How we’re celebrating 100 years of Texas State Parks

We’re getting outside to enjoy Central Texas’ most beautiful outdoor spaces.

A pool of water at McKinney Falls State Park.

McKinney Falls is the only state park in Travis County.

Photo by ATXtoday

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This year marks 100 years of Texas State Parks, and we want to celebrate.

Our state is full of natural beauty, and in our entirely unbiased opinion, Central Texas may be the most beautiful region of all.

As nature lovers, we want to commemorate the centennial of the agency that maintains these natural resources for our enjoyment. That’s why, over the course of 2023, we’ll be visiting and writing about all eight state parks in Travis and surrounding counties. That includes:

Before we hit the trails, let’s learn a bit more about what we’re celebrating.

  • Texas’ State Parks program was created in 1923, but it was initially conceptualized as a collection of roadside attractions for travelers. It wasn’t until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that the program expanded, resulting in more than 50 parks.
  • Today, Texas State Parks encompass more than 630,000 acres across 89 parks.
  • The state acknowledges that much of its parkland is located on the lands of indigenous peoples. Learn more about Native American history in Texas.
  • The only state park in Travis County is McKinney Falls State Park, named after 1800s homesteader Thomas McKinney. The land was donated to the state in the 1970s, and officially opened as a public park in 1976.

Join in on the fun locally with Austin-area events throughout the year, or stop by the Bullock Texas State History Museum to check out their commemorative exhibit.

Or, join us on our journey. Share your state park experiences with us at hello@theatxtoday.com or by tagging us on Instagram @atxtoday.

McKinney Falls State Park

History

McKinney Falls’ history dates back ~9,000 years, to Native American settlers researchers believe may have been Tonkawa.

A few centuries later, a stretch of the park was once a portion of the El Camino Real de los Tejas, a roadway traveled by missionaries, government officials, traders, and other adventurers journeying between Mexico and Texas in the 1600-1800s.

The name McKinney originated with Thomas McKinney, an early Austin colonist whose firm helped finance as much as 10% of the cost of the Texas Revolution. He began building on the land now home to the state park — using the labor of enslaved people — in the mid-1800s.

McKinney died deeply in debt in 1873. The property passed hands until it was donated to the state 100 years later.

What to see

See the ruins of McKinney’s homestead, plus an early rock shelter, along the park’s trails. You also won’t want to miss Old Baldy, a 500-year-old cypress tree named Austin’s 2012 Tree of the Year.

The real star of the show at McKinney Falls, however, is — you guessed it — the falls. Walk Onion Creek to see the upper and lower falls up close, or take them in from the Visitor’s Center observation deck.

What to do

McKinney Falls has 641 acres worth of activities, including:

  • Camping, starting at $20 per night
  • Hiking
  • Mountain and road biking
  • Bouldering
  • Swimming
  • Fishing

Make a reservation to visit McKinney Falls State Park online here.

Pedernales Falls State Park

History

This park, which is about one hour outside of Austin, was acquired by the state in 1971, but there’s 10,000 years of history behind that date.

Indigenous peoples settled the land dating back to ~9,500 BC, with Lipan Apaches and Comanche competing for the area as late as the early 1800s.

White settlement didn’t arrive until after Texas joined the US in 1845. By the late 1880s, a community of a few dozen people farmed the park’s site, and built a shared school, cemetery, and roads. The land was purchased around ~1900, and traded hands as a ranch for the next several decades.

The name “Pedernales” comes from the era of Spanish settlement, derived from the word for the flint rock found in the river bed.

What to see

You’ve gotta see the falls. The geologically fascinating cascade displays millions of years of erosion. Depending on recent rainfall, you may be able to walk around or picnic on the falls — reader Patrick C. suggests visiting them “after a big spring rain.”

Another tip comes from Geruza P., who suggests: “Look at the bird space created. You can sit and observe them. They place food and [the birds] come.”

Pro tip: This park is listed as one of the best parks to see a Golden-cheeked warbler.

