McKinney Falls State Park is about 6 miles from downtown Austin and 3 miles from my son’s apartment. We hiked there on a sunny September Sunday. (For links to our other State Park hikes, see Brazos Bend and Huntsville).
Like many of the State Parks in Texas, McKinney Falls has a long history. Thomas F. McKinney was one of Stephen F. Austin’s original colonists, and the remains of his house are still in the park. There is an excellent book from the Texas State Historical Association on McKinney Falls (link here) that gives a great view of its history.
It is $6 per person to get into the park. We hiked the Homestead Trail (the longest listed trail in the park at 3.1 miles) and portions of Rock Shelter Trail (to the point where it was blocked) and Picnic Trail, and spent time around both the Upper and Lower Falls.
After entering the park and taking the first right, there are three parking lots at the trailhead to Homestead Trail. It is a short walk over part trail, part rock formation to get to the Lower Falls. Though there at not been much rain lately (as usual) the falls was still flowing and there were quite a few swimmers at the lower falls.
Just past the waterfall (either a short rock to rock jump or a wade through the water) the trail continues. We found a sign that pointed toward the Homestead one way and the Gristmill the other; we chose to head toward the Homestead.
The Homestead is from the late 1840s and was (according the the sign) occupied by the McKinney’s until Thomas McKinney’s death in the house in 1873. Several families lived in it until it burned in the 1940s.
Homestead Trail is pretty overgrown; I do not know if this is normal or just from the time of year when we were there. The ground was pretty dry and cracked in places, so given the dry conditions it wasn’t recent rains that had it overgrown. There were certain places where we had to duck under the overhanging brush.
There were some open parts and a little bit of elevation change, but not much. And there were places where you would walk out of the brush and see office buildings or a golf course – one of the “features” of being in a state park this close to a major city.
There were a lot of dogs in the park. Some, like this one, seemed to know the trail quite well, as he was taking his owners on a walk.
There were a couple of places where we could have taken additional trails (Flint Rock Loop Trail, which intersects with Williamson Creek Overlook trail – combining these would provide for an almost six mile hike), but we stayed on Homestead Trail. We finally got back around the the remains of Thomas McKinney’s grist mill, which was interesting (there must have been more water there at that time, but it was bone dry there now) but there wasn’t much left of it.
And then we came back to the lower falls from the other side.
As we walked back toward the trailhead, you can see the large limestone covering that you walk over to get to the falls. It was still before noon but it was already getting warm on those rocks. I’d imagine in the hot Texas summer afternoon sun it would not be a place to be…unless you were heading for a dip in the water.
We then intended to hike along Picnic Trail (the picnic tables gave the name away) and Rock Shelter Trail to get to the Upper Falls. We made it to the Rock Shelter, which we read had been in use as a shelter by people for nearly 4,000 years. There were also some trails that you could scramble down to get a look at Onion Creek.
But the trail was closed right where “Old Baldy” (a large tree) was. We weren’t informed of this at the ranger station, but it wasn’t a long trail so turning around was not difficult. In the picture below you can see “Old Baldy” in the middle. It looks like the rails on the wooden walkway were down and the bridge had other damage.
With no hiking options, we drove to Upper Falls, which had more swimmers and divers that the Lower Falls did.
Here’s a short video to show the extent of Upper Falls.
Overall, it was a very convenient park with some short trails and a couple of really nice waterfall swimming holes.
Huntsville State Park is a little over an hour north of Houston, just west of I-45 and a bit south of the city of Huntsville. It was a blue-sky day, semi-low humidity so we were off for another weekend hike. We didn’t see as many “critters” as we saw at Brazos Bend State Park on our last hiking adventure, but we did see (and almost step on) some large copperheads (pictures below).
There was a line of cars already there when we arrived, and one kiosk for entry. The cost for entering for the day is $5 per adult.
Our targeted trail for the day was the Chinquapin Trail, a 6.8 mile loop around Lake Raven and the park. The description of the trail on the park map says:
If you want to see the whole park, this is the trail. This trail encircles the entire lake. You will travel over marshes teaming with wildlife where you are likely to see shorebirds and nutria. Listen carefully for the drumming of a pileated woodpecker high in the pines and watch for eagles as you cross the dam.
It is the orange trail on the map below (link to PDF of map at the park’s web site).
We started off toward the top of the map, parking at the Nature Center. There was a monarch butterfly display at the Center, but it seemed that the height of monarch season had already passed, as we saw few of them.
The park is surrounded by Sam Houston National Forest and this State Park reflects that. The hike is almost all through the trees. Though there had been a lot of rain and rough weather nearby (and there were some down trees), the trails were not muddy. And the park has lots of wooden walkways and bridges for the parts that are frequently wet.
The trails are very well marked. In the photo you can see the trail marking showing the intersection with the Lone Star Trail, the 100+ mile trail that runs through Sam Houston National Forest. The orange marker at the top is for our chosen trail, the Chinquapin (apparently named after a couple of creeks in the park), and the green marker is for the CCC trail. The CCC trail is the longest of the trails in the park, going 8.5 miles along the border of the park. There are two shorter trails in the park: the Prairie Branch Loop and the Dogwood Trail Loop, both of which are less than two miles long.
