A mountain biker drops into the Leon Creek Greenway from OP Schnabel Park.
A mountain biker drops into the Leon Creek Greenway from O.P. Schnabel Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

I thought the left turn might be a bad idea, but I took it anyway. I followed the neglected trail through kneehigh grass and over a dry creek bed, my helmet scraping branches as I crossed the bank. The ground grew squishy, the mosquitoes thicker, the grasses and wildflowers now up to my waist.

There I was again, lost somewhere along the Leon Creek Greenway, but enjoying it. I’ve ridden the mountain bike trails along the Leon Creek Greenway from O.P. Schnabel Park about 10 times, and I get lost every time.

This network of single-track trails stretches from where Bandera Road crosses Leon Creek all the way north to Hausman Road. It includes main trails that run along the creek, parallel to the concrete path. Splitting off from each of them is a tangle of pump tracks, shortcuts, loops, and dead ends.

That’s what I love about this place. Every time I come back, I discover something new: The steep downhill drop-in point from O.P. Schnabel onto the greenway network. The short-but-fun pump track known as the Monkey Jumps. The peaceful, tree-lined oasis of Buddy Calk Pond.

You can access the trail network at several places other than O.P. Schnabel, including a trailhead on Whitby Road, the Oxbow Park trailhead, and Bamberger Nature Park. I like to ride O.P. Schnabel because it has its own trail network, including a flowing descent from the hill with the cell tower on the park’s northeast side.

I usually park at O.P. Schnabel and ride back toward the park entrance, turning left onto the trail that parallels the park’s southern edge. You follow a neighborhood fenceline before dropping into a creekway filled with limestone boulders and steep bluffs on one side.

If you go left and ride north after the drop-in, staying roughly parallel to the concrete trail, you’ll pass through a surprising variety of terrain – shady forests with tall trees, cliff ledges thick with Ashe juniper, shrubby meadows, and stretches of exposed rocks with prickly pear and sotol.

The wildlife seem to enjoy this variety as much as I do. Every time I ride these trails, especially the section between O.P. Schnabel and Bandera Road, birds flush from the bushes and branches, and squirrels leap from the trail and cling to tree trunks. I’m certain that one day I’ll come whipping around a bend and slam into a white-tailed deer lying across the trail.

If you get lost on Leon Creek, the best way to orient yourself is to find your way back to the concrete trail, then ride until you find one of the many trail markers that show directions to park trailheads. Other suggestions: bring at least two liters of water per person, sunscreen, and bug spray. Use a GPS app on your phone to ensure you’re always riding on public property.

You can hike these trails, but Leon Creek stands out as arguably the best mountain bike trail network in Bexar County. If you’ve never tried mountain biking, The Trailist recommends renting one and giving it a try.

I’ve been riding since I was a little kid growing up in the 1990s in Western Colorado. My parents taught me to ride the hundreds of miles of trail near Grand Junction and Fruita, spots that have since filled the pages of mountain bike magazines and websites. Mom and Dad are both pushing 60 and pedal more miles per week than I do.

For those who are new to the sport, San Antonio has a group whose entire purpose is promoting mountain biking and getting people organized and involved.

South Texas Off Road Mountain-Bikers, or STORM, has been around for 25 years, but many say it’s become much more active recently. They credit Jeff Jordan and Brenda Gonzalez, a couple who serve as its president and vice president.

On summer Thursdays at 6:30 p.m., the group leads rides for all skill levels along Leon Creek’s web of trails (they ride McAllister Park in the winter). Less experienced riders might have their skills tested, but they won’t get left behind.

If you go by yourself, you can find more complete and detailed maps than we have here at TrailForks.com and MTBProject.com. No one has yet completed a thorough, comprehensive mapping effort on these trails, though STORM and others are working on it, Jordan said.

I enjoy group rides, but I also love to ride solo. I ride to be present in the moment. It helps me stop chasing thoughts around in my head.

I love the constant game of sizing up terrain, choosing the best line to avoid rocks and stumps, and applying leg power and balance in the right way to get over what I can’t avoid. At full speed, that’s an absorbing mental task.

Kenneth Ramirez, a former San Antonian who now lives in Seattle, put it this way on a STORM ride last month.

“The road bike is where you work through your problems,” he said. “On the mountain bike, your problems don’t exist.”

Some people call this zen, or flow. It’s when all thoughts slip away, leaving only the experience of being fully immersed in the now. I believe we all search for this escape from ourselves – sometimes in healthy ways, sometimes not.

I was definitely not in the flow when I fell off my bike last week. As I traversed a flat section of well-packed dirt, my thoughts distracted me from an approaching stump until it was too late to slow down. I hesitated and hit the brakes when I should have powered through. My front wheel hit the stump and stopped, tipping me over the handlebars.

I should have remembered the most valuable lesson of mountain biking: Most of the time, the best way to clear your obstacles is to approach them confidently, head on, with as much momentum as possible.

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