2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  WELCOME TO McKINNEY FALLS STATE PARK

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 8

 
"This former homestead of racehorse breeder Thomas McKinney -- one of Stephen F. Austin's
'Old Three Hundred' -- is only thirteen miles from the State Capitol in Austin. It offers mountain
biking, hiking, fishing, and camping beneath towering cypress on the banks of Onion Creek . . ."
 
~ Texas State Park Guide, p. 41, 2009 edition
  
 

The Old Three Hundred . . . I've learned a bit of Texas history to share with you! After reading the description above of McKinney Falls State Park, I just had to do a quick internet search to see what "The Old Three Hundred" was all about.

Briefly, the term refers to the original settlers who received land grants for the first Anglo-American colony in the area, which was under Mexican control in the early 1820s. Stephen Fuller Austin, for whom the city of Austin was later named, hand-picked individuals and families from the South, mostly Louisiana, to farm or raise livestock on large plots of land in central Texas that had never been claimed by either Spain or Mexico. A total of 297 titles were granted under the original contract -- almost 300.

Because of the large interest in the project and the limited number of titles available, Austin could be very selective in his choice of immigrants. He wanted homesteaders who he thought would be industrious and stable. As a result, almost all of the settlers were literate and belonged to a higher socio-economic class than the majority of the folks who were willing to colonize western lands in the early 19th century.


State(ly) capitol building in Austin

Apparently the project was successful. When Texas gained statehood a few years later, the city of Austin became the state capital -- twice, in fact. Sam Houston wasn't too fond of having the capital in Austin and he moved it to (you guessed it) Houston. He was finally overruled in 1850 and Austin has been the state capital ever since.

HISTORY ROCKS!

History was never one of my favorite subjects when I was in school.

Oh, most of it was interesting but there were so many facts to remember! I memorized them well enough to ace all my history courses through the end of high school, but promptly forgot most of the dates and people and places when I went off to college and grad school; I didn't need any history courses for the degrees I earned and I just didn't see how history was relevant to the career I pursued.

Funny thing, though: when I began traveling in my early twenties, one of the most fascinating things to me was learning the history of the areas I was visiting! It was a whole lot different when I was in the actual place where something interesting happened.

Obviously, "history" is about much more than who, what, where, when, and why. It was the who-what-where-when that I wasn't so interested in; I've always remembered the main concepts, the "why's" of significant events. And for the last forty years, even the who-what-where-when has appealed to me when I'm visiting an area for the first time and it has a rich history.

So it is with our trip to Austin. I'm as interested in absorbing knowledge of local culture and history as I am in exploring the trails, parks, and streets, photographing the wide range of architecture, learning about the transitional eco-zone between prairie and desert, visiting museums and prominent buildings, checking out stores and restaurants unique to the area, and other touristy pursuits.

History rocks!

DISCOVERING McKINNEY FALLS STATE PARK

When we chose to make reservations at this park several months ago we did it primarily because of its proximity to a race we thought we might run. The description in the state parks guide and on the internet was a close second: "bucolic retreat," "miles of woodland trails," "popular with hikers, cyclists, and campers," "serene beauty," "abundant wildlife." Ahhh . . .

It was those features that made us decide to stay at McKinney SP for over a week on our way to Phoenix even after deciding not to run the race. It was a good choice, although the recent wet, chilly weather has been less than conducive to exploring the entire park (or the city of Austin, for that matter). Afternoon temperatures have been 15-20F. colder than the normal 65F. average for this time of year, with a couple nights in the upper 20s. Brrr! (I don't expect any sympathy from most of our readers, who are experiencing much worse early winter weather than this.)

In addition to reading about the park on the internet before our arrival, another good way for us to learn about the history of McKinney Falls' 744 acres was to browse the interpretive displays at Smith Visitor Center. We did that soon after settling into our campsite.


Front of the Smith Visitor Center, an earth-sheltered structure

Both the entrance office and the visitor center also have lots of brochures and pamphlets with trail maps, information about the flora and fauna in the park, interpretive programs led by the rangers, and the cultural and geographic history of the area. In addition, there are signs placed around the park that describe its special features.

McKINNEY ROCKS

Rocks play a major role at McKinney Falls. Fortunately, most of them are not on the trails, waiting to trip me up. The trails we've seen here are quite tame.

