Driving into Government Canyon State Natural Area is like entering a time portal. In this 12,244-acre preserve on the northwestern fringes of San Antonio, visitors can walk alongside 110-million-year-old dinosaur tracks, an 8,000-year-old rock midden left by ancient Texans, and a 140-year-old cottage built by German settlers—all on the same trail. Hikers wander across forty miles of trails atop the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, which is responsible for providing half the city’s drinking water. The aquifer stores water underground in its spongy limestone and is central to Government Canyon’s distinction as a natural area (not a state park), with a focus on protecting its resources. That means fewer crowds and more pristine nature than you’ll find at a state park.
It also means your visit may require a little advance planning. Most of the time, Government Canyon is only open Friday through Monday, with camping on Friday and Saturday nights. But my family visited on the cusp of the new year, taking advantage of the extended holiday schedule that allowed us to camp during the week at one of 23 walk-in sites. Small markers signifying the estimated wait time dot the road leading into Government Canyon’s entrance (one hour, 45 minutes, 30 minutes, 15 minutes). Despite blue skies, bright sunshine, and pleasantly crisp winter weather, there was no line when we visited. We made our way to the visitor center, where we were checked in by a cheerful ranger. My husband rained effusive praise upon our picture-perfect campsite, which was ensconced in ashe junipers. We set up our tent in a stunning winter quiet—the kind that magnifies any little sound, even the crunch of gravel. When night fell, we listened to cicadas playing their symphony beyond the crackling campfire, as well as the haunting midnight howls of coyotes in the distance.
On the edge of the Balcones Escarpment, Government Canyon is divided into two regions, frontcountry and backcountry (dogs aren’t allowed in the latter). Trails are closed after it rains to prevent erosion and trail damage, so check the park website for updates before you visit. From September through February, daring hikers can venture into the protected habitat area, where you can piece together a route of up to thirteen miles on rugged terrain. That’s one of the longest hikes within a short drive from San Antonio, and not a route to be undertaken lightly, especially in warmer weather. We passed warning signs that mentioned Government Canyon’s 42 heat rescues from summer 2023 and reminded guests to bring ample water. Visitors making the April 8 pilgrimage to see the solar eclipse should note the park’s limited capacity and make reservations (camping reservations are already fully booked, but day pass reservations will open a month in advance).
If you are seeking a single trail to guide you through the dizzying convergence of time, start at the backcountry trailhead and follow the Joe Johnston route. My eleven-year-old, Leila, and I took the 5.7-mile path in search of the theropod and sauropod trackways, which include more than two hundred huge footprints. Ancient beaches along the Gulf of Mexico captured the prints of the carnivorous theropods, which walked on two legs, and the even more giant, herbivorous quadrupedal sauropods during the Cretaceous period. Take care to avoid disturbing the tracks, which are cordoned off behind a cable. If you want to see them from above instead of up close—an equally impressive perspective—make sure to take the short Canyon Overlook Trail detour as you head back.
No John Williams opus crescendoed from the expanse as we peered over the limestone cliff to the paleontological marvel, but it was breathtaking to witness this brief snapshot from a 79-million-year period when dinosaurs ruled over the earth. Texas has about fifty dinosaur track sites—more than any other state—but the vast majority are on private land. Government Canyon, along with Dinosaur Valley State Park and San Angelo State Park, has one of only a few track sites open to the public.
As if journeying through time itself, the trail continues under a cathedral of Spanish moss to a marker of human subsistence on the land. An eight-thousand-year-old rock midden, where ancient Texans cooked their meals, is still identifiable by its fire-cracked rocks. Other artifacts, such as pottery fragments, were stolen long ago; today a sign reminds visitors to leave any found items where they are. Another short way down the path is the Zizelmann House. Built in the 1880s by German bakers living in San Antonio, the isolated structure is an enigma. Historians aren’t sure why the Zizelmanns, who owned a bakery downtown, built this cottage a day’s drive from their main home, nor if the unfinished home was ever used as a residence.
