Where to hike in San Marcos?
The San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance is a non-profit group that maintains three major park systems in San Marcos, TX. They’re responsible for six natural areas that include: Purgatory Creek Natural Area, Schulle Canyon, Spring Lake Natural Area, Ringtail Ridge Natural Area, and Blanco Shoals Natural Area.
While I definitely encourage people to check out all of these places and enjoy the natural areas, for the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on the three that offer the most in terms of hiking.
Ringtail Ridge Natural Area
The first thing to note: This natural area is a little tricky to find. I missed it a few times on my first visit because I didn’t know what I was looking for. Along RR12 you’re going to be on the lookout for the road that’s alongside the Dakota Ranch apartment complex. You’ll take the dirt road that parallels the complex’s parking lot and eventually, you’ll get to the park’s own parking lot. It’s a really weird feeling if you’ve never been before.
But once you arrive you have some options. You can actually find another trail just southwest from the entrance, but there’s no parking here. A lot of people use this natural area for mountain biking, so that’s where a lot of them will start. Otherwise, the trails begin at the main parking lot.
This is a GREAT beginners park. The trails are all shorties but offer some great natural views to look at. You’ll have the option of these trails: Ridge Loop, The Berms, Tex’s Trail, The panhandle, and The Spur. Tex’s Trail is ADA accessible, so it’s mostly wooden planks that make the trail. A fun pathway regardless.
The trails are well marked here, so don’t feel like you need your map here, but bring your phone if you’re into birds. Lots to look at here.
Spring Lake Natural Area
The second-largest green space in town wraps around the beginning of the San Marcos River. The 251-acre park has three trailheads that span across town, so if you just want to mix it up with multiple short hikes, you really could just park at each one and experience something unique. Of the different San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance parks this is probably the prettiest of the main places to hike in my opinion and a great option for some lengthy miles out on the trail. Technically about six miles total, there are plenty of loops and spurs to make this a long day.
This along with Purgatory have sections that are closed March-May for the Golden Cheek Warbler nesting season, so be on the lookout for those trails, and be respectful of the restrictions.
There are 12 trails here including Blind Salamander, Blue Heron, Blue Stem, Buckeye, Centipede, Exogyra, Grey Fox, Porcupine, Roadrunner, Skink Link, Tonkawa, and Wickiups.
If you use the Hiking Project app from REI, you’re able to record tracks, but also contribute some of your favorite hikes. My contribution to this park is what I called the Lime Kiln Loop.
The loop starts at the Lime Kiln trailhead and uses the Blue Heron Trail, Exogyra, Blue Stem, and Buckeye to meet back up at Blue Heron. It’s just over a mile long, but it offers some great hill country sights that you’d expect out in central Texas.
This natural area offers multiple points of interest including a few lookouts, an overlook, and a sundial. There are also majestic moss-covered oak trees, Mountain Laurel, and plenty of birds.
Purgatory Natural Area
Most people in or around town visit “Purgatory” on a regular basis. I’m ashamed to say that I was late to this party as my interest in the outdoors peaked long after I was taking classes at, ahem, SWT.
By far the most popular of the three natural spaces, Purgatory is my go-to for a consistent day hike in terms of mileage. It offers some of the best views in San Marcos, is also an important space for the Edwards Aquifer, and also some educational opportunities.
Purgatory is broken down into three sections: Prospect Park is the original incarnation of this natural area. About 9 acres of land, this section features another really neat sundial, interpretive nature signs, and a superb karst example that really shines when it rains, but unfortunately can be a little dangerous to be near. You also should be out on the trails here when it rains, it can flood really quickly.
The two main areas are Lower and Upper purgatory and are accessed by two different trailheads. They are connected by my favorite trail, Dante (4.29 mi.), but also feature other fun trails that include: Paraiso (1.59 mi.), Beatrice (1.32 mi.) and Ripheus (.66 mi.) to name the more notable.
Dante is my normal path because it goes from upper to lower, and I can get around nine miles each visit. If I want to go longer then I’ll tack on the Prospect section of the park.
While Dante isn’t a loop, it can be quite easy to get turned around here. The trails are marked efficiently, but because of the high traffic, you can get swayed on a handful of side trails. There are also a few parallel trails that you can hop on and off on, especially if there have been recent rains.
I will say that these trails can get a little gnarly on the rocks. I highly recommend sturdy shoes and maybe some trekking poles for additional stability.
Key points of interest include Dante’s Overlook, there’s a cave just under this, but I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself (wink, wink), and my favorite thing to see and visit Grandma’s Oak. A majestic tree covered with moss, and a good intersecting point between Dante and Paraiso trails. It’s located closer to the Upper Purgatory trailhead, so if you just want to do a quick hike, this would be the spot to start. On my last visit, the Paraiso trail had been redone with some crushed limestone, and it just created a nicer pathway for beginners.
And if anyone needs an ADA accessible trail, you’ll look for Virgil’s trail located at the Prospect Park Trailhead.
About the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance
The San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance is an all-volunteer organization that’s responsible for the majority of the upkeep on these trails. Restoration, landscaping, litter pickup is all done by the group and those who wish to donate their time to help with these tasks. On my last visit to Purgatory, a sizable bridge was being worked on to create better access on the trails.
According to the SMGA website, its mission is based on three main principles; Conservation, Stewardship, and outreach/education. The greenspace throughout these parks serves multiple purposes for the land itself, but also offers amazing places for people to spend time recreating.
They receive funding from people that donate to the organization, but also receive money from donations and grants as well. They’ve partnered with the City of San Marcos, The Texas Master Naturalist Program, and also do work with Texas State University.
All of the parks listed are free parks, so please please please if you can’t donate to keep them going, at least do your part and pack out what you pack in. These parks get very busy and recently have been hit with an increase of litter and graffiti.
Dogs are also allowed at all of the parks; you just need to keep them on a leash at all times.