AUSTIN — A trip to the famed Niagara Falls State Park along the border between New York and Canada is well worth the trip, but Texas has its own version of those legendary waterfalls located about an hour’s drive down Interstate 35 from Killeen-Fort Hood.
McKinney Falls State Park in the capital city of Austin is home to a pair of waterfalls that are not nearly as big and breathtaking as the three massive cascades at Niagara — Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the Niagara trio, is around 187 feet high — but they are beautiful to behold in their own right and a great spot to explore some good ol’ rugged Texas beauty.
Located just 13 miles from the state capitol at 5808 McKinney Falls Parkway, the park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Along with the Upper and Lower Falls, the park offers camping, hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, geocaching, bouldering and picnicking.
There are 81 campsites, all with water and electric hookups, along with six newly remodeled cabins, and nearly nine miles of trails, including the 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Tail that features a hard surface good for strollers and road bikes.
Wet a hook in Onion Creek or Williamson Creek and try to land a few largemouth bass, white bass, crappie, catfish or sunfish. A fishing license is not required to fish from the shore in a Texas state park.
Visit “Old Baldy,” one of the oldest bald cypress trees found on public land in the state of Texas. This gentle giant stands 103 feet tall and is believed to be more than 500 years old. The trunk measures 195 inches around (16.25 feet), and its diameter is 60.5 inches. Also, keep an eye out for wildlife, like white-tailed deer, raccoons, armadillos, squirrels and a variety of bird species, including the colorful painted bunting, that live in the park.
The park is named after Thomas McKinney, described as “an influential early Texas pioneer.”
According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife website, McKinney settled in San Felipe de Austin in 1830 as one of Stephen F. Austin’s first 300 colonists. During the Texas Revolution, McKinney was involved in a business partnership that supplied men, money and supplies for the Texas army. He was elected as a senator in the first state legislature in Austin. By 1850, he was living on the property along Onion Creek, and over the following two years, built a two story limestone house, a gristmill and a dam.
McKinney died on Oct. 2, 1873, at his home. Following an elaborate funeral service on the steps of the state Capitol, he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin.
The ruins of McKinney’s homestead, his horse trainer’s cabin, gristmill and stone walls can still be seen at the park, which opened to the public in 1976, three years after the land was donated to the state in 1973.
Officials strongly recommend purchasing day passes for the park in advance, especially for weekends, school breaks and holidays. Day passes sell out quickly on weekends and holidays.
Be aware that, in order to help keep the park and Onion Creek clean, the following items are not allowed in the Upper and Lower Falls area:
Coolers, ice chests, or thermal bags
Frisbees, footballs, soccer balls or other hard balls
Upcoming events at McKinney Falls State Park include a family friendly line dancing class open to all ages and abilities, at 6:30 p.m. May 25; learn to throw an ancient spear at The Atlatl: Ancient Spear Throwing demonstration, 3 p.m. May 27; learn more about the park’s history and natural resources on the McKinney Falls 101 Hike at 11 a.m. May 28.
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