One of the unique features of the park is its rock shelters, small to very large covered areas carved out of soft limestone cliffs thousands of years ago by what is now Onion Creek, which winds through the park. Hikers can walk right through the largest of these shelters, named the Smith Rock Shelter, on a trail about twenty feet above the creek:

 

 

According to a display at the park, archeologists have determined that small groups of hunting and gathering peoples lived here from 500 A.D. to the late 1700s. Other sources say nomadic groups may have occupied the area for over 5,000 years. The last known occupants were closely related to the Tonkawa tribe. Here's a second link to that group.

McKinney Falls is a popular place for the sport of bouldering.

Millions of years ago sediments from an ancient sea that covered much of Texas solidified into limestone bedrock. Later, an extinct volcano spewed softer debris over the bedrock. The volcanic material and limestone have eroded over the eons to form the two major falls in the park and other interesting rock features along Onion Creek and the trails.

Above and below: eroded rocks along Onion Creek a few hundred feet above the Lower Falls

 


Eroded rock along the Onion Creek loop trail

UPPER FALLS

The two main falls are the highlight of the park. Even though it has been raining in the area quite a bit this month we haven't seen the falls as high as the photo in the state parks book. They are pretty cool nonetheless. You can see how water has eroded the volcanic rock and limestone into some interesting patterns.

Here are some photos of the Upper Falls, located near the visitor center:

 

 

 


Bald cypress trees line the banks of the pool below the Upper Falls.

Today Cody and I were out for a run/walk on the Onion Creek Loop Trail. I was about thirty feet off to the side of the trail in the picnic area looking for photo ops along the shore a short distance above the Upper Falls when I stumbled upon two plates full of whole apples, whole peeled hard-cooked eggs, whole roses, and separated rose petals:

The other plate was behind a tree a couple feet to my right and I didn't get a picture of it. Although I hadn't seen anyone near, I was so surprised that I felt like someone must be watching (remember the old TV show "Candid Camera?"). I was as discreet (stealthy?) as possible.

My first thought was that someone left the apples and eggs for the deer or other wildlife. But why would they leave it on two nice dinner plates? And why roses?

Then I realized there was a small, burning candle in the center of each plate. They'd obviously been lit only a few minutes earlier. I looked around again, feeling like I was trespassing on a sacred site and wondering if the person who left the plates was watching. I still didn't see anyone. This was apparently an offering or memorial of some sort.

I took one quick photo and turned back to the trail. Cody and I hiked up the hill to the visitor center to see if one of the rangers knew what I'd found. The door was locked in the middle of the afternoon. Rats.

I'm still wondering. I'll have to ask another day. One guess is that two people drowned nearby.

The rocks and pools of water above and below both falls are popular recreational spots during warm weather. There are big warning signs (above) that wading or swimming in Onion Creek can be quite treacherous because of slick and hidden rocks, sudden drop-offs, floating debris, swift currents, flooding, pollution, and other hazards. Several people have died when they've been swept over the falls.

LOWER FALLS

The first time we explored the area near the lower falls we were surprised to find a large area of exposed bedrock that is pock-marked with holes full of rain water:

 

Visitors cross this large bedrock area to reach the falls but Jim and I didn't realize that the first time we were nearby. We were hunting for the Homestead Trail loop that day and went to the right of the rocks, following a dirt road. When it dead-ended and we couldn't find any other trail across the creek, we came back, found the falls, and realized that we'd have to cross the wide creek at or above the falls to reach the trails on the other side.


The creek crossing doesn't look that difficult in these photos but the rocks are very slick
and the current was strong when we were there. Crossing would be more fun on a hot summer day!

 


More interesting erosion; beyond the falls is another pool of water popular for swimming.


Jim considers crossing farther above the falls. Our decision: maybe next time we are here.


A pool of deeper water a short distance upstream from the falls

WHO IS McKINNEY, THE PARK'S NAMESAKE?

Thomas McKinney was one of Stephen Austin's "Old Three Hundred" homesteaders that I talked about at the beginning of this entry. During the 1820s McKinney purchased a nine-league land grant -- almost 40,000 acres -- at 10% of what comparable acreage sold for in the United States (remember, Texas was under Mexican control then). Ten percent was only 12 per acre! Imagine that.

