing to the right fork, which led us down to the Lower McKinney Falls. The left fork was the Picnic Trail, which followed Onion Creek upstream to the Upper McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_009_03102016 - Approaching an interesting stretch where there was a lot of exposed limestone hinting at the kind of surface that gave rise to the Lower McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_013_03102016 - Looking back at the trail leading to the exposed limestone surface and ultimately the Lower McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_019_03102016 - 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
McKinney_Falls_022_03102016 - Julie and Tahia arriving at the banks of the Onion Creek in front of the Lower McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_049_03102016 - Julie and Tahia checking out the Lower McKinney Falls though there was quite a bit of standing water from the flooded conditions
McKinney_Falls_027_03102016 - Full contextual view of the entire width of the Lower McKinney Falls in a high flow state
McKinney_Falls_031_03102016 - 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 McKinney 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
McKinney_Falls_045_03102016 - Closer look at someone scrambling around the Lower McKinney Falls in high flow
McKinney_Falls_050_03102016 - Tahia and Julie going back up the limestone slope before returning to the car from the Lower McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_052_03102016 - Looking across the brink of the Lower McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_060_03102016 - Another focused look across the brink of the Lower McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_064_03102016 - Another broad look across the brink of the Lower McKinney Falls in high flow
McKinney_Falls_065_03102016 - Another look at the impressive limestone field as I made my way back to the parking lot for the Lower McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_070_03102016 - This was the short trail from the Smith Visitor Center area to the brink of the Upper McKinney Falls as well as some picnic tables further upstream
McKinney_Falls_073_03102016 - Looking at the context of the Upper McKinney Falls in high flow
McKinney_Falls_076_03102016 - View from the closer to the brink of the Upper McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_078_03102016 - Looking in the other direction from the brink of the Upper McKinney Falls revealing just how flooding Onion Creek was as you can see the creek surrounding the trees below the overhanging limestone benches
McKinney_Falls_093_03102016 - They erected this fence to try to prevent people from trying to walk on the potentially unstable overhang downstream from Upper McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_094_03102016 - Last look back at the Upper McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_096_03102016 - Tahia walking back towards the parking lot for the Upper McKinney Falls
McKinney_Falls_097_03102016 - We noticed these graceful big birds flying high above the Upper McKinney Falls vicinity though we weren't sure what kind of birds they were

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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.

McKinney_Falls_001_03102016 - The parking lot closest to the trailhead for the Lower McKinney Falls
The parking lot closest to the trailhead for the Lower McKinney Falls

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 (as of March 2016).

McKinney_Falls_066_03102016 - Looking back at the context of the parking lot closest to the trailhead for the Lower McKinney Falls
Looking back at the context of the parking lot closest to the trailhead for the Lower McKinney Falls

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 parking lot and trailhead 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.

McKinney_Falls_067_03102016 - The parking lot for the Smith Visitor Center and the Upper McKinney Falls
The parking lot for the Smith Visitor Center and the Upper McKinney Falls

Eventually, we made 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, but 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.

McKinney_Falls_069_03102016 - Looking towards the Smith Visitor Center nearby the Upper McKinney Falls
Looking towards the Smith Visitor Center nearby the Upper McKinney Falls

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.

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

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Tagged with: austin, travis county, texas, hill country, waterfall, mckinney, onion creek, williamson creek, state park



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Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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