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Daytripper with Chet Garner: Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch

A Wild Day at Natural Bridge Caverns
Written by Chet Garner.


I set out for a place that is a bit like another continent, a bit like a science-fiction universe, and yet completely Texas. It’s not a town, but a destination north of San Antonio built around adventure and a unique “natural bridge.”


9:00 a.m.  I unleashed my morning at Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, a 400-acre zoo turned inside out. So, as the animals roamed free, I explored safely in my steel cage (a.k.a., my comfy car). Upon entry, an attendant provided an animal field guide and a small bag of food pellets, then pointed me toward the gate. Within seconds I was amazed at the diversity of the animals coming out of the wilderness to greet me. I felt a bit like Snow White, then quickly realized they were only after one thing—FOOD. Over the course of the 4.5-mile drive-thru, I fed creatures ranging from wildebeests to ostriches to an endangered scimitar-horned oryx. Some even smiled for pictures.

10:15 a.m.  The driving tour ended, but there were still animals to see around the visitor’s center, including parrots, peacocks, and lemurs. I was glad I saved a little food for the pygmy goats inside the petting zoo.

11:30 a.m.  It was time I fed myself. While the ranch has a great restaurant, as well as picnic tables for sack-lunchers, I drove to the nearby hole-in-the-wall Bracken Store Cafe for a famous half-pound “Bracken Burger.” I ordered a “bean and Frito” burger slathered with beans, Fritos, onions, and jalapeños on both sides of the beef. My next adventure was attempting to finish the entire burger.

1:30 p.m.  
A short drive back toward the wildlife ranch took me to the similarly-named, but completely different Natural Bridge Caverns, where my tour started with a trip under the “natural bridge” itself, a 60-foot-long limestone formation spanning the cavern’s entrance. This thin strip of rock used to make up the roof of the upper-most cavern, which collapsed some 5,000 years ago. While the caverns themselves are millions of years old, I was amazed to learn they were only discovered in 1960 by four thrill-seekers who convinced the landowner to let them explore a small hole on her property. After pushing through a tight, 60-foot crawlway, they discovered Texas’ largest cavern. The Discovery Tour took me past beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, creating impressive rooms such as Sher-wood Forest, named for its trunk and canopy-like formations, and Hall of the Mountain King, the largest known cave showroom in Texas.

3:00 p.m.  I stepped off the beaten path and into Natural Bridge Caverns’ Adventure Tour, which attempts to re-create the experience of the original explorers who entered the unknown darkness armed with only headlamps and flashlights. The tour also offered me a chance for renewal with passage through the Birth Canal, a small tunnel ranging from around 14 to 20 inches in diameter. I squeezed through and came out covered in a mix of mud and bat guano, making this the most up-close-and-personal experience I’ve ever had with a cave.

5:00 p.m.  After taking a quick shower on site, I explored the park grounds, making mental notes for another trip to climb the park’s 50-foot tower and experience its 350-foot-long zipline tour.

6:00 p.m.  Just as I had emerged from the Texas underground, my appetite returned, as well. I decided to stop by Little Mexico Too, a small joint serving big tacos out of an old stone house. I grabbed a couple of crunchy picadillo tacos and enjoyed them under shade trees next to a playscape. Turns out I indulged in too much of the delicious homemade habanero salsa and capped off the day with a burning mouth. 

I had definitely crossed over the “natural bridge” to the wild side of life, and I highly suggest you try it, too. So, whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path, I hope to see you on the road.

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