A new section of Leon Creek Greenway trail, completed in June, is pushing the city’s greenway trail network farther into the Southwest Side near Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

The 1.9-mile trail stretch traverses an area with several unusual landmarks — a replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, a contaminated segment of Leon Creek (more on this later), and a closed landfill. It ends at Lackland Corridor Gateway Park, a public art and natural space near the entrance to JBSA-Lackland at the U.S. 90 and West Military Drive interchange.

One of the minor tragedies of building a civilization around the automobile is that I never noticed the park’s 75-foot metal sculpture when passing by in my car at 65 mph. From the trail, I could actually appreciate the monument.  

The sculpture, titled “Tribute to Freedom,” was completed in 2019 and intended to represent the four branches of the armed forces surrounding a central obelisk that evokes the Washington Monument. Changing light throughout the day turns the monument into a sundial, casting shadows in unpredictable patterns around the benches at its base. At night, white light illuminates the sculpture six days a week, with blue-colored light on Fridays to commemorate each week’s batch of roughly 500 new Air Force basic training graduates.

The military is the focus, but the park also makes room for nature, with the City of San Antonio installing a rain garden with native plants at the base of the sculpture to capture and filter stormwater draining off the parking lot. When first built, the rain garden was probably a fine example of green infrastructure, though invasive Johnson grass has spread rampantly since then. 

Leon Creek Greenway: Rodriguez Park to Lackland Corridor Gateway Park

Offers: Walking, biking
Location: Arvil Avenue trailhead (29.412177, -98.6153546) to Lackland Corridor Gateway Park (6534 Military Drive W, San Antonio, TX 78227)
Trail miles: Approximately 3
Restrooms: Portable toilets and running water at Rodriguez Park, Levi Strauss Park and Lackland Corridor Gateway Park

The monument is the most interesting sight along the new trail segment, but a few other spots are worth mentioning. First are the signs warning trailgoers not to eat any fish caught in this part of Leon Creek. No other stream or river in our area has this distinction. According to the state health department, people “should not consume any species of fish from Leon Creek between the Old Highway 90 bridge and the Loop 410 bridge” nearly 7 miles south.

Fish in this area might contain high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), highly carcinogenic chemicals formerly used in heavy industry and banned in the U.S. in 1978. Often called “forever chemicals,” PCBs are notoriously difficult to fully remove and tend to accumulate in animal tissue. The creek segment lies near the former Kelly Air Force Base, the site of a major environmental cleanup effort, but federal scientists wrote in a 2011 report that more sampling would be needed to “make more definitive conclusions about the sources of PCBs.”

The trail passes over a contaminated section of Leon Creek.
The trail passes over a contaminated section of Leon Creek. Credit: Brendan Gibbons for the San Antonio Report

This makes sense, given the concentration of other former industrial zones in the area. After following the Lackland fence line, the trail passes by a former city landfill located directly on the west bank of Leon Creek, an unlikely scenario under modern regulations. Closed in the 1980s, the landfill is now little more than a grassy hill surrounded by chain-link fencing.

Another park along the trail, Camargo Park, got its start as a city gravel pit in the 1920s. A cluster of trees saved from the saw became an oasis for nearby residents and later grew into a park called Pablo’s Grove. The city renamed it following the 1982 death of Spanish-language radio personality Mateo Camargo, and the park is now mainly a public event space.

Just west of Camargo Park, the trail passes near New Life Christian Center, a complex that includes a church, private school and fields with flagpoles flying the American, Israeli and Christian flags. Visitors are allowed to walk in the church’s prayer garden, which includes a 9/11 memorial with a perpetually burning flame, a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City and a small pond.

Though I valued the new southern extension for pushing the trail closer to Pearsall Park and, one day, on south to Medina River Natural Area, I found the short segment of Leon Creek Greenway north of Levi Strauss Park to be a more pleasant stretch of trail. 

Though the trail was completed nearly 10 years ago, I had never visited the segment that connects Strauss Park, Rodriguez Park and the greenway’s Arvil Avenue trailhead. Strauss Park is a poor access point for bikes and wheelchairs because of the roughly 20 feet of stairs needed to descend from the parking lot into the greenway itself.

Access is much easier from the parking lots at Arvil Avenue and Rodriguez Park. From there, the trail makes a 2.6-mile loop through a densely forested patch of city land. This shaded area felt 10 degrees cooler than the open patches of trail, and couples and families walked and biked in the shade.

This patch of forest also struck me for having one of the most abundant concentrations of mustang grapes I’ve ever seen. The climbing vines with woody stems and broad leaves covered trees on both sides of the trail, dropping their ripe fruit in deep purple splats on the concrete.

These grapes are too bitter and acidic to eat more than one or two, but I hear mustang grape wine isn’t bad. Texas has a long tradition of people making wild grape homebrew. This report from a U.S. patent officer says a former San Antonio mayor gave him 10 bottles of mustang wine during a visit in 1859. More than 160 years later, people are still sharing their recipes in Texas foraging social media groups and forums.

The western half of the trail loop is less grape-draped and more thickly forested, with the trail of Slick Ranch Creek, a stream that flows south from Tom Slick Park a mile to the north. The next Leon Creek Greenway trailhead is on Military Drive, another roughly half-mile north from Tom Slick Park.

These gaps between trail sections include land owned by developers, investment companies and other private owners. Though the overall goal is to connect them to the main Leon Creek Greenway, the city hasn’t yet announced any specific plans to join the segments.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.