2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  EXPLORING THE TRAILS AT McKINNEY FALLS SP

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 8

 
"Not all who wander are lost."
~ J. R. R. Tolkien
 
 
McKinney Falls State Park in Austin, TX is a nice place to wander, with minimal chance of getting lost even though the trails are spread out over 744 acres. Visitors can pick up maps at the entrance gate/office and the visitors' center, and signage is pretty good on the trails themselves.

About six miles of the trails at McKinney Falls State Park are open to both foot and bicycle traffic, as are several miles of paved roadways and dirt service roads. A couple miles of trail are for hiking/running only.

This map shows the major roads and trails through the park. You can see this map more clearly on the Texas States Park website. The campgrounds and Onion Creek Trail loop are on the left (south side of park). The visitor center and Rock Shelter Interpretive Trail are in the middle. The Lower Falls and Homestead Trail are on the right (north end of park).

Jim and I would soon get bored with the relative paucity of trails here if we wanted to run big miles. However, because Jim's just recovering from plantar faciitis and I haven't been running or walking more than a couple hours at a time since getting my knee injections, we are satisfied with the trails we've found here. And there are plenty of other trails in and near the city to run.

I planned to ride my road bike and Jim's trail bike at McKinney but that hasn't happened yet. So far we've either been busy doing other things or it's been too wet. I don't mind running and walking in the rain but I dislike cycling in it.

In this entry I'll describe the trails in the park and show pictures of the ones we've run or walked.

ONION CREEK HIKE & BIKE TRAIL (2.8 miles + connectors)

We've both gone out on 3-6 mile runs/walks several times on the Onion Creek Trail that encircles the southern half of the park (diagram below). It's easy to add distance to the basic loop trail by using connector trails or adding other trails or roads to it.

The Onion Creek loop is paved, almost universally smooth, and has very gradual slopes that are barely noticeable most of the way around the loop. The warning on trailhead signs (see next photo) about "steep grades and uneven surfaces" is ridiculous; someone in a wheelchair could probably negotiate all but one short, moderately steep hill on this loop. It is also suitable for skinny-tire bikes. Here Jim walks near the horse trainers' cabin:

This is the only "steep" part of the trail:

Believe me, if it was "steep," my knees would know. It is not steep. Cyclists going clockwise are advised to walk their bikes down this blind curve, not so much for their own safety as for the safety of oncoming pedestrians who might get wiped out.

This trail is more interesting than it sounds. I hope these photos show its beauty.

Most of the loop is quiet and shaded as it twists and turns through the trees. Even in December there are some wildflowers in bloom. Judiciously placed benches with calming views offer a respite for those who need one along the way:

I was fascinated with the prickly pear cacti growing among the drier upland shrubs and trees like mesquite, juniper, and live oak:

I showed more photos of cacti growing in McKinney Falls Park in the December 4 entry.

Notice the old stone fence? There are others along this loop:

There are some magnificent large live oak trees with their signature twisted branches and dark green leaves along the Onion Creek Trail. They are common in Austin, San Antonio, and other areas of the Texas Hill Country:

Apparently the leaves stay on the trees all year long; I have photos of them in January, 2008 in San Antonio. They don't look at all like most oak leaves in the Midwest and East:

To me, the most interesting part of the Onion Creek Trail runs between the the creek and the rock ledges on the west side of the loop. There are many small overhangs and caves in the cliffs that may have provided shelter to ancient hunter-gatherer peoples who lived in the area hundreds or thousands of years ago. Renegade paths leading up to them indicate they are popular with current visitors, too.

The Onion Creek loop also passes walk-in tent camping sites and picnic tables for a quarter mile along the creek and goes right by the Upper Falls and visitors' center.

We are able to get on the trail near our campsite at the far left side of the loop; folks who are just there for the day usually access it from one of the parking areas near the visitors' center. You can go either direction on the loop. We haven't seen any one-way trails here.

ROCK SHELTER INTERPRETIVE TRAIL

This is my favorite trail in the park because it is dirt single track, hilly, and very scenic as it winds along the creek. It is an elongated loop for foot traffic only between the visitors' center and the bouldering rocks upstream from the Lower Falls (see dotted lines below):

The part I like best follows the rocky hillside about thirty feet above Onion Creek and runs right through the largest rock shelter in the park. I showed several photos of the rock shelter in the last entry.

These photos run from the visitors' center along the creek to the bouldering rocks (some are looking backwards):

 

 

 


Cody stands on the footbridge that wraps around Old Baldy,
the oldest bald cypress in the park. It is over 500 years old and 60+ feet tall.

 

  

Above and below:  the rock shelter area

 


There are many colorful shrubs and trees along this trail in early December.

 

 

 


Most of the red in this photo is berries, not leaves.

 


I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw this brilliant red tree! That's no PhotoShop trick.

 

 

 

 

 


Getting closer to the Lower Falls

The Rock Shelter Trail loops back to the visitors' center between a picnic area and the cliff side trail. There are interpretive posts like this one along the entire trail:


Texas Persimmon Tree

The numbers correspond to descriptions in a pamphlet originally created by a local teenager for an Eagle Scout project.

The last half mile of the upper trail winds through a meadow with cactus, yucca plants, native grasses, and flowers,

enters the woods again, and ends back at the visitors' center. It covers a lot of interesting territory in less than two miles.

HOMESTEAD TRAIL (2.8 miles + connector trail)

This is the only trail we didn't see at McKinney Falls State Park. You can see its configuration in the map section below:

The Homestead Trail is described by park rangers as narrow single track dirt trail that is rougher than the park's other trails. It is open to cyclists and hikers/runners. There are also some service roads that can be used in this area for additional mileage. Park personnel can access the area from the nearby state park headquarters but visitors can get there only by fording Onion Creek from the south.

The dirt connector trail from the state park to the Homestead Trail crosses over a large area of bedrock:

 

Above and below: Lower Falls

The Homestead Trail is accessed by fording Onion Creek above or below these falls.

As much curiosity as I had about seeing the trails on the north side of the creek and the old McKinney homestead (remains of large home and grist mill), Onion Creek has been running too high and fast while we've been at the park to risk wading through it. We'll probably have to save the Homestead Trail for another visit to the park.

Next entry:  photos of the very popular Town Lake Trail in downtown Austin

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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