Place of refreshing waters: Heed the cry, “Remember the Alamo!” But if you’re in San Antonio, don’t forget these gems too

Place of refreshing waters: Heed the cry, “Remember the Alamo!” But if you’re in San Antonio, don’t forget these gems too – Texas nature and history

Alexis Harte

Best known for the Alamo and the River Walk or “Paseo del Rio” (which are neck-in-neck for the honor of Texas’ most visited sites), San Antonio offers a staggering number of sites for nature lovers and history buffs alike. Attendees at AMERICAN FORESTS’ National Urban Forest Conference may want to find time to explore some of region’s vast attractions, In addition to historic missions and cultural sites, the San Antonio region boasts a wealth of natural areas with an incredible array of floral and faunal diversity. The native Payapa people had good reason to call it Yanaguana, “place of refreshing waters.” A few extra days lingering here would not be misspent. Here are a few getaway ideas to broaden your conference experience:


The City of San Antonio’s Department of Recreation and Parks currently manages three natural area parks–Friedrich Wilderness Park, Eisenhower Park, and Walker Ranch Historic Landmark Park; all are open to the public at no charge. A hike through one or more of them will introduce you to the varied ecological zones (Post Oak savanna, Blackland prairie, South Texas plains, and Edwards Plateau) that converge to create San Antonio’s unique landscape.

* An internationally recognized birder’s paradise with nine species of hawks and kites alone, Friedrich Wilderness Park features more than five miles of hiking trails winding through steep bills and deep canyons. Although generally not seen in late summer, the endangered black-capped vireo and the golden-checked warbler nest in the park’s ashe and live oak forests. Many other rare bird species are found year-retold. Known for its terrestrial orchids. Friedrich Wilderness Park is also an ideal place to experience the region’s floral diversity.

Perched high on the Balcones Escarpment roughly 18 miles from downtown San Antonio, the 240-acre park offers fine views of the surrounding region. If yon plan In hike Friedrich’s trails, bring bottled water, especially in September when temperatures can soar. Dogs are not allowed, even on leashes. For more information, call 210/698-1057.

* Providing a prime glimpse of the rocky canyons and dry creek beds filet support typical Texas Hill Country vegetation, Eisenhower Park’s 320 acres offer superb hiking, jogging, and birdwatching. Recently upgraded with educational markers, five miles of trails wind through each major vegetative zone.

While leashed pets are allowed, you must come prepared to clean up after them. Slightly more developed than Friedrich Park, Eisenhower does offer barbecue and picnic facilities, as well as overnight camping with prior reservations; 210/207-3120.

* The most recent acquisition to the Natural Areas, Walker Ranch Historic Landmark is a great place to explore San Antonio’s archeological riches. For hundreds of years Native Americans hunted and gathered over this open, grassy area, leaving their share of evidence. More recently, it was the site of Monte Galvan, a supply ranch for the early Mission San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo. For more information, call 210/207-3120.


Most visitors to San Antonio find the River Walk on their own, but make sure you set aside time to properly (i.e. leisurely) explore this meandering jewel. An internationally recognized triumph of urban waterfront development (see A City Guided by Its River, Summer 2003), the Paseo del Rio is considered the city’s centerpiece. With its European style cafes and restaurants, murmuring waterfalls, and lush semi-tropical vegetation, an evening stroll along its shores is a quintessential San Antonio experience. For complete information on the River Walk and its many attractions, call 210/227-4262.


San Antonio’s Spanish Missions, built between 1718 and 1731, played a crucial role in the development of the city and the region. Like the native Payapa before them, the Spanish settlers established their settlements along an 8-mile, north-south stretch of the San Antonio River.

Most famous for the 1836 battle that pitted 189 Texans against a Mexican Army of thousands over 13 days, the Alamo was the original site of Mission San Antonio de Valero. It is nearly impossible to visit San Antonio without being drawn into its lore. While there, be sure to pay homage to another attraction that is less-known but also boasts national stature: the National Champion Roomer Catclaw, a 24-foot beauty with a 54-inch circumference and a crown spread of 24 feet (a total of 84 points).

