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Down in southeast Austin along Onion Creek lies a somewhat tucked away state park called McKinney Falls State Park. The wealthy Thomas F. McKinney was one of the "Old 300" original settlers who received land grants in Stephen F. Austin's colony back in the 1820s (McKinney actually moved there around 1850), so this park definitely has its history. Now, some of that history sadly includes McKinney's use of slaves, the clearing of acres and acres of precious woodland, the racing of horses, and aid to the Confederacy -- but this post isn't about all that! What it is today is a state park filled with walking and biking trails, with waterfalls, creeks, and historical buildings mixed in. And that's what this post is about.

The main areas of McKinney Falls State Park are divided into the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. We visited the Upper Falls first. When rain is plentiful, the falls are much more substantial, but at least water was flowing. What I was particularly drawn to, and you'll see this in many of my pictures, is the erosion power of the water, shaping beautiful curves and channels into the rock.

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Below the falls is a larger pool in which people sometimes enjoy swimming. However, often the pool is closed to swimming because of high fecal counts due to runoff from upstream areas and flooding. During our visit, the pool was open for swimming, but given that it was December, it wasn't so surprising that no one cared to swim in the cold water. Bald cypress trees, complete with twisted roots, line the pool's edges. 

2mfspd12-24-09.jpg Dogs are not permitted to swim at the state park, but the headquarters said it was ok to let them take drinks. Of course, leashes are also required at all times. 

2mfspe12-24-09.jpg The Upper Falls trail is actually paved and seems a great place if you have young kids who like to ride their bikes while parents walk along. For adults on bikes, the distance is probably on the short side.

We visited in winter, and there were few leaves left on the trees, except for the annoying occasional invasive ligustrum which just thrived; its dark-green foliage really stood out when we ran across it.


The path travels along Onion Creek, which Austinites know is the area most prone to serious and dangerous flooding during heavy rains. You can see evidence of flooding in the images below, though the results seemed to be to the basking turtles' favor.

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To get to the Lower Falls, you have to drive to a separate parking area, then walk for awhile across exposed rock. I imagine during floods that this whole area gets quickly covered in water. Again you can see the result of water erosion -- broken limestone slabs and large pools carved out in the open rock, as seen below.

2mfspi12-24-09.jpg 2mfspk12-24-09.jpg 2mfspj12-24-09.jpg 2mfspl12-24-09.jpgThe Lower Falls look different from what I remember from years ago -- presumably this is a combination of water erosion at work and current flow of the creek. To cross to the other side, where the old homestead is, one has to jump across a channel just large enough to be risky for an adult and way too dangerous for children to safely cross.

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So we, the ever-adventuring gang, decided to take advantage of the fact that this was an ON swimming time for MFSP, and we crossed the creek higher up. Yep, in our tennis shoes. Well, except for me, who was clever enough to wear my Keens. Though the water was plenty shallow, the carved channels in the creek bed (the always-occurring water erosion still at work) were hidden by long strings of algae, so we still had to be careful in our endeavour.

2mfspq12-24-09.jpgBut we wanted to see the homestead and grist mill, and crossing the falls was simply too hazardous for my youngster. It would be nice to have a bridge built someday, one safe from the effects of flooding, if that's even possible.

2mfspr12-24-09.jpgYeah, I think the boys will be getting new shoes for when they go back to school.

2mfsps12-24-09.jpgOn the other side of the park, we could really envision the McKinney ranch of old. The McKinney homestead was built around 1850 and stayed relatively intact until a fire in 1943.

2mfspt12-24-09.jpgIt's easy to picture horses pulling a wagon under the trees along this wide road.

  2mfspu12-24-09.jpg The trails were lined with yellow flowers and a variety of shrubs and grasses.


Little remains of the grist mill, once used to grind flour. It was destroyed by a flood in 1869.


