A head-banger of a tree limb extends over a single-track trail at Olmos Basin Park.
A head-banger of a tree limb extends over a single-track trail at Olmos Basin Park. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

San Antonio’s urban core is a great place to live and work, but nobody moves downtown for the singletrack trails. Most of the options we do have, such as the Museum Reach, are paved in concrete.

That’s why I was excited when I discovered the roughly 5 miles of dirt paths winding through Olmos Basin Park, only a short distance north of downtown. Mountain bikers especially should give these a try; their ease of access and central location makes them perfect for before- or after-work rides.

I like the sometimes muddy maze of tracks that take you through the interior forest, where every so often the trees open and allow enough sunlight in to grow fields of wildflowers. Right now, red and orange Indian blankets mix with purple wine cups in a wild bouquet so beautiful you won’t even mind the bush-whacking it takes to get through some sections.

Plan on getting lost. I still do, even though I’ve biked there at least 20 times. I’ve mapped the main trail arteries below, but there are countless loops and shortcuts, and dead ends. Luckily, you’re never far enough from the edge of the forest or the rush of cars on U.S. Highway 281 to be too concerned.

The trails offer another way to see this rather strange park that’s been set aside behind Olmos Dam, built in 1927 to protect downtown from flash flooding. In the nearly 100 years since then, the entire basin has filled to the brim multiple times, most recently in 2013.

As with all of San Antonio’s downtown parks, this one has had lived many lives. Its current incarnation includes soccer fields with regular pickup games and occasional polo matches organized by the San Antonio Polo Club.

The park does have two short concrete trails. One loops around the soccer fields, while another parallels Jones Maltsberger Road and terminates at Basse Road. They’re both worth checking out, but they don’t stand out on their own.

On the other side of the San Antonio-Alamo Heights line, there are also the Judson Nature Trails. Those are well-kept and mapped, but they’re shorter than the nameless trails I’m talking about here.

I rarely see anyone out on the dirt trails, especially mountain bikers. Despite its position between the swanky enclaves of Olmos Park and Alamo Heights, this park doesn’t have the best reputation.

One reason is the nearly unsolvable trash problem. Because of its position behind Olmos Dam, Olmos Basin Park is effectively the shower drain filter for most of north-central San Antonio.

During significant floods, Olmos Creek turns from a dry channel to a raging torrent. The dam backs up enough water to reach nearly halfway up the trunks of some of the tallest trees in the park. You can see the flood line if you visit in the aftermath of a major rainstorm.

When the floodwaters recede, they leave behind tons of the trash that washes in, much of it wrapped around tree trunks and plants in layers compressed by the force of the water.

What amazes me is the effectiveness of the army of volunteers who descend on Olmos Basin Park and other areas to help with trash cleanups, especially during the annual Basura Bash.

Ligustrum fully surrounds a trail at Olmos Basin Park.
Ligustrum fully surrounds a trail at Olmos Basin Park. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

By now, I’ve also learned enough about the local flora to notice that the much of the forest in the park is made up of ligustrum, or glossy privet. This ornamental tree originally native to Asia flourishes in these riparian forest environments. They grow like weeds and shade out native trees, shrubs, and grasses.

Fortunately, as volunteers have seen at the nearby Headwaters at Incarnate Word, native plants will come back once people remove the invasives like ligustrum and the equally nefarious chinaberry. It’ll take decades to make a dent, but it’s possible.

Most hikers and mountain bikers don’t demand an ecologically pristine setting. They just need some space to roam, and a little elevation change doesn’t hurt.

My favorite trails wind through the park’s thickly forested western sides. The trails turn tightly through the trees and dip through streambeds, splattering my legs with mud. One creek bed gets deep enough to require a wooden bridge crossing, but the bridge has been looking like it’s in pretty rough shape lately.

Here’s a hidden gem: A small loop that runs between Dick Friedrich Drive and Contour Drive takes you past some mysterious ruins of a building’s walls, fireplace, and chimney, long crumbled and taken over by trees and vines. The first time I found it, my imagination ran wild: Was it some lost settler’s homestead? A military camp?

The silent stones offered no clues to my untrained eye, but I later learned that the ruins are the remains of a former Girl Scout day camp. The Trailist recommends reading some great interviews here with local women recalling their nature experiences there as girls.

Even before the Girl Scout camp, portions of what’s now called Olmos Basin Park were the grounds for Camp John Wise, a training ground for the Army’s Balloon School from 1917 through 1919. At one point, a peak of 33 officers, 1,800 enlisted soldiers, and four military-grade balloons were involved with training at the camp.

In a city as old as this, parks can go through many identity phases over the generations. I’m hoping other people will agree that Olmos Basin Park deserves to be known as one the best off-road trail networks in this part of town.

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Brendan Gibbons

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