For those who want to get lost all day in a sea of green, Government Canyon State Natural Area allows the deepest plunge into wilderness of any park within a short drive of San Antonio.
Hidden among the trees and creeks are pieces of history, making this park popular with hikers and mountain bikers. A roughly 6-mile hike on the Joe Johnston Route takes visitors to tracks left by dinosaurs, a rock midden left by indigenous peoples, and a mysterious house built by San Antonio Germans.
These landmarks on their own might not have been enough to preserve Government Canyon, however. What brought a coalition of conservation-minded people to preserve the land was something much more fundamental: water.
“We have a saying at Government Canyon,” Superintendent Nic Maloukis said. “It’s all about water.”
Government Canyon State Natural Area
Offers: Hiking, biking, camping.
Location: 12861 Galm Road, 17.2 miles from Main Plaza.
Trail miles: 40 miles of dirt and gravel trails.
Restrooms: Toilets and running water at park headquarters. Pit toilets along some backcountry trails.
Maloukis has been in his role for only about four months, replacing former Government Canyon Superintendent Chris Holm in September. An Austin native, Maloukis has worked at several state parks, including most recently Martin Creek Lake State Park. That was a more traditional Texas park centered around a reservoir, he said.
Not so with Government Canyon, which has a unique origin story and purpose.
Thirty years ago, San Antonio was a city almost exclusively reliant on the Edwards Aquifer. Few of the modern programs meant to protect the city’s drinking water supply had yet been established, and growth threatened to convert vast stretches of its sensitive recharge zone to housing developments and commercial centers.
The land that would become Government Canyon State Natural Area had long been owned by ranching families who raised cattle on the property. In the mid-19th century, it had been the site of a federal government supply road between San Antonio and Bandera through an area locals once called “the government’s canyon.”
But in the 1990s, when a proposal emerged to convert 4,000 acres over the aquifer to an 80,000-home development, a coalition of more than 40 organizations emerged to buy the land. Since then, land preservation initiatives like the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program have tripled its size to 12,000 acres, making it the largest piece of public land in Bexar County.
“I really believe in what’s being done here and how it’s being accomplished,” Maloukis said.
Today’s San Antonio residents benefit from the foresight of conservationists like George C. “Tim” Hixon, who helped pull the Government Canyon Coalition together. Hixon, an urban housing developer and former TPWD commissioner, died in 2018. The natural area he helped create now hosts around 40 miles of hike and bike trails.
Government Canyon is open to the public Fridays through Mondays every week, and February is the perfect time to visit these trails.
The entire park remains open for the rest of the month, including the more than 8 miles of trails in the protected habitat area on the park’s northern edge. The protected habitat is closed from March through August, when endangered golden-cheeked warblers return from their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America to nest in the thick trees.
Before you hike all the way out there, know that the protected habitat looks about the same as the rest of the park.
Government Canyon has more than its fair share of thick cedar and oak forests that forming walls of trees along the trail, interrupted by occasional open glades and dry creek beds.
It can be hard to find an open vantage point. The park’s best scenic vistas are found on Bluff Spurs, Far Reaches Trail, and the Overlook Trail that branches off the Joe Johnston Route. All the overlooks are clearly marked on park maps.
Keeping the trails clear of brush requires near-constant labor. That’s why volunteer trail crews meet at the park before dawn nearly every weekend, spending the morning weedwhacking encroaching plants, lopping dangling branches, and hauling away fallen logs. You can join the trail crew by emailing Government Canyon interpreter John Koepke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By far, the most popular trail at the park is the Joe Johnston Route, and mostly for the 110-million-year-old dinosaur tracks.
In my roughly 20 visits to Government Canyon over the past four years, I have never seen the three-toed therapod tracks along the bottom of Government Canyon Creek. They’ve always been covered with water and algae, unlike the hubcap-wide, pothole-shaped tracks left by some longnecked sauropod as it clomped through ancient muck.
Just up the next hill from the dinosaur tracks, hikers find themselves beneath swaying curtains of Spanish moss growing unusually thick on the tall oaks. Signs point to rock piles, probably used as an oven by Native Americans who lived in the area for thousands of years before European contact.
Just beyond the Spanish moss, the trees open up to a hilltop field, with a stone and metal-roofed house looming behind a fence. The Zizelmann house, named of German baker couple who lived in San Antonio. In the 1870s, the Zizelmanns had bought the land where the house was built from the Hoffmans, another German ranching family.
Park staff say the house wasn’t finished, and it’s likely the Zizelmanns never actually lived there. They’re focused on keeping the house from crumbling and recently put in $15,000 worth of work on it as part of a grant from the San Antonio Conservation Society.
Seeing the tracks, the middens, and the house requires at least a 6-mile hike, and sometimes visitors aren’t prepared. In summer months, the park has in the past averaged a rescue per week, typically due to heat exhaustion, Maloukis said. Hikers and mountain bikers should bring at least 2 to 3 liters of water for a journey that length.
For shorter jaunts, the Trailist recommends a roughly 3-mile walk to one of the two overlooks along the Bluff Spurs Trail. An 8-mile out-and-bike hike to Sotol Vista on the Far Reaches Trail also offers spectacular views of the downtown skyline.
The bulk of the park’s trail mileage is in what staff call the backcountry, which starts at an invisible line that marks the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. The backcountry has around 20 miles of trails, steep elevations, and rocky canyons and ledges. The frontcountry’s nearly 7 miles are mostly flat and a mixture of trees and open grasslands.
No pets are allowed in backcountry trails, one of many measures meant to protect the quality of the water flowing underground. Another is closing the trails after rain, something TPWD staff do regularly. Make sure to check the park’s website for trail closures before making the drive.
The trail closures are meant to stop soil from being eroded and washed down the creeks, Maloukis said. Park staff typically post on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram about trail closures every day before 7:30 a.m., he said.