Medina River Natural Area is a place I associate with several of my South Texas firsts: tasting the sweet, black fruit of the Texas persimmon and honey-like syrup of mesquite bean pods; seeing a copperhead warily curled beneath a pecan tree; and plucking a chile pequin from a bush and sampling it on a breakfast taco. (My mouth burned for an hour.)

It was a natural for my first review for The Trailist. I love this park, and it has the advantage of being the most adventure-filled park in Bexar County. You still can feel the wild spirit of the land here, even though it’s less than 14 miles from Main Plaza, the heart of downtown.

It’s also the only city park with a campground and one of the few with reliably flowing water and natural trails that lead right up to the water’s edge. The natural area includes two miles of soil and gravel trails that wind through the forest along the Medina River.

Bonus points: it’s a relatively hidden gem. “Nobody knows about it,” said park operations supervisor Don Pylant, who recently showed us around the chaparral demonstration garden that some 30 volunteers had helped install the previous weekend. Pylant said the number of park visitors has probably doubled over the last two years, but it still gets much less attention than some of the city’s other natural areas.

These dirt trails make for a nice stroll, but the best way to appreciate the diversity of the park is to hop on a bike. The trail is also wheelchair-accessible, though steep in some switchback sections.

The Trailist recommends arriving early in the morning before the day heats up and parking at the main lot off of Palo Alto Road. The entire concrete trail is nearly 7 miles one way, 14 miles for an out-and-back. That’s easy enough to do in a couple hours with frequent stops. There’s an option to extend the ride to the concrete trail along Mitchell Lake, another jewel of the Southside.

In the first few miles, you’ll pass by some historical structures – a brick chimney left over from an old farmhouse and the fenced-in ruins of a jacal, a thatched-roof hut made from vertical wooden poles sealed with adobe.

The trail meanders along the river, with several small hills for such a relatively flat area. I love the contrast between the open uplands with cactus, shrubs, and springtime blankets of wildflowers and the deep, shaded forest that grows closer to the river.

That shade is a blessing in the hotter months, but prepare for extreme heat regardless. Wear a hat or a helmet with a visor, and bring plenty of sunscreen and water (I always carry at least two liters, no matter how long the excursion). The mosquitoes can also get nasty, so bring bug spray.

Medina River Natural Area is an incredible place to see wildlife. Once, when coming around a river bend on my kayak, I locked eyes with a big male coyote standing on a log about 50 feet from me. He immediately turned and pulled off a comical scrabble up and over a steep embankment and out of sight.

When Rivard Report Photo Editor Scott Ball and I visited last week, we saw a hawk, several cardinals, and a turkey, which lifted its pear-shaped body off the ground on impossibly small wings and flew away over the huisache trees.

Paddling the Medina River here is doable, but The Trailist only recommends it if you’re up for an adventure, not a leisurely float. Downed trees and piled up wood strainers can make kayaking difficult, and low-hanging branches that dangle inches over the river tend to be full of spiders.

Another issue: the park has only one approved launch and take-out site, just off the Rio Medina trail near the park’s entrance. That means you have to either find a take-out downstream, outside park boundaries, or paddle back upstream to take out where you put in.

My advice: stick with the bike. But no matter how I visit the park, I’m always surprised at how few people are there. See the park’s reservation page for camping areas for proof.

That’s remarkable when you consider how nice this camping area is. It features six tent pads – basically elevated boxes full of crushed rock so that you can set your tent up off the ground.

The campgrounds at Medina River Natural Area. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

There are clean bathrooms in the form of pit toilets, which are as close to normal bathrooms as you can get without running water. A spigot is the only source of potable water at the site, and there is no electricity.

Maybe the best part of the camping area is the huge pavilion with benches and its accompanying metal barbecue pit that’s big enough for half a pig. San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department employees have also built an elevated stone fire pit and have stacked quite a bit of firewood nearby.

One small complaint: the camping reservation system, which requires renting out the entire area with all six tent pads. It costs only $20, but there’s no option to rent and pay proportionally for only one or two tent pads. That means if you’re solo or with only one fellow camper, you end up with extra space, and no other would-be campers can reserve a tent pad that day. To me, that doesn’t make sense.

Comparatively, a reservation at a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department park in the Hill Country will cost you around $25 a night for a single tent site, not including day-use fees. And good luck getting reservations on a spring weekend there when the parks are full of visitors. Medina River Natural Area is much a better deal.

In all, the park is the perfect choice for those who want a true taste of the South Texas outdoors, and maybe a little taste of chile pequin, too.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.