About McKinney Falls
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (as of March 2016).
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.
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.
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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