We all need regular access to nature, even if only for an hour or so. Fortunately, San Antonio has several parks that fulfill this need, if you’re willing to appreciate them for what they are.
Like other parks in this fast-growing part of San Antonio, Stone Oak Park isn’t true wilderness, but it’s still wild. It’s a place to reconnect with what’s being lost across the edges of the Hill Country and appreciate those who have managed to preserve some of it.
Among other symbols, the park represents San Antonio’s bipolar climate that cycles between wet and dry. A massive earthen flood control dam serves to protect downstream neighborhoods from Mud Creek when rains cause it to swell.
Most of the time, no water flows in the creek. In dry times, every drop is precious. One reason the 245-acre park was set aside was to protect two caves on the property where water flows underground and replenishes the Edwards Aquifer, San Antonio’s most vital drinking water source.
Bexar County hundreds of caves, but most are on private property. People tell me that many have been filled in with concrete or other materials.
The caves that remain, along with smaller sinkholes, cracks, and crevices, drink in the rainwater that eventually flows to our taps. The San Antonio Water System makes Stone Oak Park the first stop on its popular Rain-To-Drain tour, where they explain how water recharges the aquifer.
Only a two-minute walk from the parking lot, Bear Cave and Cub Cave are some of the only publicly accessible caves left around here where you can stand on the edge and peer into the darkness below.
Bear Cave is the deeper of the two, a yawning hole in the rock named for the bones of a bear found inside. An impenetrable metal gate surrounds the opening, barring anyone from entering the cave. In severe floods, the cave takes in water that passes through the grate, leaving big branches behind.
The opening for Cub Cave is much wider and shallower – more an overhang than a cave mouth. Parks officials have posted signs warning visitors not to approach the cave, but it’s obvious that people have hiked into it.
Metal bolts remain on its sloping ceiling from its time as an unauthorized rock-climbing spot, though some of them look like they’re about to fall out. The Trailist recommends climbing only at approved locations and hopes San Antonio will have at least one of them in the future.
The park has a short main trail that leaves the caves and makes a loop around a brushy area full of Ashe juniper. At only 1.3 miles, the asphalt trail has several features all crammed on top of each other.
There’s a “steel challenge course” with a series of exercise routines, informative plaques about the local wildlife, and a set of nature-inspired sculptures. So if you want to do a few rounds of pullups, learn about wild turkeys, and appreciate the fine arts all at once, you’re in luck.
I’m a bit more interested in what’s going on off the main trail. Near the dam, a double-track dirt path parallels Mud Creek, and you can walk it up to the property line. As you go higher up the canyon, the grasslands give way to stands of oak and cedar elm, offering a change of scenery. (There are other trails in the southern section between Stone Oak Parkway and Evans Road that I have not covered in this review.)
As with Crownridge Canyon Park about 10 miles to the west, a circlet of homes has almost completely wrapped around Stone Oak Park. You’re never far from the sounds of construction – the clanging and back-up beeping of machines leveling earth and the whir and buzz of drills and saws.
In the last daylight hour, rising above the dam, I could see the golden glint of the angel Moroni perched atop the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple nearby, his trumpet held high in the air.
Some people have found their promised land here, in what was so recently part of the endless pasture lands that once defined the American West. Now, the blufftops are hung with Southwest-modern mansions and others that look like Mediterranean villas, festooned with cupolas and domes.
I search for my paradise in the remnants of what was here before. With all the development around it, Stone Oak Park is still a refuge for native plants and animals.
A sign near the entrance warns of mountain lion and bobcat, and I squatted and searched for their footprints in the muddy side tracks that branch off from the main trail. I saw only signs of pigs, dogs, deer, and people. Near sunset, I saw a big whitetail buck – a three-pointer – framed between clumps of dry brush.
Smaller animals also made their presence known. Cardinals and black-crested titmice darted among the tree branches, some with leaves of red and gold. The trees seem particularly vibrant this fall, maybe because of the cold, rainy weather earlier in November.
Snakes were taking advantage of the sun and mild temperature. I almost stepped on a Great Plains rat snake splayed out across a grassy path. In the waning light, I saw the alternating red, yellow, and black bands of a Texas coral snake. It slid deeper into a mysterious crevice that seemed to be an opening to another world.
From there, it was only a 10-minute walk to the parking lot, and back to my own world.