I visited this vast wilderness recently in an attempt to reach Black Hill on foot. Normally I hike with my dog at Texas State parks, but dogs are not allowed in backcountry here. This state natural area is 12,000 acres filled with trees, canyons, wildlife, shade, elevation changes, rocks and scenic views. Government Canyon has more than 40 miles of trails for hiking, and 27 miles of trails for biking.
On a previous visit to Government Canyon I hiked the frontcountry because my dog was hiking with me. We had no idea dogs were not allowed on 82% of the trails. This natural area is a local favorite of many San Antonio residents, and so we visited, but were restricted to the front end. The two loops total roughly 7 miles, which is plenty of exercise for most dogs. However, the trails were unremarkable. The area had the appearance of a burnt battlefield which was beginning to recover.
How to Get to Government Canyon State Natural Area
Address: 12861 Galm Rd, San Antonio, TX 78254
Fees: $6 if you do not have a Texas State Parks Pass
Hours of operation: Government Canyon is only open Friday through Monday, from 7am – 10pm
Government Canyon is on the northwest side of San Antonio, near Helotes. Take Loop 1604 to the Shaenfield exit and follow the road away from the city. This road will take you directly into the park after a few miles.
I began my solo visit at the visitors center in order to present my Texas State Parks Pass, and acquire a receipt to place on the windshield. The park maps are well detailed, and I picked one up before hitting the trails at Government Canyon. Most of the trails begin from the park road, east of the visitors center. There are parking lots on either side of the visitors center, but nowhere else. You must hike, or bike to your destination from there.
Taking the Joe Johnston Route
I began by heading north along the Joe Johnston route. This four mile trail is covered in gravel and is wide enough for vehicles. Most trail intersections have a map showing trail names, colors and various icons. There are three points of interest marked along this trail.
I found the first (number two on the map) to be as unspectacular as that within the front end. It must require more imagination on my part because I saw no ranch, barn, or windmill. The wilderness is very congested on either side of the trail.
It’s hard to believe the trail was once used for stagecoaches. Trucks may have little cause for concern, but a horse and carriage would have plenty of difficulty in these rocky hills. Of course, I’m no expert on the history of stagecoaches and carriages.
Rustling in the brush to the right disrupted my thoughts. I willed my eyes to see the cause, but it was like trying to look through a wall. I suspected a couple of deer and continued north. At times I could barely spot the cliffs on both sides of this trail. The view is restricted by dense woods until you reach the location of the dinosaur footprints. This is the third point of interest at Government Canyon, which backs to a cliff.
Dinosaur Footprints at Government Canyon
I looked up and saw no one atop the cliff, which I assumed to be the scenic viewpoint marked on the map. Below the cliff I saw stagnant water and fallen leaves, but no dinosaur footprints. The area is blocked off, so it must be holding the footprints within, but they were hidden by debris.
Cleaning the site is too risky according to the display. At least blow the debris away ya’ll. If you are looking for dinosaur footprints and can’t find them at Government Canyon State Natural Area, there is another option. Last year, we found dinosaur footprints at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Texas. Those footprints are easy to find and see near the visitors center.
Overlook Trail Holds a Surprising View
After witnessing no evidence of dinosaurs on that trail at Government Canyon, I backtracked to the Scenic Overlook Trail. This trail was much more interesting than Joe Johnston. The Overlook Trail is for hiking only. It is narrow, and much more natural.
It winds around a bit before reaching the cliff. The view from the overlook is fantastic. You can see the creek, the hills, and a plethora of trees within the park. This may be the only scenic overlook on the north side which provides a great view of the parks midsection.
A couple of bikers approached the dinosaur footprints site as I was at the overlook. I peered over the edge and one of them appeared to be squatting to urinate near the trail. You don’t see that everyday, and it definitely wasn’t the view I was expecting.
The cliff is wide and fairly high, but they had no idea anyone was on top. I continued along the natural trail which winds through the woods for one mile. It spit me back out on the Joe Johnston Route near the fourth point of interest.
The Zizelmann House
The old Zizelmann house still stands along this trail at Government Canyon State Natural Area. Like many buildings around here, it is made of stone, and it’s about 140 years old. Unfortunately it’s surrounded by a fence and is inaccessible. The entrance cannot be seen because it’s on the opposite side.
From the trail you see only stone walls, and boarded windows. What a shame. I couldn’t help but wish my dog were along to see the sights, and smell the scents. Hiking without your dog just isn’t the same.
Bullet Holes Along Little Windmill Trail
I continued north until I reached the Little Windmill trail. This short trail cuts across to the natural habitat on the far north side. After passing the two story public restroom (which is an excellent addition in a park this size), I came to a clearing. There was no windmill, but I imagined it was once a great place to setup camp.
