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Natural Mission

Destination: San Antonio

Travel time from:
Austin – 1.5 hours
Dalls - 4.5 hours
El Paso – 9.5 hours
Houston – 3.5 hours
Brownsville – 4 hours
Lubbock – 7.75 hours

San Antonio’s trails offer a walk (or ride) on the wild side.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Plan a trip to San Antonio, and a typical itinerary might include the Alamo, River Walk, Spanish missions and other iconic attractions. But not ours. Lovers of nature, we want to explore instead the oft-ignored “outdoorsy” side of the state’s second-largest city.

It’s no easy task, though, choosing from among San Antonio’s many public parks, trail systems, natural areas, educational centers and guided tours. My husband and I are game to experience what we can in three days. The question is, will two nearly-past-their-prime adults survive?

Our first stop is the western half of Phil Hardberger Park, a 311-acre natural area bisected by Wurzbach Parkway in northwestern San Antonio. Once a dairy farm, it is one of the few remaining undeveloped tracts in the city. It was purchased through a bond program and opened to the public in 2010. Hardberger Park offers two dog parks, playscapes, picnic tables, 6 miles of trails and 30 acres of restored grasslands.

On a Sunday morning, we’ve nearly got the place to ourselves, save for a few joggers and dog walkers. We nose around the ultra-modern Urban Ecology Center, which houses a meeting hall, a classroom and restrooms. Equipped with solar panels and a rainwater collection system, the center utilizes pervious pavement (instead of traditional, nonporous asphalt) and vegetated ditches (bioswales) that filter heavy rainfalls.

Time to hit some trails. Thank goodness for our smartphones — without paper maps, we rely on a trail app during our excursions. At a fork, we check the app, then take Oak Loop, a 0.8-mile natural-surfaced trail that cuts through thick woodlands edged with native grasses and plants. I spot Lindheimer’s senna, soft-hair marbleseed, velvet-leaf mallow, Buckley’s yucca and tasajillo. Rosebelly lizards skitter through the leaf debris.

Around a bend, we meet up with local residents James and Tina Hudec, walking their dog, LuLu.

“We come here a lot,” says James, a brewmaster at Alamo Beer Company. “In the evening, owls hang around within this loop. When I hoot at them, they hoot back.”

No owls this morning, but we do spot a crested caracara perched atop a barren live oak. Later, my husband points out a ladder-backed woodpecker, drilling into a honey mesquite for insects. Along the wide trail, bluebonnets, Drummond’s wild onion and annual phlox have begun to bloom. Despite the noise of nearby traffic and jets overhead, the park still feels remote.

In the future, a land bridge over Wurzbach Parkway will connect the park’s two sides, allowing wildlife and people to cross. Today, we get back into our car and drive to the east side. On the weekend, parking spots fill up, so we’re happy to find one. We enjoy sandwiches at a concrete picnic table, then wander past a playscape teeming with families. At a cut-limestone facility called the Trailhead, we note restrooms and water faucets.

What next? The 1-mile Water Loop Trail? We open our app and choose the shorter Geology Trail, surfaced interchangeably with concrete and crushed granite. When we come upon the North Salado Creek Greenway, we check our trail app and decide to take the wide concrete path to Walker Ranch Historic Landmark Park. Since it’s on our itinerary, why not hike instead of drive?

The North Salado Creek Greenway, part of the city’s current 52 miles (and growing) of networked greenway trails, parallels Salado Creek for 2.4 miles. Bicyclists zip by as we cross under Wurzbach Parkway and head south. Abundant red buckeyes, glossy leafed with buttery yellow flower clusters, pique my interest. Huisache, honey mesquite and live oaks provide shade from midday sunshine. A drink of water sounds good.

Nearly an hour later, a vintage windmill standing in a grassy meadow indicates that we’ve reached Walker Ranch. Archaeologically rich, the site is believed to have been a part of a ranch called Monte Galvan in the 1700s that supplied the mission later known as the Alamo. More recently, the Walker family ranched on the land from 1905 until 1972. Today, the park offers a playscape, a pavilion, hiking trails, picnic tables and portable toilets.

Drinking fountains, too. However, they’re temporarily off today. I assure James that I’m fine (not really) as we pause by a park sign to rest. Then a bicyclist in a neon green shirt rolls up alongside us. We chat, and I mention the water being off. When the young man pulls out water packs, I can’t believe my good fortune. Can we pay him for them?

“No, that’s what I do — help people,” explains Adrian Gusme, smiling. “I’m a trail steward. We’re hired by the city to patrol the greenway and interact with visitors. We carry water packs, first aid and bike repair tools.”

What a relief. I’m well fortified for the return walk back to Hardberger Park. (Lesson learned: Always take water.)

Day one, done. Pleasantly exhausted, we head to Arbor House Suites, four two-story Queen Anne Colonial Revival homes located near downtown. After beef enchiladas and fish tacos at Tomatillos Cafe, we unwind in chairs set in the inn’s lushly vegetated courtyard, strung with tiny lights. For breakfast, our host has left a wicker basket filled with goodies.

Day two starts north of downtown at a storage complex, where Steve Wood runs his San Antonio Bike Tours company. By reservation, Steve leads a variety of two-, four- and six-hour jaunts. We’ve registered for the four-hour River and Missions trip. So have David and Becky Blassingame of Houston. Steve rolls out four three-wheeled bikes, outfitted with filled water bottles, high-flying neon orange flags and black nylon seats that resemble lawn chairs.