There are other remnants to be found along the Lower Falls trails, but we had to get home. So we followed the trail back to the creek for another adventure in crossing. We enjoyed a different view of the falls from the other side, but the muck we found in the creek was pretty much the same!

2mfspx12-24-09.jpg 2mfspy12-24-09.jpgWhile waiting for the kids to cross, I snapped a close-up of our husky. He's a handsome brute, isn't he?


McKinney Falls is a lovely state park, but it's difficult to see all of it, especially the historical structures on the Lower Falls side, unless you are agile and have good balance, or are otherwise determined, and large enough to safely cross. Parents would have to carry their children across, or wade the way we had to. The Upper Falls trails are pleasant, though paved. In other words, it's a pleasant place to visit, but not a park for everyone.

Nature Walks, Part 3a -- Themes at McKinney Falls

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Imagine it's just before Christmas Eve again, for that is when my boys and I took our dogs to McKinney Falls State Park for a little nature excursion before the holidays. Having recently enjoyed autumn colors at Lost Maples, Westcave Preserve, and Hamilton Pool, we found that McKinney Fall seemed appropriately devoid of leaves and color -- we had found winter in Texas at last.

But it didn't really bother us, and it certainly didn't upset the dogs one bit. Instead of delighting in vibrant colors and active wildlife, as there wasn't much around, we enjoyed themes in nature and the unusual that caught our eye, noticing things that might have escaped observation at another time of year.

For one, we discovered that nature provided hints of Christmas all around us. From ornaments...

mfsph12-24-09.jpg mfspi12-24-09.jpg mfspj12-24-09.jpgto red and green colors.

mfspk12-24-09.jpg mfspl12-24-09.jpg mfspm12-24-09.jpg mfspn12-24-09.jpg mfspze12-24-09.jpgSometimes we found unexpected shapes that brought our thoughts to ordinary objects or otherwise sparked our imagination, such as hearts...

  mfspc12-24-09.jpg mfspd12-24-09.jpg mfspe12-24-09.jpg mfspf12-24-09.jpgBigfoot tracks...

mfspg12-24-09.jpgand even a longhorn. Hook 'em Horns!


We enjoyed "Wildlife Words of the Day" including "snag," "hollow," and even "scat" (I declined to post of picture of scat, however).

mfspw12-24-09.jpg mfspx12-24-09.jpg mfspy12-24-09.jpgAnd we enjoyed a variety of textures, from the soft to the rough to the bristly.

mfspo12-24-09.jpg mfspp12-24-09.jpg mfspr12-24-09.jpg   mfsps12-24-09.jpg mfspzf12-24-09.jpg mfspzg12-24-09.jpgmfspq12-24-09.jpgThe cactus kept our attention, through color, shape, and spines. Sometimes it was pests, like cochineals...

mfspt12-24-09.jpg mfspzi12-24-09.jpgbut sometimes it was beauty in age and decline. Have you ever wondered about the interior structure of a cactus, its vascular system that supports its water conservation? When dry, it leaves behind a beautifully intricate skeleton.

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We found animal tracks...

mfspzc12-24-09.jpg mfspzj12-24-09.jpga lone butterfly...

mfspzd12-24-09.jpga flower staring back at us (you can really have a conversation with this flower if you choose to)...

mfspa12-24-09.jpgnifty things plants and fungus do...

mfspzb12-24-09.jpg mfspza12-24-09.jpg mfspzh12-24-09.jpgand vicious man-eating fire ants.

mfspz12-24-09.jpgThe winter season can keep some people indoors, but there is still so much to see, even when the leaves are on the ground instead of in the trees. Sometimes it's noticing the little things that really open up the wonders of nature. And when you do it with your kids, you feel like you're helping the whole world open up in their eyes.

I'll give an actual tour of McKinney Falls State Park in the next post, to complete our nature walks. I'm almost caught up!

Meredith O'Reilly happily
gardens for wildlife in
Austin, TX. She enjoys
educating people of all ages
about native flora, fauna,
and healthy environments.

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