While our region offers plenty of outdoor activities, it can be difficult to find a place to hike that has scenic views without crowds or litter. As I learned this week, Sen. Frank L. Madla Natural Area in Grey Forest checks all the right boxes.
Madla is a 42-acre park named after the late South Side state legislator who grew up in nearby Helotes. The sprawling development that typifies San Antonio’s northern fringes has not yet reached Grey Forest, a 500-person community along Scenic Loop Road originally established a summer getaway for city-dwellers.
The park, which opened in 2012, is a quiet sanctuary with beautiful scenery and almost no trash in sight. The city and conservancy that care for the park has clearly put in many hours of work maintaining trails, building a pavilion and other structures that blend in nicely with the landscape, and battling invasive species.
Sen. Frank L. Madla Natural Area
Location: 9788 Menchaca Rd., Grey Forest, TX 78023
Trail miles: 1.5 miles of single track dirt trail
Restrooms: Restrooms and potable water available.
Bexar County residents are lucky to live at the confluence of several different ecoregions, where different communities of plants and animals come together. Madla is a perfect place to see that blend, with its expanse of restored prairie ensconced by relatively old-growth Hill Country forest.
But there are a few rules, as posted at the park entrance: No bicycles, drones, camping, open fires, fireworks, or commercial photography. Also, to prevent litter and harmful runoff, “no rice, confetti, flower petals, candy, glitter, cascarones or other like items” are permitted. Also, pets are only allowed on leashes, and visitors are only allowed on established trails.
My favorite of the park’s four main routes is the Jon Allan trail, named for a former Helotes mayor and virologist who “worked tirelessly to preserve the environmental, historical, and cultural heritage of the Scenic Loop Road community,” according to a trail-side plaque.
The trail starts on the edge of the meadow, then plunges under the tree canopy. It then circles a hill as it climbs to the edge of a cliff looking over Helotes Canyon.
The exposed cliff offers one of the most striking viewpoints I’ve ever seen on a San Antonio-area hike. The lack of tree cover allows visitors to see up and down the steep ridges and hills, with ranches and large-lot homes lining Scenic Loop Road. Helotes Creek flows along the canyon floor.
On the way to the cliff edge, the trail passes the Beckmann House, a 1930s-era cottage with electricity, AC, and running water. The house is available for day use rentals. With its screened-in porch, hilltop views, and shaded picnic area under a cluster of oaks, it seems like an idyllic spot for a company meeting.
Signs posted along several trails tell of the area’s earliest German settlers. John Conrad Beckmann family, who immigrated to San Antonio in the 1840s, purchased 320 acres in 1852 as a summer retreat for his wife, Regina Muller. Most of the time, they left the property in the care of a Tejano family who were killed in 1853 when Native Americans raided the site.
Long before then, Spanish-speaking explorers and settlers had named the entire area the Canon de los Helotes. The name appears to be an anglicized version of elote, the Spanish word for corn. Some historians assert that it came from the indigenous practice of growing maize along the many valleys various creeks have cut through the limestone.
After descending from the hill, I left the Allan trail and followed Warbler Way, another wooded path that crosses over a limestone formation named the Amphitheater. Whoever named it chose well. With its tiny step-like shelves, it looks like it could host an outdoor concert for fairies. Ferns and other vegetation sprout from the mossy rock, which looks like it turns into a spring during wetter periods.
Warbler Way extends about a quarter of a mile before running into East Bend, another forest trail that connects the southeast corner of the meadow to the park’s entrance road.
Hikers on the East Bend will notice a tiny trail spur for the Warbler Alcove, which birders consider an ideal spot to observe the rare golden-cheeked warbler. The songbird that spends its summers breeding in the Hill Country has been on the federal endangered list since 1990, threatened by chainsaws and bulldozers cutting into its nesting habitat in what’s become one of the fastest-growing regions of the U.S.
The Warbler Alcove is probably the best example I’ve seen of the kind of environment the warblers crave for their nesting sites. The finicky birds need mature cedar trees whose strips of bark they use for their nests, weaving them together with strands of spider silk. I would argue that a mature cedar forest offers a certain sublime experience for human visitors, as well.
The much-maligned mountain cedar, technically the Ashe juniper, is often considered a pest in its small, scraggly, and densely packed form where it grows on eroded, overgrazed ranches. In most Hill Country cedar groves, you can barely see five feet in front of you, let alone walk.
But at Madla, cedars have been allowed to grow to full height, reaching at least 15 feet. That leaves a more open understory, creating shade and enough space to walk and see clearly into the forest. These mature cedars grow alongside a diverse set of oak tree species, along with rarer trees and woody brush I see so rarely that I can’t easily identify them.
The patch of prairie boasts similar plant diversity. By late afternoon during my visit, temperatures had dropped to the high 80s and a warm breeze blew through the grasses. Pops of purple color came from blooming blazing stars, which bloom in early fall.
It took around an hour and a half to hike all roughly 1.5 miles of trail at the park. Still, I left feeling rejuvenated, as if I had spent a full day in nature.
Before leaving, I stopped to read one of the signs near the parking lot written by the Madla conservancy. After multiple fundraising events were canceled because of COVID-19, the sign expressed concern about raising enough funds to cover the park’s annual $7,000 in expenses, not including emergencies such as septic system failures or the like.
On Friday, I made a small donation, a token of appreciation for the care the group has taken maintaining such a beautiful park.