After the Alamo, Mission San Jose is the second most popular due to its large size, historical significance, and its excellent museum. Partially reconstructed in 1930, the Mission boasts a working gristmill and an educational 22-minute film on the development of the Missions and their role in shaping modern San Antonio.

With fewer crowds and less of a museum-like atmosphere, the other missions (Concepcion, San Juan Capistrano, Francisco de la Espada) offer a more intimate, rustic experience. For more information, call 210/932-1001.


A quintessential large and popular San Antonio neighborhood park, Roosevelt’s nearly 13 acres boast a swimming pool and bathhouse, playgrounds, and shaded picnic areas, as well as basketball courts and other sports facilities. Roosevelt Park connects the River Walk with the Missions via an 8-mile recreational trail. A Global ReLeaf grant there planted a canopy of native trees and shrubs along the trail. The canopy is designed to shade walkers from the intense Texas sun as well as create an important path for bird migration through the city.

With ample facilities and fairly close proximity to downtown, Roosevelt Park is a great place to bring the kids–or just yourself–for an afternoon picnic, swim, or game of hoops. For more information, call 210/207-7275.


The Japanese Tea Garden was built on top of the quarry that produced limestone for the Texas State House in Austin and many of the mansions found throughout San Antonio. Closed in 1901, the quarry was given to the city of San Antonio, whose leaders envisioned a “grand floating oasis.”

Using prison labor and many of the quarry’s existing rocks, the garden’s paths were laid out in 1917-1918 and further developed through the 1930s by master Japanese gardener Kimi Eizo Juingu. Following his death, Juingu’s family inherited the garden’s upkeep and did a fine job until fierce anti-Japanese sentiment during and after WWII forced it from their hands. Hastily given to Chinese caretakers, it was renamed Chinese Sunken Gardens.

In 1984 the site was ceremoniously renamed the Japanese Tea Garden. Although the central motif is Japanese, the garden’s multicultural history created a hybrid style that includes hundreds o plants and trees, a 60-foot waterfall, tranquil lily ponds, and gently meandering stone paths. For hours and directions, call 210/821-3120.


For a glimpse into Texas’ political past, don’t miss a visit to the Casa Navarro State Historic Site, located two blocks from San Antonio’s Central Market. The three well-preserved structures you’ll find here comprised the urban residence of Jose Antonio Navarre, a rancher, legislator, and statesmen and one of only two native Texans to sign the state’s Declaration of Independence from Mexico on March 4, 1836.

The smallest of the three structures was built in 1830 and provides an excellent example of typical period architecture. Built of adobe, caliche, and limestone, “La Casita” was recently restored by the Texas Conservation Society. If yon like, you can have an interpreter provide a personal tour through the structures, describing domestic life in the mid-1800s and telling the story of Texas’ hard-won statehood. For more information on the historic site or to arrange a tour, call 210/226-4801.


Straddling the Guadalupe River between Comal and Kendall counties, Guadalupe River State Park provides another prime example of the Texas Hill Country north San Antonio. While the park offers more than five miles of varied hiking trails and equestrian route, most visitors come enjoy the Guadalupe River itself. With four miles Of river frontage, swimming, tubing, and canoeing are popular summer activities. The Guadalupe River drops through four impressive natural rapids as it winds through its deeply carved limestone bank

Hikers will experience the diversity Texas Hill country vegetation from low elevation bottomland species such as elm, basswood, sycamore, pecan, walnut, persimmon, willow, hackberry, and giant bald-cypress trees lining the river to drier hill sites supporting oak and juniper growing among the native grass species.

Golden-cheek warblers seasonally nest in one section of the parks’ virgin as juniper woodland, and a wide array of bird species are found here year-round, Coyote, armadillo, bobcat, deer, fox, skunk, raccoon, and opossum also make a home in the park’s 1,938 acres. For fees, hours, and directions call 830/438-2656.

