This series of three entries features the ten days we just spent at
McKinney Falls State Park in southeastern metro Austin, TX.
describe our trail runs, walks, and bike rides in the park and on Austin's fabulous
Town Lake Trail, other activities we enjoyed in Austin, and trips we
took to nearby Bastrop and Buescher state parks. This is the first time
we've visited those two parks.
Upper falls at McKinney Falls SP
on a rare sunny day last week
The first part of this entry is a trip log through southwestern Texas
from El Paso to Fort Stockton with information that might be helpful to
other travelers, particularly RVers. If you aren't interested in that
part, just scroll down to the sections about McKinney Falls SP and
Photos throughout this entry are from McKinney Falls.
1ST DAY RV TRIP LOG: EL PASO
→ FORT STOCKTON, TX
We planned to leave the campground at Fort Bliss in El Paso on early Sunday
morning, January 9, and drive to South Llano River State
Park, just off I-10 in the Hill Country near Junction, TX for one night.
That would have been a new park for us. We thought we'd check out the
trails on Monday morning, then drive the remaining distance to
McKinney Falls State Park in the afternoon.
Lower falls from the far side on a more typical
cloudy day last week
However, a powerful windstorm in El Paso that rocked our camper all night
Saturday and still gusted to 50 MPH on Sunday morning changed our plan.
We thought it would be too risky to drive a high-profile 5th-wheel coach
in wind like that through desolate, open southwestern Texas terrain.
Sunday morning, with the camper still shakin' in the wind, we rolled
over and got some more shut-eye!
Our new plan was to stay one more night in El Paso and drive the
whole way to Austin on Monday. That's when our reservation began at McKinney
Falls. That's a long haul with a camper in tow, but the wind wouldn't be
as much of a factor.
Above and below: lots of white-tailed deer roam around the
campgrounds at McKinney Falls Park.
After we got up that Sunday morning we kept checking the weather reports between El Paso
A local TV station weather-cam showed videos of vehicles on
I-10 that looked like they were driving normally but we didn't feel
better about the wind until we talked with an incoming RVer about 11 AM who'd
just driven in on I-10 from the east. He said he could go "only" 60
MPH** westbound into the head wind but reassured us that the wind had died down
enough east of the city that it should be safe for us to drive our camper on the freeway
-- especially since we'd have a tail wind going opposite
the direction he drove.
[** 60 MPH on the freeway is our new normal, so that wasn't be a
problem for us.]
Rear view of the earth-sheltered
visitor center at McKinney Falls
Within an hour we ate lunch and got ready to go. Our new plan was to
drive to the Walmart at Fort Stockton, TX where we've stayed overnight a
couple times before. It wasn't practical to drive as far as South Llano
SP that afternoon.
It was sunny, 52° F., and less windy on
I-10 than at the campground when we left Fort Bliss about noon. The
west wind meant we had mostly a tail wind all afternoon. We got the
best fuel mileage we've ever had with the Cameo -- an average
of 14.7 MPG! That's hauling a 5th-wheel weighing somewhere between
14,000-15,000 pounds. It helped a little bit that we had a net
1,000-foot drop in elevation.
Vultures (hawks?) take flight
from the roof of the visitor center.
Others watch our movements from nearby trees.
Once we were clear of the El Paso metro area there was little traffic
on I-10. After I-20 branched off, we practically had the road to
ourselves. Once again, our 60 MPH speed didn't impede those wanting to
go the 80 MPH speed limit or faster (70 MPH for semis).
Going eastbound we encountered a border patrol inspection station at
MM102. Jim answered the guard's two questions correctly and we were on
That's never a good place to test someone's sense of humor .
Similar to our trip from Phoenix to El Paso the first week in January, a good percentage of the
westbound traffic was RVs. Once again, we wondered if we were going the
wrong way! (Short answer = probably. See weather update below.)
Tall grass along Onion Creek above the lower falls
Four motorhomes beat us to the Fort Stockton Walmart parking lot but there was
plenty of room for more on the west side of the store. Three more
RVs came in after us. We were happy to have good cell phone, internet,
and TV reception at this location. Through most of western Texas we had
a weak Verizon signal and extended service.
As usual, we did some shopping inside the store and thanked the night
manager for letting us stay overnight.
