Avid hikers who live deep inside city limits always have to make trade-offs. Short drive time, beautiful scenery, solitude. Pick one of three.

Crownridge Canyon Natural Area might be the best way to balance them all, especially if you don’t have all day.

This 207-acre park north of Loop 1604 and west of Interstate 10 may not scratch the itch for a strenuous hike, but it comes as close as possible if you’ve only got a few hours to spare and want to avoid the weekend crowds that fill the parking lots of Friedrich Wilderness Park and Eisenhower Park.

“It’s been one of the best-kept secrets in all the city,” said Grant Ellis, natural resources manager with San Antonio Parks and Recreation. “It just does not receive the attention that Friedrich and Eisenhower do.”

Two trails loops that weave through the park add up to just 2 miles, and hikers gain 200 feet of elevation from the lowest to the highest point.

The Trailist recommends hiking both loops counterclockwise. That way, you cross the most sun-exposed sections first and enjoy a long, tree-lined descent back to the parking lot.

The low mileage makes Crownridge a perfect choice for trail runners and families, who may want a short hike but not an extended adventure. It’s a natural choice for a weekday, before or after work.

The lower loop, called the Red Oak Trail, is 1.2 miles of finely crushed stone cemented enough into place that it’s wheelchair accessible. It offers plenty of shade, especially between the bridge crossing and the trailhead.

The upper Bear Grass Trail is narrower dirt and gravel singletrack. It brings more solitude as it loops through a mixed forest of Ashe juniper and oak before returning to the main trail.

If you start on Bear Grass and head to the upper trail, you’ll follow a typically dry creek upstream, winding through mixed Hill Country forest and restored prairie.

The casual observer may not realize it, but they’ll be passing through a premium plant and wildlife sanctuary.

Birders know Crownridge as a place to spot the endangered golden-cheeked warbler (no dogs are allowed to avoid disturbing the birds, Ellis said). When I signed up for the local chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists volunteer group, leaders took us on a field trip here to teach us how to identify native plants.

“The only place I’ve seen an albino mountain laurel is at Crownridge,” Ellis said, recalling a recent hike with his family. “All the mountain laurels were in perfect bloom, and we passed one that was white.”

Now is the perfect time to go to catch the last few bluebonnets giving way to red and yellow Indian blankets, coral paintbrushes, and Mealy blue sage.

Though you can get lost here for a little while, the distant rushing and growling of cars and trucks and the buzzing of power tools remind you that you’re on an island in a sea of ever-growing suburbia.

For me, being here brings mixed emotions. It saddens me to see how much of this kind of landscape has been lost to the chainsaw and the bulldozer, but I feel grateful for those who found ways to protect what they could.

Visible from the upper trail are homes surrounding the park in the Crownridge development, built shortly before the City purchased the park property in 2001 using $1.7 million in Edwards Aquifer Protection Program funds.

You’ll see an artistic reminder of the aquifer’s importance at the park’s entrance. On one of the bathroom walls is a tile mosaic mural by local artist Oscar Alvarado, who also has works adorning walls of the downtown River Walk.

In bright tiles of blue, green, yellow, and grey, the mural depicts rain falling on northern Bexar County’s green knobby hills, then flowing underground into the Edwards Aquifer, the main water source for the San Antonio region.

Like San Antonio itself, Crownridge Canyon wouldn’t exist without the Edwards Aquifer. The funds to buy the property came from a sales tax that San Antonio citizens voted to impose to purchase land over the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. San Antonians have since voted three times to approve similar measures.

Though the funds were sufficient to preserve Crownridge and a few other nearby properties, this part of the recharge zone is mostly a residential area. This somewhat surprised Michelle Rodriguez, a longtime Southside resident who visited the park in January for a hike with the group Latino Outdoors.

“The recharge zone, if you’re born and raised here, sometimes you think about that area as not developed,” she said. “That was the first time I’d driven deep into that side. I’ve been to La Cantera before, but that was all new to me.”

Rodriguez said she found the upper trail most interesting and that she could see herself returning with her 12-year-old twins.

“I feel like for kids it’s a really good disconnect, not just like a park where there’s more noise,” she said. “This one was so peaceful.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.