McKinney Falls State Park
McKinney Falls State Park is located at the confluence of Onion Creek and Williamson Creek in Austin, Texas, United States. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is in charge of it. The park was named after Thomas F. McKinney, a merchant, race horse breeder, and rancher who owned and lived on the site in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail passes through the park.
Much of Texas was covered by a shallow subtropical sea from the Cretaceous Period until the early Paleogene Period. The calcium carbonate sediments that were deposited during this time period lithified into the limestone rock beneath the park’s soil and were revealed by erosion surrounding the creek bed. A full skeleton of a mosasaur discovered in the rocks of Onion Creek, not far from the park, demonstrates that aquatic reptiles swam in the sea. Shells of extinct marine creatures, such as Inoceramus and Exogyra species, are preserved in the park’s limestone.
A long-extinct volcano known as “Pilot Knob” ejected debris into the surrounding waters. Soft volcanic debris streams degraded faster than hard limestone streams. Over millions of years, the water removed the softer layers and undercut the limestone, causing the falls to develop.
There is evidence that hunter-gatherers lived on the land that is now McKinney Falls State Park at least 5,000 years ago, if not longer. The tribes discovered water in the creek and refuge amid the rock shelters made by the same undercutting activity that formed the falls.
McKinney Falls State Park was traveled as part of the El Camino Real de Los Tejas in Spanish Texas. Domingo Ramón’s expedition traveled the left bank of Onion Creek along the park’s western perimeter until its confluence with Williamson Creek in 1716. The area’s extensive use left indentations in the granite.
The park’s land was originally part of an eleven league (about 49,000 acres (20,000 hectares)) grant obtained from the Mexican government by Mexican land speculator Santiago Del Valle. In 1839, Samuel May Williams purchased ten leagues (about 44,000 acres (18,000 ha)) of the grant from del Valle and sold it to Michel Branamour Menard, who in turn sold nine leagues (approximately 40,000 acres (16,000 ha)) to Thomas F. McKinney. McKinney did not settle on his farm until 1850, and it took him two years to construct a stone house and outbuildings. In 1852, he also erected a water-powered flour gristmill. A flood in 1869 destroyed the mill, and a fire in the late 1940s destroyed the home. McKinney resided on the land until his death on October 5, 1873, ranching and rearing thoroughbred horses. Anna McKinney, McKinney’s wife, gave tiny chunks of land to relatives before selling the majority of the land to James W. Smith in 1885.
J.E. “Pete” Smith, James Smith’s grandson, donated 682 acres (276 ha) of the ranch to the state of Texas for a park in 1971. The site was valued at $731,300, and the state received a federal grant to match in order to build the park. The park was created after archaeological excavation and surveys were finished. Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe dedicated the park on April 14, 1976, and it opened to the public on April 15.
The Texas Legislature also authorized monies for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to build new state offices on a cliff on the donated land’s northern boundary. The offices are located outside of the park and are only accessible via a separate road.
Heavy rains that began on October 30, 2013, drove Onion Creek to its highest level since the park’s inception. The Smith Visitor Center was flooded, causing damage to the facilities, picnic areas, and the Rockshelter Trail. The park was evacuated and shuttered indefinitely as employees cleaned up and repaired the damage. In 2022, the Smith Visitor Center and a portion of the Rockshelter Trail will reopen.
There are several authorized hiking paths in the park. The park’s eponymous attractions include the picturesque higher and lower falls along Onion Creek.
Onion Creek’s banks are lined with Flora Bald Cypress, sycamores, and pecan trees, while the drier uplands are home to live oak, ashe juniper, cedar elm, and mesquite trees. Wafer Ash, Red Oak, Texas Persimmon, Chinaberry, and Mexican Plum are among the other trees found in the park. In the spring, the highways are dotted with flowers, the most prominent of which being the Texas Bluebonnet. Other flowering plants in the park include agarita, firewheel, and wild petunia. Cacti such as the Prickly Pear and Pencil Cactus can also be found.
White-tailed deer, raccoons, armadillos, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, and fox squirrels are prevalent throughout the park. Many bird species, including the northern mockingbird, northern cardinal, greater roadrunner, Carolina wren, scissor-tailed flycatcher, painted bunting, Carolina chickadee, blue jay, killdeer, mourning dove, and wild turkey, can be seen in the park. The park has also seen Snowy Egrets and Yellow-crowned Night Herons. The Guadalupe spiny softshell turtle, red-eared slider, alligator snapping turtle, and Blanchard’s cricket frog live in and around the waterways. Many snakes are found here, including the Texas rat snake, Texas indigo racer, and western diamondback rattlesnake.
The park also includes the Smith Rock Shelter, a limestone overhang utilized for hundreds of years by Native Americans as a shelter, as well as the ruins of McKinney’s stone home, gristmill, and horse trainer’s hut. The Smith Rock Shelter and the McKinney farmhouse have both been designated as National Historic Landmarks.
Next Point of Interest: Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge