San Marcos Natural Areas

Download a map of San Marcos parks and natural areas. The map, along with the directions below, will help you locate the natural areas described on this page. For information about city parks, visit the City of San Marcos Parks and Recreation web page or call Parks and Recreation at 393-8400.

SMGA leads guided hikes in San Marcos’ natural areas; scheduled hikes are listed in our newsletter, The Loop. To arrange a private hike, contact us.

Note: San Marcos natural areas do not currently offer restroom facilities or running water. Trails can be rugged and grasses tall, so wear long pants and closed, strong shoes. Water, hat, sunscreen and camera are a good idea.

Click a natural area below to see a description, brief history, and directions.

Blanco Shoals

Purgatory Creek Natural Area

Ringtail Ridge Natural Area

Schulle Canyon Natural Area

Spring Lake Natural Area

Blanco Shoals

Description: About 81 acres mostly west of the Blanco River,
just below the bridge at IH35. Blanco Shoals is a unique area in
our park system, since it is a completely undeveloped riparian
area and will remain that way except for a few trails to be built
in the future. It contains high bank bluffs and shoals, tall cottonwoods and sycamores, gigantic pecans, and mesquite. Anaqua (a na’ kuh way) trees cling to the riverbanks.

Notes: Enjoy a pleasant stroll along the Blanco but do not cross any fences, as it will put you on private property.

Brief History: The property was donated in 2002 by the Holt family in exchange for some land-use changes on the remaining portions of the property. The City of San Marcos, Alan Holt, and SMGA worked together to come up with a Planned Development District (PDD) for the property, which included multi-family and commercial use and natural area. The 81 donated acres are in the Blanco River floodplain, and an additional 16 acres are planned for acquisition pending funding. The Holts asked that the area be left essentially natural.

Directions: Take I-35 north from San Marcos. Take Aquarena Springs Exit 206 and go straight on northbound frontage road to overpass at River Ridge Parkway. Turn right onto River Ridge Parkway. (From Austin, take Exit 207 and turn left onto River Ridge Parkway). The city intends to install parking places by summer of 2015.

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Purgatory Creek Natural Area
1414 Prospect / 2118 Hunter Road / West Craddock Avenue

Description: The 570-acre Purgatory Creek Natural Area is within the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, is home to Purgatory Creek, and includes upland meadows, canyon bluffs of 40 feet or more, dense juniper thickets, champion oaks, and a flood control dam. Several areas within this natural area are habitat for golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos. Passive recreation opportunities support a trail along the narrows of the frequently dry Purgatory Creek bed that runs through this natural area.

Portions of Purgatory Creek Natural Area are generally referred to as Prospect Park, lower, and upper Purgatory:


Golden-Cheeked Warbler Nesting Season March 1-May 31

All Natural Areas:

Trail Maps:

Find other San Marcos maps on the SM Convention and Visitors Bureau site

Preserve the peace, the quiet, and the place…

Our natural areas are living, breathing places with a wide variety of plants and critters. Please help us care for these beautiful places; they are working hard to clean our water and our air. Let’s return the favor by keeping them clean and natural and following these city park rules:

  • Take only photos, leave only footprints.
  • Park open sunrise to sunset (curfew applies after sunset).
  • Keep dogs on a leash and remove their waste.
  • Campfires, glass containers, motor vehicles, weapons, horses, and camping are not permitted.
  • Stay on established trails on public property.
  • Bicycles yield to hikers, refrain from biking on muddy trails.

Report problems to San Marcos Parks & Recreation at (512) 393-8400.
Emergencies call 911.


  • The portion known as Prospect Park is about 9 acres of passive-recreation parkland with about 3 miles of trails, including a 1-mile accessible, crushed limestone trail. Prospect Park sits on a rather porous section of the Edwards Aquifer where juniper groves, meadows, ephemeral wetlands, and oak mottes co-exist. This in-town location makes a perfect destination when you need a quick nature fix. Benches and interpretive signs are located at various points along the accessible portion of the trail. Visitors will find a karst cave, a large compass and group seating at the Learning Tree in the lower meadow.

