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The Best Things To Do at McKinney Falls State Park

January 1, 2024

McKinney Falls State Park is a small but beautiful state park located just 15 minutes from downtown Austin. At this park you’ll find waterfalls carved through limestone ledges, a famous Cypress Tree, remains of a historic Texas homestead and miles of trails to hike.

Interestingly, the limestone river crossings in the park that make up the falls are part of the El Camino Real - an historic route taken by early Spanish settlers spanning from Mexico to Louisiana.

Being so close to Austin, McKinney Falls is a popular park, so be sure to reserve your day pass or campsite well in advance. Read more about visiting during Covid in my Texas State Parks Guide.

2024 Update: McKinney Falls is one of the Texas state parks in the path of the total eclipse occurring on April 8th, 2024! Be sure to make your reservation 30 days in advance if you plan on watching it here.

Standing from the rocks at Upper Falls in McKinney Falls State ParkA rock with some large holes, with a plant growing out of one, and water nearby at McKinney Falls
The Upper Falls

Please make it a priority to Leave No Trace when exploring the outdoors. This includes leaving nothing behind, respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting those around you, planning ahead and traveling on durable surfaces. For more details, read about the seven principles at lnt.org.


The Best Things to Do at McKinney Falls State Park

Hiking in McKinney Falls

McKinney Falls has some beautiful hiking trails! Here are the best hikes to consider during your visit.

Hike and Swim at Upper Falls

Lydia sitting on a rock at Upper Falls in McKinney Falls State ParkA rock wall with water underneath at McKinney Falls State Park
Upper Falls

In my opinion, the Upper Falls are the most impressive area of the park because of the beautiful waterfall, wildlife and unique rocks. Here, you’ll walk on top of limestone ledges that span across the river and over a waterfall that cuts its way through the rock.

The whole area is fascinating and full of interesting rock formations, some sharp and protruding, others worn smooth by the frequent river flooding. I love the pockets of rock in interesting shapes that pool with water and attract plant life. I saw about 10 turtles while I was here, a whole family was chilling on the edge of the rocks.

You can also swim beneath the falls, there is a small beach area where you can enter the water. The falls are a short walk from a parking lot and also accessible from the Onion Creek Trail.

Hike and Swim at Lower Falls

A close up view of the Lower Falls. Three small waterfalls come from the rocky cliff, which is about 8 feet tall above the water.
The Lower Falls

The Lower Falls are similar to the Upper Falls and are made up of another limestone shelf that crosses over the Onion Creek. I liked the Upper Falls a little bit more, I thought that the rock formations and waterfall were a little more interesting.

There is another swimming area below the Lower Falls and it’s larger than the Upper Falls area. Cross the river at the falls to reach the Homestead, Flint Rock and Williamson Creek Overlook trails.

Hike the Rock Shelter Trail

Some large gray boulders next to trees
Bouldering Rocks

The Rock Shelter Trail is a short .6 mile trail that is located between the two waterfalls. On this trail, you’ll find the majestic ‘Old Baldy’ - a giant old cypress tree.

‘Old Baldy’ was named as the Texas Tree of the year in 2012, is 103 feet tall and is thought to be more than 550 years old. The rest of the trail offers some viewpoints over Onion Creek. The trail is worth checking out as you walk between the Upper and Lower Falls.

A boardwalk trail next to an old cypress tree.
Old Baldy

Hike the Picnic Trail

A limestone rock area with water covering a large portion.

The Picnic Trail is appropriately named, it winds through a field full of picnic tables! I mention it because I thought the ‘Bouldering Rocks’ area was really cool, which is right next to the trail. You can rock climb at the Bouldering Rocks without a rope or harness, but you’ll need a bouldering mat.

As you walk towards the Lower Falls, there is a huge area of rock to walk on and climb around a bit. I’m always impressed by the expansive slabs of rocks on trails in Texas, because they create a landscape so different than I was used to from growing up in Ohio.

A giant gray slap of rock with some areas that look like craters
A giant slab of rock

Hike the Homestead Trail

The ruins of a house surrounded by tall green grass
The McKinney Homestead

The Homestead Trail is 3.1 miles and features a couple of historic park landmarks. At the beginning of the trail, you’ll see the remains of a Gristmill. This flour mill was established in 1852 by Thomas McKinney but was later mostly washed away by a flood.

At the end of trail, you’ll see remains of the McKinney homestead. In between, the trail is easy, pleasant and lined with wildflowers in some areas.

A trail through the woods. There are several trees with very little leaves.
The Homestead Trail

Hike the Onion Creek Trail

A path leading to a river with rocks on the shoreline
The Onion Creek Trail

The Onion Creek Trail is 3.6 miles and makes for a great bike trail. It is mostly paved, wide and is situated next to Onion Creek for part of the trail. It wraps around the campsites and is a nice place for a walk, run or bike ride.

McKinney Falls State Park is definitely worth visiting while you’re in Austin. I spent half a day exploring the park, but you could camp here, swim here and spend more time. It’s incredible that this landscape is so close to a major city!

Swimming and Fishing in McKinney Falls

Swimming is one of the best things to do in McKinney Falls on a hot day. You can swim near both the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. Make sure to be respectful to others and pack out all of your trash. Things like food, coolers, alcohol, glass, speakers, frisbees and pets in the water are not allowed.

You are also allowed to fish in the Onion and Williamson creeks and do not need a license.

Final Thoughts

McKinney Falls is beautiful Texas Hill Country park close to Austin. Whether you're swimming in the summer or hiking in the winter, the park has something to offer for everyone.

For More Texas Outdoor Guides, check out these blogs:

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