A Day Trip Away from SA: The Meadows Center (Formerly Aquarena Springs) and the San Marcos Children’s Playground

When I first moved to San Antonio, I heard many sayings relating to the vastness of Texas, but this one sticks with me any time I get a wild hair and plan a vacation by car:

“You can drive for hours and hours and still be in the same state!”

In full disclosure, my family has never left the state of Texas by car. We have ventured south to the Gulf of Mexico shores and east to my husband’s alma mater for football games, but neither of those destinations take more than three hours on a good day and include at least one to two stops. The thought of taking those three-hour experiences and tripling them (at the very least) to just cross into a new state, scares the Northerner right out of me. I am fully aware that this fear may land a “biggest baby award” directly into my hands, but the fact of the matter remains: We are just not ready to take long car trips as a family.

This realization, along with my lack of planning for an out-of-state Spring Break adventure, has pushed me to frequent locations that are close enough to San Antonio to tackle in a day. Despite how confused Texas has been, weather wise, I decided to take a risk and choose a place that my outdoor-loving children would have the chance to learn something new, run their sillies out, and enjoy a picnic lunch with yours truly. With packed lunches in hand, jackets thrown into the car “just in case,” and a sense of adventure on our minds, we set out to visit The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, formerly known as Aquarena Springs, which resides just to the north of the Alamo City in the town of San Marcos.

Although the mileage from door to spring is around 45 miles, traffic on I-35 can be a bit, shall we say, unpredictable at times (or just downright frustrating), so I have learned the hard way to always check real-time traffic before departing. That quick check, along with my trusty Waze app, allows me to not only be mentally prepared for what is to come on our journey, but to arm myself with enough information (and snacks) to ward off the million-and-a-half questions about the length of the drive. Because we were visiting on a Monday holiday, the traffic was minimal and took around 45 minutes for us to arrive. (And if you absolutely cannot avoid turning into San Antonio’s brand new IKEA that you might happen to pass along the way, know before you go and read what we have to say about shopping IKEA with kids.)

Thanks to the website, I learned that the first glass-bottomed boat departs 30 minutes after opening and then every 30 minutes after that until a half hour before closing time. The Meadows Center is closed only a handful of days, which works out well for school holidays and Spring Break. We found that it is only minutes to the Spring once you exit the well-marked and clear “Aquarena Springs” sign.

The indoor aquarium gave us many creatures to view while waiting

Upon arrival, you’ll need to pay $3 to park before buying your tickets. I was a bit disappointed to know that while you can purchase season tickets online, there is not an option for daily individual tickets. The grounds are well maintained, and the signs are straightforward for what you need to know. Your tickets state the departure time of your glass-bottomed boat, with a reminder to be at the dock five minutes prior to boarding. My crew and I had about 40 minutes to spare, so we had time to take advantage of the aquarium housed in the building across from the pond. While small, the aquarium provided an indoor experience for my kids to observe freshwater fish, various species of turtles, and multiple artifacts from the area. Not only was this a bonus for them, but a mom bonus for me, as the aquarium houses indoor bathrooms that are clean, tidy, and did I mention indoors? 😊    

This species of turtle, comically named “the stinkpot,” was a treat to observe!

The quick walk (or child gallop) to the water’s edge found the new boat docked and ready to go, with the tour guide reviewing just a few rules. The glass bottom of the boat is surrounded by bench seats and open windows, providing a comfy place for bottoms and optimal viewing for eyes. Our tour guide explained the sights well and offered pieces of history, fun fish facts, and other information that we didn’t find on the Internet. The crystal-clear water allowed us to view the local fish swimming in and out of dark green plants and around the bubbling springs on the pond floor, which gave off an eerie yet fascinating vibe at the same time.

A sharp turn and a few circles later left us wondering if the young boat driver/tour guide wanted to show off the boat’s ability to do doughnuts in the lake (and me wondering if I should have popped a Dramamine prior to leaving), but I soon recognized that he had discovered a spotted gar and wanted nothing more than for us to see it as well. We meandered from one side of the lake to the other, taking in the pre-spring breezes that the open boat windows and door granted us, while listening intently to the guide and secretly hoping for another rare gar sighting. Thirty minutes, many turtle appearances, and a huge thank you to our outstanding boat guide later, we were back to the banks of the springs.   

The underwater springs, bubbling away in their watery world
The rooftop deck was the spot to view boats coming and going, as well as the beauty of the water’s colors

The day was turning into one of those baby blue sky days that only George Strait can sing about with sheer perfection, so with packed picnic lunches in hand, we took advantage of the many picnic tables situated on the property. Seeing as how we were just a stone’s throw away from the Texas State University’s Campus, I decided to make the most of the glorious weather Texas threw at us and navigate our way to the highly recommended San Marcos Children’s Playground.

The playground was a hop, skip, and a jump away from our initial destination, and with the help of Miss Waze, we found one of the most kid-friendly playgrounds around. Much to the delight and relief of parents and caregivers, a toddler-friendly play area is separate from the main area, complete with swings and the appropriate equipment for those three and under. When my kiddos weren’t scaling the ropes of the makeshift pirate ship or trying their luck on the balance beam, they were zip-lining back and forth on what appeared to be a state-of-the-art zip track. The variety of playscapes kept my kiddos entertained while the safe ropes and ladders simultaneously challenged them and reassured me of their safety. Perhaps the most heartwarming view was the open smile and closed eyes of a little boy enjoying the freedom from his wheelchair as the Liberty Swing rocked him back and forth to the rhythm of late afternoon breezes.

Our day away from SA brought us laughter, learning, memories, and sun-kissed cheeks thanks to a school holiday and the town of San Marcos. We could have stayed put and played at home. We could have made our day like many others by visiting our usual local spots. But I wanted a mini adventure. I wanted to take advantage of our location and the resources our neighbors to the north provide for those willing to roll up I-35 with some Taylor on the radio and Waze on the phone. The words and melodies of Miss Swift, along with a certain seven- and four-year-old, went something like this: “But I know I had the best day, with you today.”

For more information on the Meadows Center, check out these additional resources:








I’m a native Pittsburgher through and through, but transplanted to Texas with my superhero cape to teach elementary school. I am a proud Mama to a spirited girl (2011) and a laid back boy (2014) who keep my days full of laughter, Legos, books, and more stuffed animals than should be allowed. As a stay-at-home Mama, I am constantly yearning for new ways to engage their minds, hands, and bodies with the city and community around them, while stealing a run and a cup of coffee or two. I can be found at the local library for storytime; the park for an afternoon swing; either of their schools to lend a helping hand; and/or the local splash pad to escape the heat. I’m not hard to miss due to the donning of Steelers gear in the fall and Penguins attire in the spring. I welcome and thrive on new conversations, friendships, and methods of rearing little humans. Favorite Restaurant: Paloma Blanca Favorite Landmark: Any of the Missions around San Antonio Favorite San Antonio Tradition: It's a tie between The Texas Cavaliers River Parade and The Battle of Flowers Parade, both occurring during Fiesta. Viva!