  • The access point to lower Purgatory from the intersection of Wonder World Drive and Hunter Road on the south side includes parking, a kiosk and the trailhead for Dante's Trail, which leads through the length of Purgatory Creek Natural Area. The first 1-mile section is crushed stone and dirt hike and bike trail. Where the trail's bike ramps merge onto the roadway at the northern end of Wonder World Drive, the trail splits both south (connecting to Prospect Park along Virgil's Way) and north (connecting to the more challenging upper Purgatory trails).

  • In upper Purgatory, visitors can hike mostly natural trails, including Dante's, Paraiso, and Malcoda. Malcoda is a branch from Dante's that leads visitors to the grotto, a limestone formation shaped in part by Purgatory Creek. Parking and the entrance to upper Purgatory are accessed from Craddock Avenue, just past its intersection with Wonder World Drive (see directions below).

SMGA and its members have been working to expand this natural area as well as improve and add trails throughout Purgatory. Eventually these trails will lead all the way to the San Marcos River. More trail work is in progress, but this is a sensitive area so trails must be carefully designed and built to preserve the many benefits this beautiful land provides.

An Afternoon Stroll at Prospect Park Photo taken by Clint King
An Afternoon Stroll at Prospect Park
Photo taken by Clint King

Sunny Days at Prospect Park Photo taken by Jessica Chaffee
Sunny Days at Prospect Park
Photo taken by Jessica Chaffee

The size of the natural area often causes even veteran hikers to get lost. Please note the following:

  • Take a map, stay on the trail, and schedule plenty of time to reach your destination.
  • There are no restrooms or drinking water in Purgatory Creek Natural Area.
  • Avoid trails created by deer and so-called “renegade” trails created by people scouting their own way, which harms the natural area. Please stay on marked trails!
  • Some areas border unfenced private properties, for example, in the Willow Creek subdivision. Do not cross fences unless you have checked a map to be certain you remain in the natural area.
  • Keep your dog on a leash and pick up your pet’s poop.

Brief History:
According to San Marcos Daily Record articles dated 6/15/2001 and 12/30/2001, the city purchased the Purgatory Creek Natural Area acreage in portions, culminating in December 2001. The first purchase of about 33 acres had been zoned for high-density, multi-family development back in 1979. Some 670 apartment units could have been built on the site. Terrand Ltd., the previous owner of the property, donated an additional 93 acres adjacent to Purgatory Creek above the flood control dam. The city completed the purchase of another 326.3 acres in December 2001 to minimize the environmental impact of the Wonder World Drive extension. The Edwards Aquifer Authority supported the acquisition as a partner with the city. An environmental assessment from 2000 through 2004 discovered ancient artifacts in the area. The Wonder World Drive extension, including the hike and bike trail connecting Hunter Road to the Purgatory trails, was opened in July 2010.


Prospect Park: From downtown San Marcos, take W Hopkins St. to N Bishop St. Turn west (uphill) on Bishop and left on Prospect St. Go 2.5 blocks to dead end. Park on street near kiosk to your right. Parking is limited, so consider carpooling, walking, or biking; a bike rack is available.

White-Eyed Surprise at Purgatory Photo taken by Clint King
White-Eyed Surprise at Purgatory
Photo taken by Clint King

Lower Purgatory: From downtown San Marcos, take W. Hopkins St. past Bishop and Belvin Streets to the intersection of Hunter Road and Wonder World Drive (Hopkins turns into Hunter). Just past the intersection of Hunter and Wonder World, turn right onto an unpaved road to the parking area and trailhead.

Upper Purgatory: From downtown San Marcos, take W. Hopkins St. past Bishop and Belvin Streets to Wonder World Drive and turn right (west) on Wonder World. At the intersection with Craddock Avenue, make a left onto a ranch road and watch for natural area signs guiding you to the parking area and trailhead.

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Ringtail Ridge Natural Area

Shady Rest at Ringtail Ridge Photo taken by Lance Jones
Shady Rest at Ringtail Ridge
Photo taken by Lance Jones

Description: 40 plus acres of lightly developed parkland off RR12. This natural area features a half-mile accessible trail with a kiosk and benches and about 2 miles of unmarked loop trail, including a spur that meets RR12 in the 30-foot wide swath between Community Baptist Church and Dakota Ranch Apartments. The 2-mile trail was designed by SMGA for mountain biking, but it also offers pleasant hiking in a surprisingly diverse natural area in a part of town that is developing rapidly. Oak groves, flowering meadows, cactus stands, and persimmon thickets are all found in Ringtail Ridge Ridge and provide a diverse ecology for birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. The Ringtail Ridge tract was the site of an animal slaughter plant for many years. The foundations of the plant and other artifacts can still be seen; the land is being left alone to recover from ranching and the slaughter business.


Brief History:
Hughson Meat Company was founded in 1947 by Cecil "Pop" Hughson and his brother, Johnny Hughson. Later the brothers were joined in the business by Pop's son, Cecil Carlton "Tex" Hughson, and Pop's son-in-law, Bruce Conway. Hughson Meat Company consisted of a packaging plant on Guadalupe Street and a hog and cattle slaughterhouse on Ranch Road 12. In the late 1990s, after the plant had closed, Randall Morris bought the property. He proposed clustering the housing units to which he was entitled (based on the acreage) to create an apartment complex along RR12 and donating 40 acres near the back of the property to the city. The San Marcos City Council approved his plan, and the 40 acres became Ringtail Ridge. The deal was welcomed by conservationists, who were concerned about preserving recharge land and welcomed the tighter controls on water runoff required for high-density development. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department awarded the City of San Marcos and SMGA a National Trails Grant in the amount of $40,087 in August 2007. That project included a one-half mile accessible trail, parking lot improvements, and an interpretive kiosk.

Note: Tex Hughson may have been born in Buda, but he lived in Kyle (graduating from Kyle High School) until he was signed by the Red Sox. He eventually settled in San Marcos.

Directions: Take Ranch Road 12 (Moore St.) toward Wimberley about 1/10th mile past Craddock Ave. Turn right onto dirt road between Dakota Ranch Apartments and Crestwood Center. Follow road until you reach the big oak and parking lot behind the apartments.

Note: Stay within the natural area fences.

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Gathering on the Thistle at Ringtail Ridge Photo taken by Lucy Durfee
Gathering on the Thistle at Ringtail Ridge
Photo taken by Lucy Durfee

Schulle Canyon Natural Area
100 Ridgewood

Description: About 21 acres of undeveloped parkland with a half mile of 6-foot wide, accessible gravel trail and just under a mile of natural surface trails. Schulle’s trails are included in the Texas Parks & Wildlife's Heart of Texas Birding Trail Guide. There is also a natural surface trail extending to Sierra Circle and the back of Highcrest Apartments.

Brief History: The property that is now Schulle Canyon Natural Area was owned by the John Cox family for decades. The upper portion of the property was cleared and used as pasture land. A small tank for water livestock was fed by springs, which flowed most of the time according to Mr. Cox’s daughter, Virginia Witte. After development occurred in the watershed, the springs ceased to flow and the creek now flows only in wet weather.

The tract of property extending from Holland Street back to the Tex Hughson property was owned by Mr. Schulle, who developed a small subdivision along the street named for him. For many years Schulle Drive dead-ended before it reached the wet-weather creek. When Tex Hughson developed the section of Hughson Heights that includes Sierra Circle and Camaro Way, Schulle Drive was extended to Hughson Heights. Members of Mr. Schulle’s family still reside in the Maxwell area.

