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.

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