Austin's most convenient camping destination is less than 20 minutes from downtown. McKinney Falls State Park is the only state park within Austin city limits. And while it can get crowded, it feels surprisingly isolated, especially if you hit it at the right times. It makes for an easy day trip or overnight getaway not just for hikers, but also bikers, fishers and families. Six miles of trails allow you to explore the park’s most prominent features -- such as the old homestead site (settled in 1820), “Old Baldy” (a 100-foot-tall, 500-year-old Cypress Tree) and, of course, McKinney Falls and other Onion Creek rapids.
What Makes It Great
This secret to this park is that it's almost forgotten. So many tend to focus on the Barton Creek Greenbelt and other nearby public parkland, all of which is wonderful, but McKinney Falls is sometimes overlooked. But it’s an excellent destination for anyone visiting Austin who wants to camp overnight, hike, climb, mountain bike, trail run, swim, fish, or otherwise just get away from the rush of the city, while still in it.
Hiking, running, and biking are great most of the time, except when high water prevents creek crossings. For swimming, if the weather has been dry for too long, the falls and Onion Creek will be little more than dribbles. And after a rain, like most city watersheds, the creek could be polluted and carrying trash and sediment. But catch it somewhere in between, up to a week after a light early summer rain, and this is one of the finest swimming holes, and closest-in, in Austin. Again, try to catch it earlier in the mornings, especially on weekends. Weekdays, except for shortly after rush hour, are generally tranquil at the park. Of course, all bets are off during festivals like Austin City Limits and South by Southwest. So if you’re coming into town for a festival and want to camp here, reserve a site way ahead of time.
Who is Going to Love It
While you’re in the southeast part of town, take the opportunity to visit the kind of places you won’t find elsewhere. For food, try one of the best-hidden hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants nearby, El Michoacano. Right across the highway from the airport, it’s convenient, and damn good. Their salsa and homemade tortillas are absolutely perfect. And do yourself a favor and get the quail in red sauce. For drinks, skip downtown and go south to the Moontower Saloon for some of the town’s coolest live music, brews, and trailer food.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
$6 per person for a day pass, and camping rates ranging from $15-$24 nightly. Swimming is allowed in Onion Creek.Amenities include restrooms, pavilions, and fishing tackle rental. Group recreation hall, with kitchen, is $225 daily, while group primitive camping is $75/night. Firewood is available, but it's $1.25 per piece. Also, check for burn bans before you go in the middle of summer to make sure you’ll fully enjoy your camping experience. The park is busiest in March through November, so make camping reservations ahead of time!