What to do

Pedernales Falls State Park is 5,212 acres, so there’s a lot to do, including:

  • Camping, starting at $10 per night
  • Hiking and biking
  • Horseback riding
  • Swimming, tubing, and kayaking
  • Fishing

Make a reservation to visit Pedernales Falls State Park.

Inks Lake State Park

History
Prehistoric people, Apache, and Comanche occupied these banks as far back as ~8,000 years ago. White settlement moved into the area in the mid-1800s, but Inks Lake itself didn’t exist until 1938, when the LCRA built the Inks Dam during the Great Depression.

The land for the park was acquired shortly afterward, in 1940. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps was hired to build out the park after completing work at Longhorn Cavern State Park, but funding dried up when World War II began.

The State Parks Board completed the park on its own and officially opened up the land in 1950.

What to see

Don’t miss the pink gneiss and granite. Much of this rock is left over from the Grenville Orogeny, a tectonic event that created a Himalayan-like mountain chain in the US and Mexico ~1 billion years ago. These mountains have eroded, but the ancient rocks are still around.

Visitors can also see stunning wildflower displays and hike to Devil’s Waterhole, a small canyon and swimming area.

What to do

Several readers recommended trying out the hiking trails, and reader David L. had additional suggestions: “Hike around the lake … do Longhorn Cavern after, then have lunch at Blue Bonnet Cafe.”

Inks Dam helps keep the Lake full year-round, making water activities always in season. Try:

  • Swimming, water skiing, paddleboarding, and canoeing
  • Fishing
  • Bird watching
  • Camping, starting at $11 per night

Make a reservation to visit Inks Lake State Park online.

Blanco State Park

History
The Blanco River has drawn area residents for hundreds of years, in part because the springs offer a consistent water source during droughts.

Established in 1933, Blanco State Park was one of the first four state parks in Texas to be built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. It took the team 11 months to build the park’s bridges, dams, roads, and picnic areas.

In more recent history, heavy rainfall surged the Blanco River to 30 ft high in 2015, rising over several nearby bridges. The flood uprooted trees as tall as 20ft and littered the park with branches and trash — it took five months to fully clean and repair the park.

What to see
Reader Linda S. recommended keeping your eyes peeled for wildlife when you visit Blanco State Park. If you’re lucky, you just might spot a great blue heron, a common musk turtle, or a leopard frog.

Another reader reminded us not to miss the original Blanco county building, located just outside of the park in the heart of Blanco.

What to do
Blanco State Park is a hot spot for campers, swimmers, and picnickers. There are two small trails in the park, but the park’s showstopper is certainly the river that runs through its heart. Spring-fed waters with a series of dams provides easy access for:

  • Swimming
  • Kayaking
  • Fishing
  • Boating

Make a reservation to visit Blanco State Park online.

Longhorn Cavern State Park

What if we told you you could escape the heat, see crystal hallways, chandeliers, and a Queen’s throne room, all while walking through one of Central Texas’ most compelling historic sites?

We’re not talking about some kind of Hill Country palace — at least, not literally. We’re talking about Longhorn Cavern State Park, the next stop on our year-long journey to explore local state parks.

History
Longhorn Cavern’s history begins in prehistoric Texas, when locals of the time used the cave — formed by an ancient underground river — for shelter and council meetings.

White settlers found the cave in the mid-1800s. Initially, it was a source of production: miners sourced the cave’s bat guano to make gunpowder during the Civil War.

Post-war, it didn’t take long for word of the spectacular site to get around. By the 1920s, the cave was a tourist site, concert venue, and dance hall.

In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps rolled in with pickaxes and wheelbarrows to clear out the cave, removing 3,000 dump trucks full of debris. It took them eight years.

Longhorn Cavern opened in 1938 and was declared a National Landmark in 1971.

What to see
Why the caves, of course.

When you enter the caverns, you’ll find yourself spotting pieces of Texas history in every corner as you walk through narrow and ballroom-sized spaces seeing ancient stones.

Reader Laurie E. says to keep your eyes and ears peeled for “the chamber that was once a bar on Saturday night and a church on Sunday morning.”

