Last week, for the first time in more than two years, I stood in the middle of the land bridge joining Phil Hardberger Park. Much had changed since I last walked across this isthmus of concrete, earth and vegetation extending across the busy thoroughfare of Wurzbach Parkway.

Hardberger Park

Offers: Hiking, biking
Location: 13203 Blanco Rd. (East entrance), 8400 N.W. Military (West entrance and Urban Ecology Center).
Salado Creek Greenway trailheads located at 13203 Blanco Rd. and at 1021 Voelcker Ln.
Trail miles: Approximately 6.5 miles of natural surface trails
Restrooms: Restrooms and drinking water located at East and West entrances

In November 2020, I had visited as a reporter covering the bridge’s impending opening. Construction crews and heavy equipment were still hauling soil onto the bridge, laying out landscape features and planting trees.

During my recent visit, I was amazed at how this semi-artificial landscape has grown to look relatively natural, with native trees, shrubs and grasses along the pathway masking the massive public works project underlying it. The land bridge, whose $23 million price tag had made it controversial ahead of a 2017 bond vote, has become the park’s centerpiece since it opened just over two years ago.

But there’s a lot more to Phil Hardberger Park than the land bridge. The 330-acre park also hosts roughly 6.5 miles of trails, two playgrounds and two dog parks. Wurzbach Parkway divides its eastern and western sections, with the Salado Creek Greenway trail running along the northern edge of Phil Hardberger Park East

The park is also a hub for nature-based education and volunteer work. That’s in large part due to the active Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the local chapters of Texas Master Naturalists and the Sierra Club. Opened in 2010, the park is one of San Antonio’s natural areas, with only hiking and biking allowed on the trails. The land was originally a dairy farm, purchased from a family estate for $47 million in city bond funding in 2006 and 2007. City Council in 2009 voted to name it after former Mayor Phil Hardberger, who had led efforts to purchase the land as a destination park for the city. Hardberger, a former state appellate court judge, served as San Antonio’s mayor from 2005 to 2009.

With a parkway splitting it in half and multiple parking lots, the park can be difficult for new visitors to navigate. Hardberger Park East hosts the larger of the two dog parks and playgrounds, accessible from the eastern parking area, at 13203 Blanco Rd. Another parking area on the southwestern side of Hardberger Park West, 8400 N.W. Military Dr., offers access to a playground made entirely of blue-hued equipment and surface, and the smaller of the two dog parks.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this side of the park at the Urban Ecology Center, a LEED Gold-certified building that serves as an example of how to integrate a structure into its environment. Designed by Lake Flato Architects, the building has solar panels, an underground rainwater storage system, a parking lot that allows water to permeate into the ground instead of running off downstream, and landscaping full of native plants such as Turk’s cap and Gregg’s mistflower. The landscape uses recycled water for all its irrigation. 

Local groups use the space for meetings, and it’s also served as a classroom for the local Texas Master Naturalists. In 2016 and 2017, I and a couple dozen other trainees spent most Thursdays in the building’s big conference room listening to experts teach us about the natural world: geology, soils, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, plants, insects and fish. Our lecturers worked for institutions such as Texas A&M University and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the program’s sponsors.

The training gave me a strong foundation of knowledge about the local environment. A Colorado native who moved to San Antonio from Pennsylvania, I learned to recognize many of the plants and animals of the west and east converging in San Antonio, plus others we share with Mexico and a few that occur only here in Central Texas. That knowledge has been supplemented over the years by the time I’ve spent volunteering alongside along true experts. The park often hosts volunteer events on a weekly basis.

My favorite used to be called “Weekend Weed Warriors,” when a naturalist would guide a group of volunteers in sawing down endless woody shrubs to help restore a savannah on the property. Lately, the conservancy has been hosting “Weed Wednesdays,” seeking people to help to remove invasive grasses and leafy plants and reseed native species.

A park visitor walks through a savannah restored by Parks employees and volunteers.
A park visitor walks through a savannah restored by Parks employees and volunteers. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Other events at the park are more geared for learning, such as children’s gardening classes, guided walks and free outdoor art classes. Volunteers maintain a butterfly garden full of native pollinator plants and a children’s vegetable garden near the farmhouse that was once part of a dairy farm owned by the Voelcker family. The conservancy rebuilt the original dairy barn and windmill, along with the stone house dating to the 1830s. The homestead is only open for events, so check the calendar before visiting.

The trailhead on the former Voelcker property is also the best parking spot at the park for accessing the Salado Creek Greenway. North of the homestead lies a scenic and often crowded stretch of greenway  along a residential fence line, with trees shading the paved path. Just east of that parking lot along the greenway is a scenic overlook built on the creek’s steep bank. From there, the greenway continues east, crossing Hardberger Park’s Geology Trail multiple times before heading under Blanco Road. 

The Geology Trail, a singletrack path less than a mile long, meanders through the forest near the Hardberger East playground and dog park. It joins the Water Loop, a 1-mile circuit through the forest that connects to the main trail across the land bridge, along with a short, elevated walkway called the Skybridge that also leads to the land bridge. 

On the bridge itself, metal walls rise on either side of the path, blocking a view of Wurzbach. These barriers were necessary to stop deer from leaping to their deaths onto passing cars below, I was told during my initial visit.

The park’s longest trails lie on its western side. A central flat trail connects the land bridge to the Urban Ecology Center, which also includes a native plant garden next to the grassland restored by the Weed Warriors and other volunteers. 

The Urban Ecology Center at Phil Hardberger Park has been designed to fit in with its environment.
The Urban Ecology Center at Phil Hardberger Park has been designed to fit in with its environment. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

 The Savannah Loop trail extends 1.78 miles around the park’s southern edge, while the 0.8-mile Oak Loop makes a circle through the mixed oak and Ashe juniper forest. Another trail, unnamed by the city and park conservancy, follows the parcel’s eastern and northern boundaries along Northwest Military Highway and the Barshop Jewish Community Center property, before connecting to the Savannah and Oak loops.

While too short for serious backcountry exploring, the connected trails on both sides of the park means park-goers can walk for hours through the woods, in the middle of the city. I would also encourage visitors to delve a little deeper into what the park offers by signing a child up for a gardening class, going on a guided nature walk with a volunteer expert, or pitching in to help maintain the park’s ecological health. 

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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.