Monday, February 14, 2011

Homestead Trail- McKinney Falls State Park

Another great hike that is only about 10 miles from downtown Austin is the Homestead Trail at McKinney Falls State Park.  This state park is backed up to the Texas Parks and Wildlife headquarters and for good's a spectacular location.  Not only will the natural beauty of the park leave you stunned that you are inside Austin city limits but the incredible history associated with the land will transport you back to a simpler day and age.  I highlight the Homestead Trail because of its mixture of serene landscapes and windows into early Texas history that cater to every hiker.

First off, the trail head is isolated from the rest of the park by Onion Creek and the Lower McKinney Falls so you will be getting your feet wet right out of the gate (be sure to either bring some water shoes to change into before crossing the creek so you don't soak your hiking shoes or just go barefoot but cross about 20 yards upstream from the waterfall because the rocks are much less slippery up that far).  Once you get across the creek, you immediately have to decide if you want to do the trail clockwise or counter-clockwise.  I would suggest doing it clockwise so that you can see the ruins of the McKinney homestead first before hitting the loop.  Also, just about 50 yards up the path from where you cross the creek are the ruins of the mill used by McKinney (the mill was destroyed by a flood so not much is left beyond the exterior wall and sunken foundation).

                           (McKinney Homestead Ruins- photo by Garrett Whitten)

 Once you see the McKinney homestead ruins, the trail is pretty simple but hikes beware that it is poorly marked and easy to get turned around on.  The first part of the trail (going clockwise) is going to feel like you're snaking through the most ridiculous tall grass and that you're never going to make it past the lacking scenery but then once you get past the giant s-curve you'll start to encounter a more rugged terrain of exposed limestone and what we here in Texas call cedar trees (they're really ashe junipers).

You'll also notice that you start to climb in elevation the closer you get to the midway point of the trail and I promise you, you are not lost or off the trail (you'll laugh about this when you're out there) and when you pass by the large office looking building don't fret that you have gone terribly off course because that is the Texas Parks and Wildlife headquarters that I mentioned earlier.  Now that I've got that disclaimer out of the way, the back-half of the trail really begins to develop and become much more scenic with amazing views of the beautiful Texas countryside and, during the spring, the most vividly colored patches of Texas wildflowers.

                      (Bluebonnet patch at McKinney Falls- photo by Garrett Whitten)

As you get within the last quarter of the trail, you'll notice a limestone overhang that seems pretty unassuming but do not pass this hidden gem of the park up.  Hidden behind a patch of brush is a limestone picnic table that was used by the Smith family (the family that donated the land to the state) and I highly advise packing a lunch or snack to enjoy here as you come to the end of your hike.  Like many other parts of the park, eating at this picnic table transports you back in time and puts the rest of the world on hold.  Please pack out what you pack in though.  Once you're done with your picnic, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump before you're back at the trailhead and back to present times.

This trail truly is a gem that is hiding in plain sight of the suburbs of Austin and is a great weekend hike for families and serious hikers alike.  At just around 3 miles, the Homestead Trail should take about 2 and half to 3 hours to complete (depending heavily on how long you stop to take in the sights).  Here is a link to the map of the trail and the rest of the park.  Now get out there and enjoy all the beauty that mother nature has to offer and be sure to post any special spots or tips for the trail in the comments.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Garrett's 3 W's of Layering for the Cold

On account of the massive Artic cold front that has blown in here in Texas, I thought I'd share with you the wisdom of layering.  Now, I understand that 9 times out of 10 this will be an irrelevant subject to Central Texas outdoor enthusiasts considering it never really gets that cold here but for a couple weeks out of the year but when those couple of weeks roll around you'll sure be glad for this knowledge.  I've consolidated the concept of layering into three easy W's; Wick, Warm, and Wind.

  1. Wick-  This is your base layer and should ideally consist of a synthetic fabric such as polyester but depending on how cold it really is outside you could get away with wool or cotton (be warned though that cotton is terrible at repelling moisture and will most likely chill you down pretty fast).  Regardless of the fabric, the idea is that this layer will "wick" away moisture from your body as you sweat underneath all those clothes and allow the moisture to evaporate much quicker.
  2. Warm-  Insulation is the name of the game for this layer.  Just as the insulation of the walls and ceiling in your home trap air and create a buffer zone of comfort for you to live in, the "warm" layer does the same thing for your body.  I'm partial to fleece when it comes to the "warm" layer just because of how lightweight and adjustable it is but I know people who use wool and down as well.  This idea here is not to compress all these layers down but to utilize the dead air space in between the layers so that little heat is transferred out.
  3. Wind-  The outer layer, what I call the "wind" layer, is designed to be a shell the protects the two layers before it from the outside elements (wind and water).  Most of these outer "wind" layers will be made out of fabrics like Gore-Tex which have a thin, porous membrane that allows the wearer to "breathe" while still blocking out all the unwanted elements.  This layer really is one of the most important ones because without it stopping the wind and rain all of the layers beneath are gonna leak heat like a sieve.  Depending on the conditions, you could probably get away with wearing something similar to just a rain-jacket but some of the lesser quality ones will begin to leak moisture after prolonged exposure.