We got diesel at a Fina station across from Walmart for $3.29/gallon. The
cheapest we saw in that town was $3.24. Ouch. Fortunately, fuel prices
were lower in Austin.
2ND DAY RV TRIP NOTES: FORT STOCKTON →
We left Fort Stockton on Monday morning, January 10, to drive the remaining
McKinney Falls. That took us about seven hours with several stops. We
had hillier terrain, more two-lane roads and city driving, more cross- and head winds, and weather varying
from sun to fog. Despite a net drop of another 2,500 feet in
elevation, our average fuel mileage fell to about 11½
Onion Creek from the Rock Shelter Trail
We really can't complain about the
weather we had that Monday. Even though it was 20°F. below normal
temperatures (40° for a high instead
of 60°), we were in a wedge of fog between the rain that doused San Antonio
a bit to the
south and the snow and ice that fell above I-20 just to the north and
left a big mess in Dallas.
storm was even worse through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and
Georgia, where 9-11" of snow fell in some places! This is the third or
fourth nasty storm the Deep South has gotten this winter. The worst we
got that day was some fog and mist.
Temperatures were predicted to drop
to the teens in El Paso that night. Although it was below freezing in Austin
our first night, it was a good decision to leave El Paso when we did. We weren't
much farther south in Austin but we were at a significantly lower
elevation: 3,500 feet lower.
Traffic was very light on I-10 for over 200 miles -- even on a
weekday -- and we continued to see lots of RVs going the other
direction. We were happy to spot one Carriage Cameo 5th-wheel and one
Carriage Carri-Lite (that's a fancier model than ours).
Note to RVers who need to dump their grey or black water along this route:
there is a free dump station at the rest area at MM393 west of Sonora on
I-10. There may be more but that's the only one we noticed.
We left the freeway at exit 477 and followed US 290 to Austin. This is a
good two-lane highway that takes travelers through historic
Fredericksburg and scenic Hill Country terrain. The speed limit is 70
MPH. Although the road is hilly there are plenty of places faster
vehicles can pass slower RVs.
Approaching the bouldering area on Rock Shelter
There are several pull-offs on either side of the road but they are
fairly small. We stopped at one for a few minutes and took up the whole
We were happy to find diesel at the HEB in Dripping Springs (a little
west of Austin) for $3.05/gallon. Jim had some difficulty finding a
place to park in the adjacent strip shopping center while he went into
Whataburger to get (what else?) a burger. We were surprised to see so
many people shopping at 2 PM on a weekday.
Soon after, we were through Austin and checking into McKinney Falls
McKINNEY FALLS STATE PARK
This is the third time we've camped at this park. It's very
convenient to the places we like to go in Austin yet is far enough out in the
country to have a wilderness feel.
I wrote two entries about the park campground and trails on our first
trip here in December, 2009. The
entry includes information about the history and features of the park,
describes the campground, and shows photos of the two falls. The
second entry focuses on the park trails we explored then. We
also stayed here for a couple of days in January, 2010.
I won't repeat all of that information here, just present some
information and photos.
Onion Creek in the bouldering area
We got a nice surprise again when we checked into the campground
-- our Texas state parks pass is still valid and we still have two
half-price days left for camping! We used one of them during our stay.
I think I've figured out what happened regarding our parks pass but
we won't know until we have the courage to ask when the computer says it
expires. So far we've avoided doing that -- might jinx our good
luck! When someone tells us it's
expired, we'll buy a new one.
I know the last time we paid for an annual pass was at this park in
December, 2009. It should have expired at the end of December, 2010.
However, the state completely revamped its computer system for
reservations and accountability in May of 2010 and began using it at all the parks on the
were checking into Palo Duro Canyon.
We were there early, one of their first test bunnies that day.
Pools of water collect in the
rocks above the lower falls.
I wrote then about the hour we had to wait for the staff to process
our reservation when we checked in. New system, lots of headaches for
the office staff. Folks were lined up out the door -- common on a
Friday evening but not a Wednesday morning.
That was frustrating for us, too, but apparently it was worth it. I
think the folks at Palo Duro accidentally changed the date to May and
inadvertently extended our pass for five months! They also added more
half-price coupons than they should have -- four, instead of the
one or two we had left. (And those were through the generosity of our
friend Bill H. who uses the pass but not the old paper coupons. Now the
coupons are electronic and folks can't give their unused coupons to friends.