Though some of the Chinquapin trail on the back side of Lake Raven goes along a rocky service road (in the map above, it is the part of the trail at the bottom left), we were always assured that we were on the right trail by the orange markers, which are every half-mile and at every intersection.
The trail we chose was deceptively long, but it was a great hike. Part of the deception was in how the map depicts Lake Raven, and our expectation that a view of the lake would be “just around the next turn in the trail.” If you look at the top of the map, it shows a very skinny part of the lake that sticks out. I do not know if the lake gets that high, but, as you can see in the next photo, that part of the lake is nothing but greenery, with a bit of water underneath it. There is a pier out over the brush, and it looked like a great place to spot an alligator. But, unlike at Brazos Bend where they were everywhere, we saw no gators.
There were quite a few mountain bikers on the trail, which was in most places wide enough to accommodate bikers passing on the left. Parts of the trail were mostly sand, and by the tire tracks, it looked like they were a challenge to some of the bikers.
And there were quite a few hikers with dogs. Both bikes and dawgs had challenges with the multiple places where there were trees down across the trail (we assume from the recent storms), whereas those of us unencumbered just scrambled over.
The trail finally does come out along Lake Raven, walking along what seems to be a man-made dam to a spillway.
This day there were several kayaks, fishermen and pedal-boats out on the lake. The building in the distance is Raven Lodge. The majority of the campgrounds and picnic areas are grouped around the lodge.
Going around the backside of the lake, we ran into a biker who had just run off a six foot rattlesnake. As proof, he offered us a picture he had taken…and he said he’d tried to grab its tail. A bit further on, around the fifth mile of the trail, we ran into these two copperheads in the middle of the trail. When I tried to move them out of the way with a stick, I at first thought they were rubber snakes, as they did not change their coil or the angle of their heads. Suddenly one of them headed toward me, but I was able to push him into the woods, and he (or she…I didn’t stop to ask) took off deeper into the woods at quite an amazing speed. The second one had already headed into the brush, as we could hear it rustling through the brush.
…colors other than green…
… and lots of bridges and boardwalks through the trail of green.
There are, of course, lots of other activities to do here, including the boating on the lake, camping and picnicking in the shelters. But it gets high marks for well maintained and marked hiking trails. Granted, this was early May; I’m not sure how enjoyable this would be in the SE Texas August or September.
Brazos Bend State Park is an hour drive south of us, and since we are northwest of Houston, it is a lot closer to most Houstonians. We had not been since the kids were little and the weather was perfect this early April weekend for a little hiking. It is $7 per person entrance fee and, if you rarely carry cash like me, be prepared to park and go inside to pay your fees, as the outdoor drive up kiosks do not take credit cards.
The state park is known mostly for its alligator population, and they aren’t shy about showing themselves. My gorgeous wife saw on one of the signs that there are 300 adult alligators in the park. We saw more than 20 close to the trail, and quite a few more further away.
But the park itself has some gorgeous scenery and very well maintained trails, with water available at trail junctions. We hiked around the 40 acre lake, took the “Spillway Trail” past the observation tower over to Elm Lake, then hiked around it and back. This is a very small portion of the trails available in the park (park trail map here and a picture of the map section we walked is at the end of this post). There are 50 mile and 100 mile trail runs held in the park (in April and September respectively) and the 50 mile run goes for three loops of around 17 miles each. So there is a lot more to cover than the 5 miles we did this weekend.
There are quite a few wooden decks and bridges built so that you can peer into and over the water.
There were quite a few folks fishing, though we never saw any of them catch anything. I assume it is catch and release. If you look at the picture below, you’ll see an alligator floating just past these fishermen…maybe hoping for a lazy catch.
There’s also the George Observatory in the park, which holds lots of stargazing events throughout the year.
Most of the gators we saw were stationary, and hard to tell apart from statues (still doesn’t mean you should take a selfie with them…though Darwinism didn’t intervene when a couple did so). But occasionally you’ll get one in the water who starts moving around a bit. And they always draw a crowd…so pardon the screaming kids (not mine) in my video.
Here’s a picture of the same alligator, just floating along, minding his (or her) own business.
I assume that the park is also a bird-watchers paradise. There are multiple postings in the picnic areas that denote what type of birds are seen recently in which areas of the park.
A few of the birds even act like you are not around.
And, there is a very good chance to see multiple birds in flight. With the backdrop of the lake, it is a sight to behold.
And of course, there are turtles. Even some that apparently babysit the smaller gators as a service.
While crossing the spillway trail, we did see a couple of turtles coming out from under the bridge so quickly (at least for turtle speed!) we thought that they might have been chased by…something. But fortunately, they were just passing through.
Though we saw quite a few rangers/volunteers in the park, we also saw two places where there might have been a missing ranger.
Maybe that is why these guys look so happy?
Picture of the trail map, zoomed in to the section we walked. We parked near 40 acre lake, walked to the left and immediately saw alligators.
And remember, don’t feed OR annoy the gators!