“Bet you haven’t seen a trike since you were kids,” Steve says while we strap on helmets and two-way radio headsets. “Recumbent tricycles are much safer than bicycles because no balance is necessary. They’re also more comfortable because of the seat’s laid-back design.”

First, we newbies take a trial spin to test our handlebar brakes and gear shifters. Steve explains safety rules, then climbs into his white velomobile, a recumbent trike topped with a hard, streamlined shell. (Picture a miniature white blimp on wheels, with a man’s head poking out.)

“OK, here we go!” he says over the radio. “Single file, everyone! When we’re in traffic, remember to get into side-by-side parade form.”

One block away, we turn onto the Museum Reach of the River Walk, the city’s wildly popular network of riverside sidewalks. Along the 1.3-mile stretch, we glimpse the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Pearl Brewery and cool artwork, such as giant long-eared sunfish hanging beneath the Interstate 35 bridge. Throughout our trip, Steve, a certified San Antonio guide, tells us about nearly everything we see.

“The San Antonio River has had human habitation for more than 10,000 years,” he says as we pedal beside the river. “Artifacts have been found at both of the spring heads. The primary spring head is on grounds of Incarnate Word University north of us. To our west, San Pedro Springs Park is the second-oldest public space in the nation. Only Boston Commons is older.”

Back on asphalt, we tool down North Main Street and bump across the Main Plaza to the San Fernando Cathedral, which still retains some of its original 1740s walls. From there, Steve guides us through the King William Historic District, once a prominent 19th century neighborhood of fashionable homes. Most are still private homes; a few are open for tours.

We cross Guenther Street and get back on the River Walk. Past the Blue Star Arts Complex, the landscape transitions to open skies, rolling hills and grassy riverbanks. A train rattles along a nearby track, and we pass the old Lone Star Brewery. Up hills, I pedal hard to keep up. Oh well, someone has to be last.

Seven miles later, we pull up to Mission San José, founded in 1720. Yikes, I can barely stand when we dismount from our trikes. On wobbly legs, I trail behind as we tour the Spanish mission on foot. As we go, Steve tells us how people once lived within the mission’s walls and points out the mysterious Rose Window, hand-carved from stone.

Next stop: Fruteria La Mission, a Mexican fruit stand. Steve orders a large copa de fruta (fruit cup) for us to share. It’s packed high with cubed watermelon, jicama, strawberries, coconut, pineapple, cucumber and melon. He also buys a cup of fresas con crema (strawberries with cream). Seated at a picnic table on a covered porch, we use wooden picks to spear fruit. Delicious!

The return trip back takes us past Mission Concepción, along the River Walk, through neighborhoods and back in downtown traffic. Nearly five hours later, we return to Steve’s storage unit. I survived the 18-mile round trip. Barely. But so worth it.

To complete our day, we visit nearby San Pedro Springs Park, designated as a city reserve in 1852. In the past, the park hosted a camel stable, a visit by Sam Houston, a small zoo and a natural history museum. We drag ourselves across the grassy grounds and admire the gnarled live oaks and spring-fed swimming pool. Look out, Arbor House Suites, here we come!

Another day? We can do this. Today, we head south of Interstate 410 to Medina River Natural Area, where we meet Don Pylant, park operations supervisor.

“We have so much out here, but not many people know about this place,” he says. “It’s a big birding area because we’re on the flyway. Plus, 7 miles of the Medina River Greenway System, which is part of the city’s network of paved trails, runs through our park.”

For nearly two hours, we tour the natural area on foot. Pecan, roughleaf dogwood, cottonwood and hackberry trees grow along the Rio Medina Trail, which soon follows the murky, fast-moving Medina River. Ruts left by frontier wagon wheels traveling El Camino Real remain visible in a limestone riverbank now used by anglers. Erect dayflowers, purple leatherflower, prairie verbena and Texas nightshade have begun to bloom.

The park’s best-kept secret is the Cottonwood Group Campsite. Six tent pads, a covered pavilion, vault toilets and a barbecue pit rent for $20 a night. Access is by reservation only.

Our last stop is nearby Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, once a wastewater treatment site that’s now a 1,200-acre natural area with a lake, wetlands, ponds and upland habitats. Pollinator and native gardens surround the visitors center, a historic 1910s home moved from the McNay Art Museum.

“Our mission is to connect people with nature through conservation and education with a focus on birds and their habitats,” director Sara Beesley explains. “Through our outdoor programs, we also promote getting kids back outside.”

The center, which lists more than 300 bird species, hosts at least five bird walks every month. We’ve arrived in time for one led by educator Jake Stush. So has mom Christy McGrew of San Antonio and her four kids. At an overlook on the Bird Pond, Jake points out coots, grebes and blue-winged teal. Someone spots a diamondback water snake, nearly hidden beneath us in a clump of black willow branches.

An hour later, we collapse into our car and high-five. Us, over the hill? Not a chance! (Epilogue: Full recovery took a few days.)

More info:
San Antonio Parks and Recreation: (210) 207-5320 (natural areas), sanantonio.gov
San Antonio Bike Tours: (210) 823-2200, sanantoniobiketours.com
Arbor House Suites: (210) 472-2005, arborhouse.com
Mitchell Lake Audubon Center: (210) 628-1639,
mitchelllake.audubon.org

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