What to do
You can walk a nature trail and do some picnicking at Longhorn Cavern State Park, but there’s really one showstopper at this Hill Country gem, and that’s a cave tour. Here’s how to book:

Bastrop State Park

History
This thicket of pines and hardwood trees has sheltered travelers for centuries, even acting as a stop on the El Camino Real de los Tejas, a 1600s-era roadway between Mexico and Texas.

Residents of Bastrop — considered to be the third-oldest settlement in Texas — used these trees to support local building booms during the 1800s.

When the state acquired this land in the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and architect Arthur Fehr built the park structures. Their work eventually earned the park National Historic Landmark status, making Bastrop State Park one of just seven parks of its kind to have the recognition.

In 2011, a devastating wildfire burned through 32,000 acres in the Bastrop area, destroying 1,600+ homes and affecting 96% of the state park. Researchers predict full forest recovery is more than a generation away, but visitors can already see signs of new growth and fresh life among the trees.

What to see
First, look up.

If it seems odd to see pine trees in Central Texas, that’s because it is: these loblolly pines are known as the ”Lost Pines” of Texas, because they’re isolated as the species’ westernmost stand in the country.

According to pollen records, these pines have been growing in the Bastrop area for 18,000+ years. So, we suggest you listen to reader Steve K.: “Take a deep breath. Smell the pines.”

What to do
With 6,600 acres to explore, there’s plenty to do at Bastrop State Park, including:

  • Camping, starting at $15 per night
  • Hiking and biking
  • Swimming
  • Fishing

Make a reservation to visit.

Buescher State Park

History
318. That’s how many acres of land Emil and Elizabeth Buescher donated to the state in the early 1900s. Then, after Emil died, his heirs donated 318 more.

After swapping land a bit with the City of Smithville and the University of Texas, which operates a cancer research center adjacent to the park, Buescher State Park now encompasses 1,016 acres.

The park was built by Civilian Conservation Corps companies who also worked on Bastrop State Park, just down the road. The two parks are connected through a scenic road, making them perfect for back-to-back visits — read our guide to Bastrop State Park here.

What to see
Buescher State Park is part of the Lost Pines forest, the westernmost stand of loblolly pines in the US. Get lost on the park’s hiking trails and long, winding roads, and you’ll feel like you’re far from Texas.

The entrance to the park also leads into a 30-acre lake surrounded by campgrounds and picnic tables.

What to do
Our No. 1 suggestion: take a hike.

Reader Gary P. also suggests hitting the beautiful trails, seeing the fish pond, and renting a cabin.

Visitors can also:

  • Bike — all trails are open for mountain biking, and scenic, 12-mile Park Road 1C is common route for cycling groups
  • Fish
  • Swim
  • Camp, starting at $15 per night
  • Picnic

Make a reservation to visit Buescher State Park.

Lockhart State Park

History
The land now known as Lockhart State Park was inhabited by Native Americans for centuries before white settlers moved into Central Texas.

By the mid-1800s, anti-indigenous governmental policies contributed to clashes between Texans and Comanche tribes — including the Council House Fight in 1840 — when Texas troops killed more than 30 Comanche people.

In retaliation, a band of Comanche and Kiowa raided Central Texas towns and met Texas forces on Plum Creek — just a few miles from Lockhart State Park. By the end of the battle, Comanche forces had lost significant numbers and were pushed out of the area permanently.

The state purchased ranch land in the area in 1934 and put the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration to work building a park and golf course on the premises.

After operating as a country club for about a decade, Lockhart State Park opened to the public in 1948.

What to see
On your drive through Lockhart, stop by the historical marker for the Battle of Plum Creek in Lions Park.

The state park itself is 263 acres, so there’s plenty to see, including several historic structures like a group hall and stone bridges.

What to do
Readers David D. and Karen S. recommended playing a round on Lockhart State Park’s historic golf course. You can reserve tee times online for fees starting at $10. Golf carts start at $11 and club rentals cost $7.

Visitors can also:

Make a reservation to visit Lockhart State Park.

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