Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report
I’ll admit that triple-digit weather often withers my outdoor ambitions. These days, I’m just looking for a place to get some exercise and see some nature without the risk of heatstroke.
At Salado Creek Greenway-South, I found what I was looking for.
My friend Patrick “P-How” Howard and I rode this roughly seven-mile trail section out-and-back in late July – my first time on this trail. We started around 7 p.m., and even though temperatures had soared to over 100 degrees earlier that day, we found a cool escape that happened to be close to downtown.
"It’s beautiful,” said Brandon Ross, a San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department special projects manager who oversees the City’s creekside trails. “Especially in the fall, there’s a lot of cedar elm trees that tend to turn colors.”
In the middle of July’s heat wave, I appreciated the towering cedar elms, pecans, and oaks that shaded most of the trail. It allowed us get into that rhythm of riding where your thoughts can drift anywhere.
As we rode, I realized how many parks exist in this part of San Antonio that I’d never heard of. We passed through Comanche County Park, not to be confused with Comanche Lookout Park. The trail also goes through Covington County Park. These places offer stopping points for water and restrooms.
Southside Lions Park, where we started our ride, is the most interesting of all the parks strung together along this route. For one thing, it’s surprisingly huge at 600 acres, the equivalent of 660 football fields.
Half of this enormous space was at one point destined to become a landfill, according to this brief history of the park. The City purchased it in 1944 from the estate of George Brackenridge, a wealthy banker and industrialist for whom Brackenridge Park is named.
After the City bought the land, people in the nearby Highland Park neighborhood, including members of the local Lions Club, persuaded the City to make it into a park instead of a landfill.
The City purchased the other half of the park in the 1960s and has steadily added more amenities, including sports fields, a pool, and a community center.
Thanks to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stocking the pond with catfish and trout, the park is hugely popular with anglers. Southside Lions fishing videos are abundant on YouTube (my favorite is this guy’s video, in which he uses turkey hot dogs as bait).
Even farther upstream from Southside Lions, I was amazed how much water was flowing in the creek, even with Bexar County in drought. I saw all kinds of sunfish below the surface, and two teenage boys I encountered wading in the creek showed me pictures on their phones of a huge bass they had caught that afternoon.
Cyclists and trail walkers are relative newcomers to parks in this part of town. In Southside Lions Park, the Salado Creek Greenway trailhead was only added in 2010.
Recent maps of the trail network show that San Antonio is well on its way to building an "emerald necklace" of linear parks that link its major urban creeks and rivers.
Here’s an amazing fact: San Antonio, a city not widely known for its outdoors scene, has 65 miles of paved multi-use trails, and all of them have been built within the past 10 years.
In 2000, San Antonio voters first voted to impose a one-eighth-cent sales tax to begin acquiring land and building these trails, later renewing the tax three more times. Construction on these trails didn’t start until 2008, Ross said.
Some trails have become somewhat crowded, including Salado Creek’s northern portion and the Leon Creek Greenway on the Northwest Side. During our recent ride on a weekday evening, Patrick and I saw fewer than 10 other riders when we rode the 14.5 miles out and back.
“It’s not as well-used as some of the other places in town,” said Ross, whose team at Parks and Rec is in charge of expanding the trail network.
That might change once the northern and southern portions are connected. The City and military officials with Joint Base-San Antonio have agreed to connect the southern portion to the northern 15 miles.
Right now, Fort Sam Houston stands between the southern and northern section, which begins around where Rittiman Road crosses over the creek north of Fort Sam Houston.
The resulting trail will allow walkers and cyclists to follow Salado Creek along most of the eastern half of the city from Shavano Park all the way down to Southside Lions.
The connection will benefit both the City and the military, said Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala, a retired Marine Corps general who heads San Antonio’s Office of Military Affairs.
Eighty-five percent of the 80,000 active-duty service members who live in San Antonio live off-base, Ayala said. They’re among the city’s residents who might use the trail connection for commuting to work and for exercise, he said.
“The military is one of the few professions in the world where they pay you to be physically fit,” said Ayala, who fits that image himself.
To make the connection happen, officials at Fort Sam Houston agreed to move a fence back to make room for the concrete path near a rail line on the base’s eastern side, Ayala and Ross said. Some of the old stables at the base’s equestrian center will also be demolished.
Construction is supposed to start early next year on the 3½-to-4-mile connection between Jack White and John James parks, Ross said. The cost will be approximately $4 million, all from the most recent sales tax approved in 2015.
Construction should take between 12 to 14 months, he said.
Parks officials are currently working on expanding the greenway north of Loop 1604. On the southeast side, they hope to extend it south from Southside Lions Park, but those plans are not yet firm.