Mention San Antonio and people think of The Alamo. But I think of a fun city to explore, with not only the Alamo, but also the River Walk, the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Botanical Gardens and much more.
When my husband, Mike, and I decided to spend eight days in San Antonio, we were able to stay at the Joint Base San Antonio RV Park at Fort Sam Houston since Mike is retired from the Army. We found lots of construction going on in the city, and were only too happy to drop our travel trailer and explore the city in our pickup. The RV park, located northeast of downtown, was a great place to camp. For those without a military identification, I would suggest staying at the San Antonio KOA, five miles east of downtown, or Travelers World RV Resort, three miles south of downtown. Both campgrounds have trees and access to hiking and biking paths as well as to city buses to take you downtown and elsewhere.
Visit San Antonio and you have to see The Alamo. Originally called Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo was established in 1718 as the city’s first mission. It served as a way station between East Texas and Mexico and was the site of the famous Battle of the Alamo. On March 6, 1836, Mexican General Santa Anna’s army killed the Alamo’s 189 defenders, including frontiersman Davy Crockett. View artifacts and walk the hallowed grounds before moseying along the River Walk.
The downtown portion is the most popular section of the River Walk, with numerous hotels, fine restaurants and even small waterfalls along the San Antonio River. The River Walk is operated as a park by the Paseo del Río Association and patrolled 24 hours a day by officers on boats, bicycles and foot. The San Antonio River originates a few miles north of downtown and flows 240 miles through five Texas counties on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. We walked along the river, where we could access both sides via quaint bridges, but another way to see the river is via water taxis and narrated tours.
As we walked through downtown, we saw plenty of historic buildings. One of the best ways to learn about the downtown region, including La Villita, a historic arts village, is to walk the 2.6-mile Texas Star Trail. En route are many sites, including San Fernando Cathedral, which was founded in 1731, and is the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the United States.
You can also travel around town by streetcar and bus. If you are 62 or older, be sure to go to the VIA Metropolitan Transit Information Office to get your Reduced Fare ID. Once you have the photo ID, fares are cut in half and are just 25 cents from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and free all day on weekends.
South of downtown along the San Antonio River are the four missions that are included in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. An eight-mile trail open to bikes and hikers connects Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada. The park and missions are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The southernmost mission, Mission Espada, was founded in 1690 in East Texas as San Francisco de los Tejas, and was renamed when it was moved to the San Antonio River in 1731. Two of the other missions also were moved there from East Texas in the 1700s. Mission San José was built in 1720 and is the largest of the group.
Locked on Hippos
The San Antonio Zoo, which is 100 years old this year, is ranked as one of the best zoos in the nation. It is located in Brackenridge Park, a lovely 56-acre setting with plenty of trees for shade on hot Texas days. The zoo is open every day of the year and is home to 750 species. Although I spent plenty of time exploring the entire zoo, I could spend hours just watching the hippos. The day I visited, the handsome pair stood bobbing in the water, their massive heads separated from my much smaller head by a thick pane of glass. It was a sight to behold as I made a self-portrait, just the hippos and me.
The zoo is a great place for folks to learn about wild animals and have fun at the same time. Be sure to hook up with the keepers for special talks and feedings. Two zoo helpers showed a group of children Miss Rita, a 20-year-old three-banded armadillo from Brazil. In addition, the zoo is a good place to look for native animals. A 10-year-old yellow-crowned night heron was hanging around the zoo; she’d been partially hand-raised by keepers. Visit in the spring and you’ll see a huge rookery of herons, a messy but interesting delight.
Adjacent to the zoo, on Broadway, is the Witte Museum, a good place to learn about the natural history of Texas as well as South Texas heritage. Located on the banks of the San Antonio River, the museum has a permanent collection that offers historic photographs and artifacts, as well as dinosaur bones, cave drawings and more. We learned about the history of San Antonio and South Texas by viewing artifacts such as brands and spurs, firearms and historical clothing. We also learned about real-life stories of Tejano freighters, cowboys, vaqueros, Native Americans, Spanish settlers, farmers and ranchers, and women and children who grew up on the land.
After spending time indoors, we headed over to the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, which is about a mile to the east/southeast. We felt as though we were in another world, not visiting a place in the seventh largest city in the country! Located off Funston, the gardens are accessible to everyone; in fact, wheelchairs are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Enjoy walking? If you do, you can view formal and display gardens, a Japanese garden, desert plants and cactus, as well as three distinct regions of native Texas—the East Texas Piney Woods, Hill Country and South Texas habitats.
Mike and I always enjoy searching for birds, so one morning we headed to the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, about 10 miles south of downtown off Interstate 410. We saw countless American white pelicans as we walked by what used to be a series of old sewage ponds, and while we could still detect a slight stinky odor, the birds didn’t seem to mind. In addition to pelicans, we saw a vermilion flycatcher, a gorgeous red bird, plus American avocets, black-necked stilts and a crested caracara. On the Native Plant Trail, we learned about South Texas trees and shrubs and looked for rattlesnakes, though we didn’t see any. The center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Outside of town, but not too far away, are other attractions worthy of visits. To the east is the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, a safe haven for countless animals. Entering through the gates, we received a bag of food for the animals encountered along the four-mile drive. We had fun feeding an ostrich, antelope and even zebras. The zebras have learned to open their mouths so visitors can toss feed pellets in. Watch out for the ostriches. One surprised my husband by grabbing his glasses right off his face and tossing them on the ground. Fortunately his $400 prescription glasses survived!
Located next door to the Wildlife Ranch is the Natural Bridge Caverns. On our way to tour the caverns, we passed below the Natural Bridge, an amazingly thin piece of rock. Next, we entered the doors protecting the caverns and were impressed by what we saw. The trail into and out of the cave is paved, but it is steep and slippery, so rubber-soled shoes are recommended. The cave is not a cold cave; it’s 70 degrees inside with high humidity so it seems even warmer. I thought the inside temperature perfect—not too hot and not too cold!
If you want to get out in the woods for some mountain biking or hiking, check out Government Canyon State Natural Area in the South Texas Plains region. Located inside the San Antonio city limits, Government Canyon is one of the nation’s largest urban preserves with rolling prairie and rugged canyon lands. The oasis protects thousands of acres of karst for the Edwards Aquifer, the primary source of water for millions of people in central Texas. Like all Texas parks, there’s a day-use fee. The park is open Friday through Monday, with tent camping allowed on Friday and Saturday nights.
San Antonio has even more to offer, with attractions such as SeaWorld and Six Flags theme parks. In nearby New Braunfels is Schlitterbahn, a 65-acre resort with a water park that is open daily in the summer and on various other days from March through September. If you like quaint towns, antiquing and wine tasting, a trip to Fredericksburg, about 70 miles north of San Antonio, is well worth it.
IF YOU GO:
For tourist information, see visitsanantonio.com
Mitchell Lake Audubon Center: mitchelllakeaudubon.org
Natural Bridge Caverns: naturalbridgecaverns.com
Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch: wildliferanchtexas.com
San Antonio Botanical Garden: sabot.org
San Antonio Missions National Historic Park: nps.gov/saan
VIA Metropolitan Transit: viainfo.net
Witte Museum: wittemuseum.org