That was a wise move financially by TPWD.)
Part of the wide expanse of rock
near the lower falls
Back to this trip to McKinney Falls . . .
We originally reserved a site for seven days, not ten. It included
the potentially-busy MLK holiday weekend. We wanted to check out nearby Bastrop
SP before deciding whether we would spend three days there. We ended up
staying at McKinney Falls the whole ten days because the RV sites are
The rate for a 30-amp site is $16/day ($20/day for one of the
twelve 50-amp sites). We got one of those days at half price, reducing
our total for one week to $104. When we decided to stay three more days we paid an
Our campsite on the first sunny day we had
McKinney Falls does not have a weekly rate like some Texas
state parks do in the winter but its campground rates are less expensive than
the parks that charge $20 to $25 for 30- and 50-amp sites. Each site has water. There is a dump
station near the entrance to the first campground loop; only the
CG host sites have sewers.
We chose a different site in the same campground loop (Big Cedar)
where we stayed previously but later wished we'd gotten a site in the
Big Oak camping loop; the 30-amp sites are more spacious there
and it's a little closer to the entrance and trailheads.
We could have moved to another site but it was easier to stay put. No
one ever camped in the sites on either side of us so we had plenty of
peace and quiet.
Because of the lousy weather the campground was never more than half full
while we were there, even on the holiday weekend, and our loop was nearly deserted on weekdays:
We had excellent TV reception at our campsite with just the RV
antenna but our MiFi internet
connection was slow with only 1-2 Verizon bars. When Jim wanted a
faster connection he'd use the park's WiFi system at the entrance
station or visitor center. Visitors can go inside when the buildings are
open or sit outside in the parking lot in their vehicles (what Jim
usually does) to get online.
We sure know how to pick 'em!
Areas of the Southwest to hang out during the winter, I mean. The
first evening at McKinney Falls we heard on the local news broadcast
that it was "the coldest this winter in Austin."
That's just great.
The average temperature range in Austin this time of year is about 40°
to 60°F. The first four days our thermometer didn't get
during the daytime.
Nights were below freezing, even down to 23° one night.
The rangers advised all the campers to unhook their water hoses each
night and let the outdoor faucets drip so they wouldn't freeze. Jim
filled our fresh water tank the first afternoon so we'd have adequate
water for drinking, cooking, showers, and the toilet.
Cozy refuge on cloudy days
We kept the camper warm enough with the
propane furnace (necessary at night to keep the pipes in the basement from freezing),
two electric heaters, and the occasional use of our rather new propane
space heater, which is more efficient than the furnace.
In fact, the camper was so cozy it was
tempting to stay inside instead of going out to walk, run, ride the
bike, or run errands in town!
Six of the ten days
it was overcast, foggy, drizzly, and/or rainy. At least we didn't get
We had sunshine for only four of the days we were in the area.
We forced ourselves out the door every day to exercise in the park or at
the Town Lake Trail in
Austin; it wasn't always fun but it helped reduce cabin fever and
keep our spirits up.
One gray day I found an old bird's nest full of
Meanwhile, we read or heard that every state in the Lower 48 had some snow that week
except Florida! Atlanta, which rarely got snow when I lived there for 25
years, had 4-5" of snow with 1-2" of ice under it. What a
mess. We don't know how
much snow and/or ice Roanoke got, but we do know it was even colder
That didn't console us much. We wished
we were in southern Arizona or southern California or just about
anywhere that was warmer and sunnier than where we were. We both became
more irritable and depressed, exhibiting mild signs of SAD (Seasonal
Affective Disorder). Give us some sunshine at least!
The lower falls were interesting
even on cloudy days.
Even my photos were "sad" on those days,
with dreary, gray skies instead of bright blue ones. I want my travel
photos to be sunny to inspire other people to visit the places I enjoy!
Fortunately, the temperatures gradually
warmed up a bit to the 40s and 50s after a week but it was still
overcast or raining much of the time. The sun didn't come back out again
until the week of January 17 when it was almost time for us to leave
Our last three days in the park were
sunny and in the upper 60s, which was
above normal. We loved those days ands stayed outside as much as
possible. I took some photos over again then so I'd have some sunny
ones to show you!