The crisp whistle of a Carolina wren pulled me back into the present. A nascent birder myself, I think no pursuit brings you into the pulse of wilderness like the rigorous observation required in bird watching. More than two hundred avian species can be found in Government Canyon, and the park offers programming for birders, from Birding for Beginners to a Warbler Walk (a chance to spot the endangered golden-cheeked warbler during its spring nesting season). We took advantage of a seasonal Christmas Bird Count to hone our burgeoning birding skills and join others throughout the country in the 124-year-old tradition.
Ranger Lisa Cole broke down the elements of bird identification: size, beak, field marks, habitat, behavior, sound, and tail. We learned to navigate the surprisingly tricky task of both focusing binoculars and looking through them to actually find the bird we’d just seen with our bare eyes (pro tip: follow the tree trunk, and go up). Ranger Lisa had binoculars and field guides to share, and we practiced spotting cardboard cutouts staged for us to rehearse our new skill before we set out on the 2.6-mile Savannah Loop. The ranger raised a finger to her lips and held out her hand for us to halt, asking, “Do you hear that?” I strained my ears against the deafening silence. Nothing. “Winter is silent.”
The soft, comforting crunch of our boots sounded as we walked single-file over knotted roots and soft earthen ground scattered with bright blue juniper berries. The zebra branches of the ashe juniper, marked by the white juniper fungus that is a naturally occurring phenomenon, hugged the path. Proving that winter isn’t always silent, Ranger Lisa identified the “whispery little chip” of a ruby-crowned kinglet in the distance. She diverted us over to the five-mile Lytle’s Loop, which she shared is the park’s best trail for spotting a wide variety of birds. Weaving in and out through forest and grassland, the path offered a treasure trove of sightings. A black-crested titmouse darted overhead, a spotted towhee with its catlike yowl dropped down from the bare branches and flew across the path ahead of us, and a crested caracara rested majestically on top of a tree, as if waiting to be admired.
An afternoon at the Junior Ranger Academy gave us a glimpse into the future of the park. The picnic pavilion filled up with kids for a program intended to guide them through various nature education and activities before earning the title of TPWD junior ranger. On the sunny afternoon we gathered, Ranger Lisa asked the group what junior rangers could do to help protect the environment. “Make sure people don’t treat the plants bad,” a little girl quickly answered. A site of past extinction, Government Canyon also sits on the precipice of future loss. This metropolitan location, where the blackland prairie, Balcones Escarpment, and South Texas plains intersect, also houses two thirds of Bexar County’s endangered karst invertebrates—tiny cave critters that scuttle underground. “It’s fascinating to think how much is below us that we don’t completely understand, but which is vitally important to protecting our water supply,” Ranger Lisa reflected. Government Canyon is a testament to the commitment and vision of the 45 organizations that began preservation efforts in 1991. The natural area opened to the public in 2005 and has been expanded twice, first in 2009 and again in 2013. With lawmakers having recently dedicated $1 billion to spend on new parkland, and it’s heartening to imagine similar possibilities across the state.
On our final morning, Leila and I headed out to the 3.4-mile North Bluff Spurs Overlook Trail. Billed as a staff favorite on the trails map, it shows off Government Canyon’s ecological diversity. The trail travels over both rugged limestone and beaten earth, between forests and dried grasses. We paused to watch a bird rest in the skeletal branches and tried to put our new birding skills into practice, but the sun’s glare thwarted our efforts to identify the species. No matter: Leila was still happy to catch a glimpse of a bunny hopping across the path and a roadrunner scampering in the brush. A little later on, we had more luck with birding, catching sight of these modern relics of their dinosaur ancestors. The chirp of an orange-crowned warbler cut through the silence, and we watched a Bewick’s wren and a chipping sparrow darting about a clearing on our way to the overlook. I marveled at the accessibility of this time machine as I stared over the expanse. It turns out that time travel is not confined to science fiction. You can enjoy it on a hike on a winter’s day in Texas.