McKinney was a prominent businessman who became a Texas revolutionary figure. He also helped to found the city of Galveston. He sold most of his land before settling on the property which is now McKinney Falls State Park in 1839. There he established the area's first flour mill and raised thoroughbred horses.

Remnants of his grist mill and the large stone house McKinney built with slave labor in the 1850s sit near the Lower Falls on Onion Creek -- the other side of the creek from the photos above. The grist mill was destroyed in a flood in 1869, the house by fire in the 1940s. This is a picture of what's left of the house:

         

Unfortunately, Jim and I haven't been across the creek yet to see the house or gristmill -- or lots of miles of single-track trail in the northern half of the park. Why? Because the only way park visitors can get there is to ford the creek. Park staff can use service roads out of the nearby state park headquarters property, but visitors aren't allowed to cut through that property.

Now we have no qualms about fording most creeks, but this one is running high, wide, and very slick after all the rain Austin has had since our arrival last week. If it recedes enough before we leave on Friday, one or both of us may venture over there.

It's a lot easier for visitors to see the remnants of a two-room cabin (below) occupied by McKinney's horse trainer, John Van Hagen -- the main park road passes in front of it.

Nearby were breeding and exercise pastures enclosed with stone fences. You can still see many of the stacked stone fences throughout the southern half of the park from the trails and roadways:

McKinney and his wife Anna had no heirs. In 1885 they sold the property to James W. Smith. I don't have any information about how the Smiths used the land or where they built their house. However, in 1971 Smith's grandson Pete donated 682 acres of the property to the state for what is now McKinney Falls State Park. The park opened five years later. The visitors' center and large rock shelter are named after the Smith family.

Seems to me the park and falls should be named after the Smiths for their generous donation, and the visitors' center and rock shelter after the McKinneys!

CAMPING AT McKINNEY FALLS

As mentioned in the last entry, we really like this campground. There are 85 spacious campsites in two separate but nearby loops. You can see them in this diagram of the southern half of the park (they are the loops in the lower left quadrant with all the little numbers around them):

We much prefer public parks over private ones because they have larger sites and are usually more natural. They are also usually cheaper because they don't have all the amenities many private RV campgrounds have, amenities we probably won't use.

Public parks and lands can have their disadvantages, though: too often we have problems finding suitable sites for our medium-sized rig, a 32-foot 5th wheel. The roadways may be too narrow, have tight turns, or low branches. The sites may be too short for our camper + truck, or too narrow for slide-outs. Even at one of our favorite state parks, Huntsville (TX), there are only a few sites we can use. Every time we make reservations there, we know we run the risk of not being able to find a suitable site.

But at McKinney we can fit into 75-80% of the sites. So can Class A motorhomes and 5th wheels or trailers that are longer than ours. Most of the sites are back-ins; about a quarter are pull-thrus. We chose a back-in site this week so we'd be farther off the road.

The sites at McKinney are spacious in another way that is important to us, too -- there is plenty of room between most of the sites. With an occupancy rate of only about 20% the day we arrived, we had many good choices of sites. The one we picked is on a little loop at the end of a large loop. Not only is there a lot of woods between us and everybody else on that little loop, hardly anyone drives by because it's not on the main loop. (Can you tell that we like our privacy??)

All of the sites have water and electrical hookups. Each loop has two clean bathrooms with showers. Only the campground hosts have sewers (that's common in public campgrounds); everyone else can use the dump statioon on their way in and/or out of the park. Since we're here for just a little over a week, we've been using our own toilet and shower. We dumped our gray and black water tanks when we came in and we'll dump them when we leave. If we were here for the maximum of two weeks (longer if the park isn't full) we'd have to either use the restrooms part of the time or move the camper a mile to the dump after 10-12 days. Some people use "blue boys" (plastic tanks on wheels) to carry their waste water from their RV to a dump station, but we've never gotten one of those.

Like many Texas State Park campgrounds, the sites at McKinney are only $16 per night. There is no reduced weekly fee here like there is at Huntsville in the winter (seven nights for the price of six). However, our state parks pass covers the $5/day per person cost of entry into the park.

Next entry: running and hiking the trails at McKinney

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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