For a nice half-day or day trip, here are three Texas state parks near Austin TX that are easy to get to and have lots of trails (including easy hikes.)
I’ve explored them at different times of the year, and there is always something to see. The falls at McKinney and Pedernales do look more dramatic when recent rains create a higher volume of rushing water in Onion Creek and the Pedernales River, respectively.
The closest one to Austin is McKinney Falls State Park, as you can see on my Google map below.
Don’t confuse it with McKinney Roughs Nature Park, which is run by the LCRA (Lower Colorado River Authority) and which you’ll pass on Highway 71 between Austin and Bastrop.
I mention that because, uh, that’s exactly what I did when I put the wrong place into Google Maps to get directions.
McKinney Falls State Park
Only about 10 miles from downtown Austin, McKinney Falls State Park feels like it’s in another world.
It is fairly close to the airport, so you may occasionally hear aircraft noise, but mostly the only sounds are birdsong, water burbling, bugs humming, and the occasional armadillo or deer rustling in the underbrush. There is plenty of parking to access the trails.
If you bring a bike or a stroller, the 2.8 mile-long Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail loops around the upper section of the park and it is paved.
Other easy trails are the Rock Shelter Trail – look for the 103-foot-tall “Old Baldy” bald cypress tree, plus a prehistoric limestone overhang shelter – and the Picnic Trail, which true to its name has lots of picnic tables and can take you down to the Lower Falls, where you walk across a big flat limestone area to reach Onion Creek.
There is a small falls there, a little beach under big bald cypress trees, and pools for swimming (I recommend wearing water shoes or waterproof sandals.)
Bring a swimsuit if you have time. The Lower Falls pools are a bit smaller than the Upper Falls (seen in the photo at the top of this post) but they’re both nice, have shady areas, and if the water is running you’ll have waterfalls to splash around and play under.
From the Lower Falls, walk across the limestone to take a short trail to see the ruins of the 1850s homestead of Thomas McKinney, an early Texas settler and one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” Anglo-American colonists from the 1820s and 1830s. McKinney is the man for whom the park is named. He lived here until 1873, and there is a small etched plastic “window” near the property that you can look through to see what the house looked like when it was still complete (photo below.)
There is a barbed-wire fence around the house, so you can’t get close.
At some point, someone spray-painted on the sides, “Slave Labor” and “Built By Slaves,” which is true although I wish they hadn’t defaced the property – the house was built by enslaved people owned by McKinney. He was a Unionist in the early 1860s, but did support the Confederacy as a cotton agent.
The ruins of McKinney’s gristmill are also a short walk from the Lower Falls.
After a few hours in the park, we’d barely scratched the surface of all the trails, camping areas, and things to see.
Bastrop State Park
When my kids were younger, my family stayed overnight about 30 miles east of Austin at Bastrop State Park, in one of the 1930s-era stone and log cabins built by the CCC (the Civilian Conservation Corps.)
CCC was one of the Federal government’s New Deal recovery programs during the Great Depression. The Corps put hundreds of thousands of young men to work improving municipal, county, state and national parks all over the United States. Their projects are sturdily enduring examples of construction craftsmanship in our natural areas; many of the CCC buildings are still with us today.
We loved our little cabin at Bastrop State Park, with its Hobbit-like doors and windows, a teensy kitchenette (small fridge, microwave and 2-burner stovetop,) beamed ceilings, simple furniture and yes, a combo air conditioner/heater to keep us comfortable in any weather.
There was a nice fireplace with a big log mantel; we lit a fire in the evening to make S’mores, and another fire in the morning to enjoy while eating breakfast. All of the cabins have sayings carved into their mantels – my favorite one was “Old friends are best.”
In 2011, the Bastrop County Complex fire burned 32,000 acres, including over 90% of Bastrop State Park. It was the most destructive wildfire in Texas history, and it devastated the “Lost Pines” – acres of loblolly pine trees in the area that, oddly enough, are over 100 miles from the East Texas Piney Woods that match them genetically.
There are still stands of big pine trees, but not nearly as many as there used to be, which is incredibly sad if you remember what it looked like in the park years ago.
Fortunately, the Bastrop County Community Reforestation Program has been working since the fire to replant trees and encourage regrowth, while preventing invasive species from taking over where the pines used to be. They planted a bunch of seedlings that were then killed by the unusual Texas freeze in early 2021, but parks people are nothing if not determined. They’ll try again.
Heroic efforts by firefighters and Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel kept the 2011 fire from consuming those wonderful historic cabins where we stayed. You can’t book them right now, unfortunately, because they’re closed until 2022 while a large construction project is underway in the cabin area.
Below is a photo to show you roughly the style of the CCC buildings including the cabins…
The RV camping section in the photo below has a few more surviving pines…
I came across charred bits of wood in unexpected places in the park, reminding me of what the land here suffered, and also how resilient it can be with a little help from humans…
I look forward to returning to those little cabins, but you’d better move fast when reservations open – they are very popular, particularly now that we came so close to losing them.
Pedernales Falls State Park
Head about 30 miles west of Austin to see Pedernales Falls State Park, roughly between Dripping Springs and Johnson City.
As with McKinney Falls, how much “falls” you will see depends upon how much rain the Hill Country has had recently. If the Pedernales River (pronounced “perd-NALL-is”) is running fast or flash flooding, that is not the time to go swimming or hiking across the limestone riverbed.
When it’s calm, though, the sight of the waters flowing over stair-stepped limestone, and gathering in various pools, is a pretty sight. Wear a hat and sunscreen, though; that sun beating down on the limestone is no joke.
There are fairly steep stairs to get down to the swimming area, so take your time, wear sturdy shoes, and try a walking stick for balance.
This is a big, hilly park, with plenty of more strenuous hiking trails like Wolf Mountain and Juniper Ridge. Horse owners can ride 10-12 miles of equestrian trails, too.
I stopped at one spot out on the limestone to try to capture what the running water was like on a warm summer day…
We have Texas state parks passes, but even if you don’t, park entry fees are usually under US$10 for a day pass on the Texas State Parks Reserve America website. I strongly recommend reservations, even for a quick half-day or day trip. Everyone and their mother is heading out to state parks these days, and you don’t want to be stuck in a line of cars trying to get in.
Do you have favorite Texas state parks near Austin TX, or elsewhere in Texas? Let us know about it in the comments.
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