In 1998, two developers purchased 22 acres of the John Cox property from Mr. Cox’s children. The developers began the process of developing the property into townhouses and single-family houses. During this time the City of San Marcos began negotiating with the developers to acquire the property. Several area neighborhoods, including Hughson Heights, Alamo Street, and Sierra Circle, supported acquisition of the property by the city for parkland. The city council approved an agreement under which the city traded a 5-acre tract along IH35 South, at the site of the Lowman Airport, for the 22-acre Schulle Canyon tract.

In the early 2000s members of the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance worked with the city to submit a grant application to Texas Parks & Wildlife for funds to build a trail in Schulle Canyon. The grant was awarded and the trail was completed in 2004.

Directions: Take Ranch Road 12 (Moore St.) toward Wimberley. Turn right on Holland St. at traffic light. Turn left on Alamo St. (2nd left). Follow Alamo to dead end at kiosk and parking area.

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Spring Lake Natural Area
921 Aquarena Springs Dr.
685 Lime Kiln Rd.

Description: About 251 acres of undeveloped parkland that sits just above the headwaters of the San Marcos River. About half of the property is in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge zone, and all of the property is part of the Sink Creek watershed. San Marcos Springs and Spring Lake are rare ecological jewels among Texas water resources and support 5 endangered species. The area supported ranching and hunting for many years, but has recently been left largely undisturbed with the exception of some natural-surface trails. Spring Lake Natural Area contains the typical meadows and woodlands found in the Edwards Plateau, with a wide variety of flora and fauna, including Mexican buckeye and large mammals. The geology includes layers of the Eagle-Ford, Georgetown, Del Rio clay and Edwards limestone. Currently, Texas State University, the City of San Marcos, and Land Design Partners, Inc. are developing a master plan that will emphasize low-impact recreational activities and natural resource protection. The San Marcos Parks and Recreation Department will offer educational programs at Spring Lake Natural Area for children and adults.

Brief History: The area around San Marcos Springs is thought to be one of the longest continuously occupied areas in North America due to its proximity to the San Marcos Springs. In 1926, A.B. Rogers purchased land around the Springs and built the Aquarena Springs Resort. Aquarena was sold to Texas State University in the 1990s, and the 251 acres were later sold for residential development. In 2004, the developer and the City of San Marcos were preparing to create a large hotel and conference center on the highest location above the Springs. Citizens and conservationists objected, the development was moved east of IH-35, and the city, Hays County and Texas State University committed to securing the property as a natural area. In November 2005, SMGA led a campaign for approval of a $2 million bond as payment toward purchase of the 251 acres. Subsequent grants and donations from Hays County, Texas Parks & Wildlife, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Meadows Foundation, Terry Gilmore, the McCoy Foundation, the Lower Colorado River Authority, and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority allowed the city to purchase the land in 2007.


921 Aquarena Springs Dr.: Take Aquarena Springs Dr. to the Meadows Center (formerly Aquarena Springs hotel). You can purchase a temporary parking pass at the kiosk near The Meadows Center for a small fee ($5/day at the time of this writing); you may get a ticket from Texas State parking services if you park without a pass. At the time of this writing, parking on Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday is free.

To get to the trailhead, you will need to cross the street (Laurel Lane) heading toward the golf course maintenance facility. As you do you will see a 3x6 inch, blue plastic trail marker (also called a blaze) nailed to a large tree across the street. Cross the street carefully (traffic comes down the hill at a fast rate of speed), and look for the next blaze on a tree within the parking area of the golf maintenance area.

Keep following the blazes through the steel gate and up the hill until you see a sheltered kiosk. Now you are in Spring Lake Natural Area.

685 Lime Kiln Rd: Take Aquarena Springs Dr. to Post Rd. Turn left off of Post Rd onto Lime Kiln Rd. About a half mile past Travis Elementary School, park in the city lot on the left.

Download a PDF with Spring Lake Preserve directions and pictures.

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