Even on weekdays, parked cars spill out of the lot at Friedrich Wilderness Park and onto the adjacent street. The secret was out long ago: Rugged terrain makes Friedrich Park San Antonio’s best park for hikers, despite growing crowds and encroaching development.
The City got Friedrich Park as a gift in 1973. Back then, Norma Friedrich Ward, daughter of Buckhorn Saloon founder Albert Friedrich, donated 180 acres and gave $100,000 to the City to improve the land. Since then, new land sales and donations have increased the park to 633 acres. 

That acreage now holds roughly 10 miles of trails, some of which include hundreds of feet of elevation change. Make sure to check the weather and the City’s park closures pages before going, as the trails are often closed in wet weather. 

Even a quick walk around the mile or so of trails near the parking lot can teach visitors about nature. The Parks & Recreation Department has placed identification signs with smartphone-ready QR codes for several species of plants along the trails. The Entry Trail and Forest Range Trail also are paved and wheelchair-accessible. 

For those pressed for time but seeking steep grades, scenic rock ledges, and mature forests of oak and Ashe juniper, the Trailist recommends the Juniper Ridge-Bosque Trail-Vista Loop section on the park’s northern edge. After rainy periods, water will sometimes flow from springs and seeps in this area. 

If you have a few hours, try the 3-mile Restoration Way that winds through the entire back half of the park off Vista Loop. It offers more variety than the front country, with the path taking you from forest to open grassland and back again. Make sure you bring plenty of water and sun protection if you do the longer loop, especially in summer. 

In some ways, Friedrich Park is frozen in time, representing what the southern edge of the Hill Country looked like before hundreds of homes and businesses descended on the Interstate 10 corridor. A stone wall remains at the top of the Vista Loop from when the land was used for rearing sheep. Two windmills have been left standing, including one that pumps water into a tank where birds stop to drink and bathe. 

That windmill, off the Water Trail, is where I had my one and only sighting of a golden-cheeked warbler. I’ve written thousands of words about the finicky little passerine and the lawsuits meant to knock it off the endangered list, but the birds themselves are notoriously hard to spot. To catch a glimpse, I had to sit by the water tank for an hour, watching a whole guidebook’s worth of birds come and go, before I finally spotted one deep in the brush with a yellow-streaked face and black-and-white body.

Warblers spend their winters in Mexico and Central America, but they build their nests and hatch their young only in mature forests with plenty of Ashe juniper in the Texas Hill Country. In 2016, when it decided to keep the warbler listed as endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited the ongoing bulldozing of former ranch land in the Hill Country as the warbler’s greatest threat to long-term survival. A federal judge in Austin later upheld the service’s decision. 

San Antonio is among the hotspots for changes to the Hill Country. Developers here seem to have never met a hillside they don’t want to fill with little boxes made of ticky-tacky. Friedrich Park used to be a wilderness park; now it’s more of a wilderness island, surrounded by increasing numbers of homes and condos. 

Despite the influx of visitors, the City and a group called the Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas have worked hard to keep the park in good shape. Some former trails on the park’s front slope have been permanently closed to stop erosion. The trails and surrounding woods are almost always clean, with none of the litter or bags of dog waste people leave at other parks. 

Speaking of dog waste, here’s some bad news for pup owners: No dogs are allowed at Friedrich Park. The park’s pet-free status sets it apart from other nearby hiking destinations, including Eisenhower Park. Bicycles and other non-foot traffic are also banned.

That’s the way Ward wanted it, said Dr. James “Mike” Startzell, board president of the Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas. Ward’s instructions were for her former land to be used to preserve nature, offer a sanctuary for plants and animals, and for public education, he said. The land is also in the contributing zone of the Edwards Aquifer, where water flows downhill into the adjacent recharge zone, replenishing the water San Antonio and its surrounding communities rely on. 

“When we make decisions on the board, we’re thinking of those main things,” Startzell said. “We think that’s what visitors ought to be thinking about as well.” 

Startzell, a surgery professor at UT Health San Antonio’s School of Dentistry and a former surgeon at Brooke Army Medical Center, said he began hiking at Friedrich around 12 years ago. The steep grades offered a place to train for climbing 14,000-foot-plus peaks in Colorado. 

He later got involved with the nonprofit Friends of Friedrich Wilderness Park, which later changed its name to reflect its involvement with nearby Eisenhower Park and Crownridge Canyon Natural Area. The group raises money for new trails and other projects at the park and helps coordinate educational programs there, among other initiatives. 

Group members aren’t happy about the encroaching development, particularly the condominiums that have sprung up on Milsa Drive, Startzell said. Another condo project is soon to be underway directly across the street from Friedrich. 

“Our view is you shouldn’t think it’s perfect development to take high-density housing right up to the margin of the park,” he said. Yet he acknowledged there’s little the group can do to stop it. 

That’s why, if San Antonio residents want more access to wilderness, their local governments are probably going to have to buy the land outright. It’s either that or hope for more Norma Friedrich Wards to hand us gifts of wild spaces that will last for generations. 

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