So if you live anywhere from say Texas to Maine right now, bundle up and put these layering practices to good use so you can stand to be outside for more than two minutes.  If you know of any good materials or products that you'd recommend please put them in the comments below.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Beginners Guide to Hiking the Lower Barton Greenbelt

Only minutes from downtown Austin, Texas is arguably the most scenic urban hike in the state and a favorite of locals and visitors alike.  It really does blend the best of both worlds in that you feel very "one with nature" on the trail but you could still throw a rock and hit some of South Austin's finest dining and entertainment.  The Greenbelt offers a little bit to every outdoor enthusiast including separated hike and bike paths at various points along the trail, a multitude of great swimming holes and rapids (when the water levels are high enough), and plenty of room to run your dog tired so he'll be sleeping like a baby all the way home.

There are quite a few access points along the trail and each one offers a little different approach to what the Greenbelt has to offer (click here to see a map of the trail and access points).

  • The Zilker Park access point is the best if you plan to bring kids along considering that there lots of parking spaces, a large playground, the Zilker Zephyr, the concession stands and picnic tables, and the always popular bathrooms.  The trailhead here is level and wide and starts just past the Barton Springs pool-house.  In good weather you'll find yourself surrounded by a bunch of other folks so parking here tends to fill up quickly on sunny days and weekends but the location really is a must for anyone with children or who want a nice easy sunday hike.  
  • The Spyglass and Barton Hills access points are fairly decent in that they are not crowded often but that's probably because parking here can be a bit tricky.  The residential location of these access points is truly designed for the people who live within that general area but do offer a good starting point for folks who don't want to pass through the sometimes large crowds at the Zilker entrance.
  • The Gus Fruh access point is an excellent drop-in point if your aim that day is to enjoy a large Texas swimming hole and not have to walk the 2 miles back to your car (or bike) with wet clothes and shoes.  Once again, this access point is in a residential area so parking can be tough but when you get down to Gus Fruh pool and the water levels are right, then the only worries you'll have will be who's right in describing the shape of the clouds overhead. 
  • The 360 access point marks the beginning of a new Greenbelt compared to the trails downstream towards Zilker Park.  This access point is off of loop 360 right before you get to MoPac and is literally right next door to a large office building which can cause confusion when looking for parking.  You'll see the sign, take a right, and think "wow, there is so much parking here!" and then you'll realize that the nice, paved parking lot is actually the property of the office building and they will not hesitate to tow don't try that one.  Parking is actually a handful of gravel spots that are inside of a wooden fence just off of the road.  The 360 access point is great for one of two reasons; one, the amount of people on the trail tends to dwindle right about this point and two, if you want to do some good rock climbing, and don't want to drive all the way out to Enchanted Rock, then you're in luck.  There is a large vertical bluff directly across the creek from the 360 access point that offers some good climbing.
  • The Twin Falls-Gaines access point is the last one on the Lower Greenbelt and is probably the most difficult hike down to the creek considering that you have to switchback down the side of a cliff to get down to the trail and the falls.  Parking here is on the access road of MoPac and normally has ample room for everyone, it only starts to fill up when the weather is nice or it is a weekend, but that'll be the case anywhere you go.

In total, the Lower Greenbelt trail covers just about 4.5 miles from the Twin Falls-Gaines access point to the end at Zilker Park and covers everything from flat, easy, meandering trails to difficult ascents and chain-holds in the bluff.  Starting from Zilker Park and heading upstream, the trail is very easy and can be covered by most every hiker and biker, there are no large rises or drops in elevation and the trail is well beaten by the heavy traffic that comes through this part of the trail.  You'll first start to notice a change in terrain when you get to the Gus Fruh pool.  The trail will be begin to roll up and down and will turn to more of a cross-country path once you get to the rapids and flats at Three Falls (about 3 miles in).  Continuing on to the 360 access point, you'll being to see that less and less people are walking around you and you'll begin to see some of the popular climbing bluffs.  The trail here is a little bit noisy due to the proximity of the 360 bridge but tends to drop off quick as the creek takes a bend right after the bridge.  Be aware that just past the 360 bridge, heading upstream, the trail narrows considerably and, for a point, is basically footholds that have been carved into the bluff and have a chain handhold running parallel to them so if you are new to hiking or don't feel comfortable taking on a trail such as this then you should just skip over this point of the trail until you're ready to tackle it.  Once you get past this part of the trail it is pretty level up until you get to Twin Falls and the access point there, which is quite a vertical hike, but the view is well worth the 4.5 miles it took to get there.

So get out there and explore the amazing gift we have here in central Texas that is the Barton Greenbelt and make some adventures of your own!  Be sure to comment about your favorite points along the trail and help other enjoy the experience.