Exploring a big city can often seem intimidating to small town kids like us who like wide-open spaces. In the past we have reserved campsites at least 30-plus minutes outside of a big city so we could get away from the urban hubbub after our touring fun. But our visit to McKinney Falls State Park in Austin, Texas, defied all of our notions about city camping: Located just a few miles outside the city, it offers an easy and quick commute while retaining all the feel of the country. We only had time for one night at McKinney Falls, but there’s still much to explore in Austin, so it’s already on our list for a repeat visit.
McKinney Falls State Park campground was our first experience camping at a Texas state park. Since we were camping several more nights at other Texas state parks on the trip, we made the cost-effective decision to purchase a Texas State Parks pass. For $70, the pass grants the card holder and his/her guests free entry to more than 90 Texas state parks. You can also score some small discounts on your camping fees: When you stay two or more nights, you pay half price for the second night of camping. (Note that it is only a discount for the second night: You can’t get half-priced rates for night three, four, etc.) Additionally, without the pass, we would have had to pay each park’s daily entrance fee for each person in our family … and that would have quickly added up!
McKinney Falls appeared to be a popular park in the Austin metro area. On a sunny and warm New Year’s Day, the park was full of families out enjoying first-day hikes, picnicking by the falls, or exploring the multi-use trails. The picturesque upper and lower falls are the main attraction in the park. The park has a visitors center, but in October 2013 historic flooding damaged the building and it still hadn’t reopened during our stay. (You can watch official Texas State Park video of the Onion Creek flooding here.)
Campground: Although the main park area was very busy during our stay, the campground itself was very quiet. The well-designed campground features two loops, both of which have a mix of back-in and pull-through sites. The park did an excellent job of positioning sites so that most have as much privacy as possible. The sites with the most privacy were generally those on the outside of the loops looking into wooded areas. Some of our favorite sites were: 55, 56, 13, 3, 4, and 6. If you plan to camp with friends or family, sites 62/65 or 67/69 would work well as companion sites.
Some sites had trees located in close proximity to the camper pad. Depending on the length of the camper and location of slide-outs and awnings, some sites could be more challenging to navigate. Our site, for example, had a tree located where our awning should have opened up. Aside from the tree issues, our site was ginormous–but that would fit with “everything is bigger in Texas!” The campground had dedicated tent pad areas as well as water hookups–the later of which is something we discovered to be the norm at the Texas state parks we visited.
It seemed the roads in the campground and campsites could benefit from a refresh: Many were uneven and had some pot holes. The other thing to note is that while the park is peaceful, there are times when the flight pattern for jets flying in and out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport a few miles away can be a bit loud. We didn’t notice air traffic all the time, but if you don’t like plane noise this is probably not the campground for you. Keep in mind that this park and campground are located in an urban area, but its location is ideal for touring the city of Austin while offering a peaceful campground retreat.
Bathrooms: The bathrooms were clean, but they did not quite measure up to Kristin’s standards. At least one bathroom she scoped out did not offer soap and the shower area in another was rather mildewy. We read in the Texas State Park Magazine that some of the state park campgrounds are slated to have bathroom updates in 2017.
Amenities: With its close proximity to Austin, McKinney Falls was a popular place for those in the Austin metro area to “opt outside.” We arrived at the park on New Year’s Day and there was quite a line to get into the park.
At McKinney Falls’ upper falls there is a beautiful waterfall and a swimming hole. Near the lower falls is a popular picnic area. The park also offers biking and hiking trails.
Touring: The main reason for our stop at McKinney Falls State Park campground was to tour the Texas State Capitol, which was a great experience. We enjoyed the introduction to Texas history and getting to tour an amazing building–with the added bonus of seeing it still adorned with Christmas decorations.
When you visit the capitol building, watch for Texas-style details throughout–like these door hinges or the light fixtures that use bulbs to spell T-E-X-A-S. For little ones, make a game out of counting all the Texas stars they see. It’s a great way to keep them entertained–and quiet–on the free tour. 😉
While the Texas State Capitol was the only place we explored during our winter visit to Austin, there is a great deal more to see and do in the region–and I’m sure we will be back. Kristin would really love to have us view the nightly bat flight at the Congress Avenue Bridge, which is best experienced between the months of March and November. And there are those famous food trucks–yum!
Date of stay: 1/1/17
Cost: $20 for one night