At the Land Heritage Institute last week, Peggy Oppelt and I stood and chatted on the restored front porch of the 1880s farmhouse where her grandfather was born.
The house is among the historical remnants that await visitors to the Land Heritage Institute, a 1,200-acre nonprofit preserve on San Antonio’s South Side. The preserve includes 20 miles of trails, named Los Caminos Naturales. When I visited last week, the air was filled with the songs of migrating birds.
For me, the trails are the main attraction, but I was also fascinated by the remnants of South Texas farming and ranching heritage. Next to the farmhouse is an older wood and stone building, built by the earliest members of the Presnall family, who migrated from the Deep South, bringing with them enslaved African Americans.
Only a few hundred feet away sits a barn made of sheets of corrugated metal salvaged from Fort Sam Houston after World War I, Oppelt said. Inside, they keep a chuck wagon and an ox cart that once accompanied cowboys on their cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail.
These structures mark an “example of a homesteading family that came and made good,” said Oppelt, a descendant of the Watson family, which also traces its legacy to that piece of land. “As they made good, they kept kind of adding on and making things better.”
Sharing that heritage of the land and the people who made their lives there is the main mission of LHI, Oppelt said. She and her husband, Mark, a San Antonio architect, are the main caretakers of this preserve.
LHI is worth a visit for the trails alone, but what makes it stand out is the incredible history that visitors can see firsthand. That history stretches from indigenous people who lived along the banks of the Medina River as far back as 15,000 years ago to a contentious water supply project in the 1980s and 1990s whose failure still has a ripple effect on San Antonio’s water politics.
During my visit, Oppelt explained that the preserve exists only because of the failure of the Applewhite reservoir, in which the City proposed damming the Medina River to create a new water supply for growing San Antonio. The land that once belonged to her family was condemned via eminent domain, then later deeded over as a preserve, she said. Another part of the condemned land later became the City-owned Medina River Natural Area.
During construction on part of Applewhite dam, workers uncovered stone hearths, tools, arrow points, and mussel shells from indigenous people. A lengthy dig ended up uncovering more than 40,000 artifacts, according to Texas Beyond History.
Most of the trails are smooth double-tracks with markers and maps that help visitors avoid getting lost. Some wind through meadows of wildflowers and grasses interspersed with mesquite and Spanish dagger. Others dip down into the riverside forests that host some of the most ancient and gargantuan oak and pecan trees I’ve seen in this area.
The trails are open for hiking, horseback riding, and biking, Oppelt said. Those that I traversed looked perfect for mountain biking, so I got a bit of a thrill at the prospect of having so much unexplored trail mileage in such a low-traffic part of town.
Workers with Americorps built most of the trail network starting in 2013, she said. With the help of volunteers, the Oppelts have done most of the trail maintenance, including the mowing that keeps the ever-encroaching brush at bay.
If you’ve walked or biked the entire concrete Medina River Natural Area trail, you’ve already been through LHI, probably without knowing it. The trail cuts through the LHI property and then abruptly terminates at the Medina River, where a future bridge would be necessary to connect it to a concrete trail that begins at Pleasanton Road.
“No trespassing” signs surround the trail on LHI property, so don’t just go wandering off on the side trails. Oppelt said that if you contact them, they will be glad to help you arrange a visit.
The preserve is also open for camping, with prior arrangements. It has about 10 camping spots with RV hookups for water and electricity, all near the bunkhouse off the main road. Alcohol and smoking are not allowed, Oppelt said.
Since the preserve’s creation, the Oppelts and other volunteers have clearly worked hard to maintain the preserve, which also includes a herd of Texas longhorn cattle in a fenced-in pasture.
The preserve is typically open to the public on the second Saturday of each month, though people are welcome to contact them to arrange a visit, Oppelt said.
During my visit, she called the preserve “under-utilized” and said they could accommodate many more visitors.
“What we’re working towards is inspiring the next generations of preservationists,” she explained. She shared a story of a group of girls who visited the preserve who had never smelled the fragrance of Texas wildflowers before. At first, they thought the smell was coming from someone’s perfume, she said.
April is the perfect time to experience that wildflower scent, with the meadows along many of the trails in full bloom.