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November 2006 Park of the Month
Government Canyon State Natural Area

Government Canyon Offers Sublime Refuge from San Antonio's Urban Sprawl.

Future generations of Texans, especially those living in and around a rapidly growing San Antonio, will owe a tip of the hat to the dogged citizens and government agencies who pooled their resources to create Government Canyon State Natural Area.

TPWD Photo © 2006, Rob McCorkle
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Government Canyon Creek is one of several
creeks that have carved canyons in the backcountry
of Government Canyon State Natural Area in San Antonio.

Through unprecedented collaboration and foresight, public and private partners raised funds to purchase the area's original 4,700 acres in the early 1990s to forestall encroaching development. Today, the San Antonio suburbs are closing in on the state natural area that has grown to more than 8,600 acres of hills, canyons and grasslands on the city's western fringe.

Government Canyon State Natural Area opened its gates to the public for day use in October of 2005. Though it provides a natural playground for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes, Government Canyon's primary focus as a state "natural area," as opposed to a state "park," is resource protection and public education. Perhaps more importantly, all but 10 percent of the Government Canyon property sits atop the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer, a primary source of drinking water for millions.

In the state natural area's first year of operation, more than 37,000 vehicles rolled through the gates, bringing joggers, trail runners, mountain bikers, picnickers, bird watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts to this Texas Hill Country refuge. Government Canyon is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Mondays.

Start your visit at the screened-in Exhibit Gallery that showcases the Visitor Center's award-winning, innovative and sustainable architectural design. Lake/Flato Architects of San Antonio designed the center's open-air pavilion, exhibit gallery and adjacent building housing the park store, administrative offices and a classroom to blend in with the rugged Hill Country landscape. The structures, built of steel pipe, limestone and eastern red cedar siding, feature corrugated metal roofs that collect rainwater. Solar power is used to pump collected water into two metal cisterns for irrigating the butterfly-friendly landscape and for flushing toilets. Raised boardwalks made from sustainably harvested timber lead from the parking lot to the Visitor Center to allow water to flow through the site unimpeded.

Inside the screened-in Exhibit Gallery, maps, exhibits and photographs illustrate the importance of water conservation to San Antonio and the surrounding, often rain-starved Hill Country. The "Water, Water Everywhere and So Little To Drink" kiosk confronts visitors with the startling truth that less than 1 percent of the Earth's water is drinkable, fresh water. Another asks: "Are You Taking Too Much for Granted?" and explains water conservation tips.

Perhaps the most insightful exhibit describes the Edwards Aquifer that occurs in a "vast, impermeable limestone formation that holds water deep underground in an area up to 40 miles wide and 450 feet thick." Nearby, a basketball-sized chunk of limestone karst rock, riddled with holes, provides a visual clue as to how the surrounding landscape filters rainwater, streams and rivers through the ground into the aquifer below.

All visitors must check in at the Recharge Store. The state park store sells everything from souvenir t-shirts and nature books to portable water bowls for Fido and helmets for mountain bikers. No camping is allowed as of yet, but a handsome pavilion with a limestone fireplace can be rented for half a day or the entire day.

Assistant park superintendent Trey Cooksey says plans call for the ultimate development of 9 to 12 primitive backpacking campsites in the Little Windmill area, which is the only place in the backcountry with toilet facilities. At present, visitors have access to 10 picnic sites with water spigots and restrooms surrounding Parking Lot D, where the trail system can be readily accessed.

TPWD Photo © Rob McCorkle
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A hiker pauses along the Joe Johnston Route
in Government Canyon State Natural Area in
San Antonio to admire Spanish moss draping
trees along Government Canyon Creek.

Government Canyon, according to Cooksey, is divided into two areas: the mostly flat, former ranchland called the "frontcountry" and the "backcountry" wilderness that comprises roughly 90 percent of the state natural area's acreage. All domesticated animals are restricted to the frontcountry that consists of mostly mesquite-covered, brushy terrain popular with birdwatchers and persons seeking mostly flat trails for hiking and biking. Equestrians will some day have access to trails in this part of the natural area.

Ashe junipers and live oaks dominate the rugged backcountry hills and canyonlands that characterize the uplifted Edwards Plateau. The majority of the natural area's 40 miles of trails are found here, enjoyed by hardcore runners, day hikers and accomplished mountain bikers. Some of the highest elevations, up to 1,500 feet, occur at the far reaches of the backcountry in the "protected habitat area." The area closes during the golden-cheek warbler's nesting season from March through September.

I had just enough time during a recent visit on a warm, humid fall day to hike a few miles on the well-marked Bluff Spurs Trail. An hour trek up the hilly, woodland trail to the North Bluff Spurs Overlook rewarded me with a panoramic view of the Visitor Center. Though butterflies were plentiful, the state natural area's resident fauna, such as white-tailed deer, roadrunners and javelinas, kept out of sight. Thankfully, I didn't encounter any of Government Canyon's more intimidating critters such as the diamondback rattler or more nocturnal mountain lion.

Yep, folks, Government Canyon is a beautiful, but wild, place that rewards visitors who use common sense and come prepared for the challenging terrain and variable climate. Cooksey reminds visitors to bring plenty of water for themselves and their pets, sunscreen and appropriate clothing. As a precaution, hikers and bikers are required to fill out a Day Use Trail Permit indicating the route they'll be taking and describing their vehicle, and to return well before the 6 p.m. closing time.

Government Canyon offers free guided hikes every Saturday morning and hosts special events such as star parties. Call (210) 688-9055 for upcoming events.

Government Canyon State Natural Area is located in San Antonio 3.5 miles northwest of Loop 1604 by taking Culebra Road exit (also known as FM471), then going 1.6 miles north on Galm Road. GCSNA is one of 113 state parks, historic site and state natural areas that make up the Texas State Park System. For more information visit the Government Canyon State Natural Area web site.

Article by Rob McCorkle

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