TRAIL RUNS IN McKINNEY FALLS PARK
You can see a large map of the park and trails at this
link. I'll include sections of it below.
1. ONION CREEK TRAIL
Several of our runs/walks in the park were on the paved (but somewhat
rough) four-mile Onion Creek Loop which swings past the upper falls and
circles the campgrounds. I marked it in yellow below:
The trail winds mostly through wooded areas. Here is part of it through the main picnic area:
There are more photos from this trail in a
previous entry from 2009.
2. ROCK SHELTER TRAIL AND THE BOULDERING AREA
I enjoyed hiking the Rock Shelter Trail again a couple times with Cody:
The narrow, hilly trail traverses a cliff above Onion Creek between
the visitor center and the bouldering area:
Besides the cool shelter area, I like the creviced rock walls above
Onion Creek as the water flows down to the lower falls:
The wide bouldering area has numerous pockets that hold
water after it rains:
There are other photos from this area in the Janu-ugly
3. LOWER FALLS & HOMESTEAD TRAIL
Despite the rainy weather, Onion Creek was lower than we've seen it
We've been tempted to cross the wide creek at the lower falls and
explore the three-mile long Homestead Trail on the other side, but the
creek was too high and swift when we visited the park in the winter of
2009-10. It was also so badly polluted then that the park warned
visitors to stay out of the water.
This year visitors are allowed in the creek. Since the water level
was also down we were able to cross it at the lower falls. That was
Confluence of Williamson and
Onion Creeks just above the lower falls
Above and below: Jim leaps across
the first stream of water
I chose to go upstream a little bit to cross those
rocks, fearing the jolt on my knees if I jumped across like Jim did. My
feet got wet but that was OK. Trekking poles would have helped on the
smooth, slick rocks.
We had a second stream of water to cross above this part
of the falls:
That one required a running jump, too.
I took these pictures (and one near the top of this entry) on the other
side of the falls:
There are lots of pockets of water in the (relatively) soft rocks on
that side, too.
The pool of water below the falls is a popular swimming hole in the
Jim and I went different directions on the Homestead Trail that day but
neither of us went more than half a mile.
Jim saw the remains of the old
McKinney homestead. He didn't have a camera. All I saw was the
foundation of the old grist mill:
We planned to cross the creek another day when we had time to do all
of the Homestead Trail and check out those other dotted lines on the map
but we never did get back to it.
When it wasn't raining I went out on several bike rides on Onion
Creek Trail and the paved roads through the park. I'd have ridden many
more miles in better weather.
Display in the visitor center about the old
For more information and a video about McKinney Falls State
Park, check the official park website at this
ACTIVITIES IN AUSTIN
Because of the dreary weather we weren't as motivated on this
trip to explore new sites and neighborhoods in Austin as we were
on our first visit to the area.
I'll talk about our walks, runs, and rides at Town Lake Trail in
the next entry. We parked at the Town Lake YMCA each time we
used the trail and I did several workouts inside courtesy of the
Y's generous "away" visitation system.
One of many views of the city skyline from
Town Lake Trail
While in the vicinity we also had lunch at Whole Foods a couple
times (that's the best Whole Foods store we've found anywhere)
and shopped at REI.
We also made several trips out of the park to shop
at Walmart and Sam's Club, do our laundry, buy propane and
diesel ($3.15/gallon at Walmart with their shopping card), go to
the Post Office, and explore Bastrop and Buescher state parks.
We enjoyed our visit to the state capitol building (photo above) in Austin a
year ago but didn't go back this time. We figured it would be
too chaotic. The state legislature began its biennial
session last week. It is coping with a $27 billion budget
deficit for 2012-13. Texas has two-year budgets, which makes its
deficit appear higher. Traditionally it's been in better shape
fiscally than many other
states but the recession messed with Texas, too.
One of the state's mottos is "Don't Mess with Texas," referring
to littering but having more than one meaning.
Fortunately for folks like us who enjoy using the state parks,
we've heard that the park budget is in some sort of separate
account and apparently won't be affected as much by the cuts the
state will have to make in other departments and programs. I
haven't researched that but hope it's true. We really enjoy the
parks we've visited in Texas and plan to see a lot more of them in
Next entry: Town Lake Trail rocks!
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil