McKinney Falls State Park - Austin, Texas

View Gallery of Images from McKinney Falls State Park

Located just southeast of Austin near the Ausin-Bergstrom International Airport, McKinney Falls State Park is a 744 acre park operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The park offers camping, hiking trails, picnic areas, and swimming in Onion Creek. In addition two 8 foot waterfalls have been carved into the exposed bedrock that can range anywhere from a trickle to a 20 foot torrent. Park admission is $2/person and gates are open from 7am to 10pm.

Directions: The park is located 13 miles southeast of the State Capitol in Austin off US Highway 183. Take McKinney Falls Parkway, off US 183 South, straight to the park entrance.

I visited McKinney State Park on a Sunday morning in late November hoping that the crowds would be small and the weather nice enough to capture a few interesting shots. Arriving around 11am, I paid my admission fee and received a nice map of the park. There are several camping and picnic areas, but I was mostly interested in visiting Onion Creek and the waterfalls. I parked near the lower falls and hiked down to the river.

The first thing I noticed was the exposed bedrock. Running for hundreds of yards, the bedrock was carved with thousands of holes and shallow valleys - evidence of massive water flow in the past. Being careful not to trip, I made my way down to the river above the falls to see what gives this park its name.

The lower falls area is made of carved bedrock with Onion Creek trickling through the bottom. There's plenty of rocks to photograph. The water levels were quite low from the lack of recent rain, though it was pretty easy to imagine the entire area covered in water. Flash floods are common in Central Texas, and so this would be a bad place to stand when it starts to rain. If you want proof of the power of moving water, check out the bent iron rods located just above the lower falls. These rods once held a diversion dam to power a flour mill. However the dam and the mill were washed away in a flood in the late 1800's.

The falls themselves aren't terribly impressive since there was little water flow. However most of the creek bottom was exposed revealing snaking channels in the bedrock. Unfortunately some of the most beautiful shots were spoiled by floating trash. I was tempted to crawl down to the base of the falls to pick up the debris, but a lack of available paths and the high possibility of falling into the creek encouraged me to stay high and dry. After taking several photos and visiting the flour mill ruins I then hiked back up the bedrock face in search of a path downstream. After about a hundred yards I discovered a trail that lead down the bank and into a field of loose stone.

Clear evidence of flooding was everywhere including trees growing at strange angles and scattered debris along the banks of the creek. It is pretty impressive - a creek that is only 20 feet wide and 2 feet deep can swell to a raging torrent several hundred yards across and 20 feet deep in a matter of minutes. It would be interesting to capture such an event on film, if it could be done safely. There is an observation deck near the upper falls that might provide a good view point for such an event. Something to keep in mind next time it rains.

After hiking below the lower falls I decided to head back upstream to check out the homestead ruins. Located just above the lower falls, the rock structure is the remains of Thomas McKinney's home from the 1850's. While the structure is closed to the public, viewing is possible from all directions. The stone texture of the ruins gives some interesting shots and the open windows provide framing opportunities. It is a shame I wasn't allowed inside to photograph the structure up close, but ultimately its probably a good idea to keep people away in order to preserve the structure.

Once I finished photographing the homestead I crossed back over the lower falls to check out the visitor's center. This small facility contained a short interpretation of the history of the land including a brief geological lesson on how the bedrock was formed (80 million years ago there was a volcano...). A tiny gift shop and an observation deck overlooking the upper falls was also open. At this point the crowds were picking up, and there were too many people climbing over the upper falls to get a good shot, so I decided to pack up and head home.

Summary: Located 20 minutes from downtown Austin, McKinney Falls State Park offers a decent range of photographic opportunities including ruins, bedrock structures, and small waterfalls. Depending on the season other subjects such as birds and wildflowers are also common throughout the park. Admission is just $2/person and is the park is open year-round, though the park may be extremely busy during the spring and summer months.


All images and web content © Christopher Rake 2004-5