After passing through the clearing I noticed an upside-down sign. I could not make out the faded wording, but I did notice it was full of bullet holes. Someone did not like this sign very much. Old West shootouts briefly came to mind as I continued toward the natural habitat.
The Natural Habitat at Government Canyon
This area on the far north side of Government Canyon is perfect for those who enjoy finding their own way through the woods. It is only open during the fall and winter (Sep – Feb). Consequently the trails are much less defined, and very natural. I took the Black Hill Loop until coming to La Subida, which is marked in yellow on the map.
Get Lost on La Subida Trail
La Subida is very rocky and wooded. I found myself climbing over rocks and branches as I tried to find my way. This trail makes a steady incline for about a mile until it reaches another part of the Black Hill Loop. Someone placed yellow ribbons on the branches to help travelers find the way. If the ribbons did not exist, it would be just like wandering through the woods. The area is so natural, the hiking trails hardly exist.
La Subida is moderately challenging, and a must-do if you can reach it. My dog always seems to know which way to go on the trails. I wondered which way she would take over the rocks and through the woods. Sadly, she could not be on this hike, and I felt like a jerk for leaving her at home. Dogs need exercise too!
The View from Black Hill Loop
When I reached the Black Hill Loop on the northeast side I saw hills and scenic views. I was going to have to cover some distance to get back. It would be so much easier if I had my bike, but I was all alone in this area, and on foot.
Before heading back along my planned route I wanted to capture some views. I followed Black Hill Loop and ended up on a gravel road. Most of the markers in the park are great, but one (between two peaks) was unclear.
There are two peaks above 1500 feet on the Government Canyon Trail Map, east of the natural habitat. I followed a dirt road around the peak to the north. Inadvertently, I captured a view of downtown San Antonio, and the Tower of the Americas.
I had no idea it could be seen from the trails at Government Canyon. They must be at least 30 miles apart! I also saw a quarry, a white mansion, the town of Helotes, and possibly Dominion. One of the peaks probably belonged to Eisenhower Park.
Black Hill is the Highest Point in San Antonio
Had I continued forward the gravel would lead me downhill where I saw a parked truck. That’s very interesting. There shouldn’t be any vehicle access on this side of the park. Clearly I was off-map. The parks boundary is not clearly marked.
I decided to backtrack to the previous marker. After all, I hadn’t seen any ribbons on this side of the hill. From the marker I followed the trail south as it passed the other peak. These peaks are nearly 1,600 feet above sea level, the taller of which belongs to Black Hill, the highest point in San Antonio.
There was a gravel road leading to the top. I wanted to head uphill, but a sign marked “private property” extinguished the thought. Perhaps someone lives up there and gets in by following old gravel “roads” behind Government Canyon property?
Twin Oaks Trail
I had spent the second half of the morning hiking toward Black Hill. At this point I realized I had places to be, and did not want to find myself in the dark by the time I got out. I followed Black Hill Loop to Twin Oaks. Scenic views were behind me, and the trees closed in once again.
The hike along Twin Oaks was short and shaded. The trail was easy to follow, although the grass was high. The branches were a bit low and I nearly had to crawl underneath a pair. I made a turn to the south once I reached Sendero Balcones and exited the natural habitat.
This trail is marked in green, and is one of the longest trails in the park. Sendero Balcones is likely a water runoff trail. For the most part, it is full of smooth rocks, and declines steadily to the south. If you hike this trail north, you will have a rocky, uphill battle. Luckily I was heading downhill at this point on the hike. I decided to increase my speed to a jog and use the decline to my advantage.
It is not easy to jog down the rocky trail guarded by dense wilderness on either side. On this trail you will see a lot of rocks and trees. I finally saw another hiker, which was the first person since the Overlook Trail (roughly two hours prior). Government Canyon is so large you can go hours without seeing a soul.
I planned on hiking the Bluff Spurs Trail, but once I reached them I continued my jog south. Those trails will have to wait until another day, along with the Far Reaches and Cave Creek trails. There’s simply too much to conquer in one day.
Total Workload at Government Canyon in Texas
By the time I made it back to my vehicle I had hiked 13 miles! My legs were getting sore, and I needed to rehydrate and refuel. I may have taken 26,000 steps, but the number of rocks and trees I saw was probably far superior. Government Canyon trails are the longest in San Antonio. It also has the highest peaks, although not publicly accessible.
The longer trails (excluding the natural habitat) were unspectacular and would be more fun to bike. The shorter “hiking-only” trails are worth seeing, and provide a host of scenic views. Do not visit the park Tuesday through Thursday because it is not open. Government Canyon is a popular place to hike or bike. It’s just not the same without my dog.