The Honey Creek State Natural Area lies adjacent to Guadalupe River State Par and is also managed by Texas State Parks and Wildlife Department. Originally acquired from private landowners by The Nature Conservancy, the area’s 2,293 acre were given to Texas in 1985. This highly pristine and biologically diverse area is open to the public, but only through organized tours (offered every Saturday morning at 9 a.m.). The two-hour, naturalist-guide walk covers an easy two miles and will bring visitors deep into Texas’ untouched natural history. The price of the tour is included in the admission lee to Guadalupe River Park, but prior reservations (830/438-2656) are advised.

An ideal half-day outing would combine a Saturday tour followed by a refreshing dip in the Guadalupe River.


Anglers looking for a little morning action will want to visit Calaveras State Park, about 15 miles to the south of downtown San Antonio. Managed by the San Antonio River Authority, this 146-acre park boasts more than 3 miles of Calaveras Lake shoreline for fishing and camping.

Open daily from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m., a concession rents both fishing equipment and boats on an hourly or daily basis. (In September, bass fishing may be slow, but three species of catfish and the local redfish should be biting.) For landlubbers, a hiking trail winds through oak and mesquite forest, punctuated by the occasional Adam’s needle cacti. Early morning hikers may see jackrabbit, turkey, coyote, or fox. For information on hours and boat rental fees, call 210/635-8359.


For dazzling views of the San Antonio region, visit Comanche Lookout Park. Perched high on an escarpment above the Cibolo creek floodplain, this area was once an important hunting area for Apache and later the Comanche peoples. Now managed by the city of San Antonio, Comanche Lookout Park also includes the fourth-highest point in Bexar County at 1,340 feet.

The park’s 96 acres straddle two distinct ecological zones, the Gulf Coastal Plain and the Edwards Plateau. Like many of San Antonio’s natural attractions, the resulting vegetative patterns reward both botanists and tree lovers. Comanche Lookout Park hosts combinations of ashe juniper, Texas and Mexican buckeye, as well as chinaberry, graneno, Lindheimer hackberry, honey mesquite, huisache, and more.

Known today as Nacogdoches Road, a branch of the Camino Real called the Spanish Road once traced a path near the base of Comanche lookout. The lookout itself served as a prominent landmark for the early European settlers who followed the trail from East Texas settlements like Bastrop and Nacogdoches westwards to San Antonio.


September is a good month to be in the water, and Blanco State Park is a favorite local swimming hole. Located 40 miles north of San Antonio on the Blanco River near the town of Blanco (population 1,500), this 105-acre park features a series of manmade lakes, as well as abundant natural flora. A total of 240 plants species have been identified within the grounds of the park. A one-mile nature trail meanders through Blanco’s stands of sycamore, cottonwood, pecan, baldcypress, mesquite, live and Spanish oaks, Arizona walnuts, Mexican plum, and more.

“Because it is on the edge of San Antonio,” says spokesman Jim Cook, “Blanco offers the convenience of a city park with the benefits of a state park.” The park is managed by the Texas Park and Wildlife Department, and Blanco staff is currently undertaking an ambitious non-natives eradication program. For park hours and additional information, call 830/833-4333.


For spelunkers, Natural Bridge Caverns offers some of the best commercial caving in Texas. Designated both a National Landmark and a State Historic Site, the two-mile cave system is the largest in Texas. Cathedral-sized underground chambers contain up to 10,000 different stalactite formations. As an introduction to the cavern, visitors can take a 75-minute, 3/4-mile tour that departs every 30 minutes. Caving equipment is provided, but comfortable footwear with excellent traction is recommended. For the more adventurous, intensive half-day expeditions are also available.

During September, the caverns may be the coolest place in the region, maintaining a year-round temperature of 70 degrees F. But before rushing in, note that the humidity averages 99 degrees. For information on tours, hours, and directions, call 210/651-5101.

Alexis Harte writes from his home in Berkeley, California.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group