Before my first visit to Panther Springs Park earlier last week, I didn’t think it would offer much more than a short concrete trail. How wrong I was.

Panther Springs is a 300-acre park located between Blanco Road and Wilderness Oak north of Loop 1604. The park has open terrain, broad views, interesting elevation changes, and a network of single- and double-track dirt trails that branch off of the main trail. It’s also relatively uncrowded and dog-friendly, a combination that’s difficult to find in any North Side park.

Panther Springs Park

Offers:  Hiking, biking,  
Location: Southern trailhead at Parman Library (20735 Wilderness Oak, San Antonio, TX 78258). Northern trailhead at Panther Springs Dog Park (22635 Wilderness Oak, San Antonio, TX 78260).
Trail miles: 3 miles of concrete trail, plus a network of dirt trails.
Restrooms: Portable toilets at northern trailhead. Drinking fountains at both trailheads.

Compared to other parks in the area, I found Panther Springs most similar to Stone Oak Park. Both are located in flood plain areas riddled with caves and other karst features. Both are also upstream of flood control dams managed by the San Antonio River Authority.

Visitors looking for a quick jaunt can stick to the 3-mile concrete path that connects the parking lots at Parman Library to the parking lot at the northern trailhead off of Wilderness Oak. The northern trailhead includes a 1.5-acre dog park with separate areas for large and small dogs.

In the open expanse of oaks and brushy meadows at the center of the park, that concrete trail loops around on itself. I applaud whoever named this loop “Trails of Redundantness” in Google Maps.

I had checked out these concrete paths on the map before my visit, but the network of dirt trails and remnants of former ranch roads surprised me. During my visit on a misty Tuesday morning last week, I expected I would explore the paved paths and avoid venturing off into the brambles.

I first noticed the dirt trails when ascending the windy, switch-backing concrete trail that goes from Parman Library to the top of a hill near Wilderness Oak Elementary School. When facing north, the trails that branch off to the right took me through woods and meadows along the neighborhoods that border the park’s eastern side. The trails that branched left headed downhill toward open meadows and forests upstream of the dam.

Panther Springs Creek is a recent name for what longtime residents simply called Salado Creek, one of them told University of Texas at San Antonio archaeologists in the late 1970s, according to this 1985 report that paints a picture of an area that changed drastically during the 20th century.

“Today, Panther Springs Creek is dry except for a few waterholes or for brief periods after heavy rain,” the report states. “Prior to 1930, however, Panther Springs Creek was a flowing stream fed by springs. … These springs were strong and reliable enough to keep the creek flowing in all but the driest years.”

Reading the UTSA report left me a bit depressed about the loss of a more pristine environment that today’s park visitors probably never knew existed. The report’s authors, Stephen L. Black and A. Joachim McGraw, cited destructive ranching practices, aquifer pumping, growing population, and artifact-hunting by collectors as causes of the degradation.

“The most radical local environmental changes within the past 10,000 years probably occurred recently as the result of historic land use practices and increasing urbanization,” the report states.

But during my visit, I was glad that this piece of land had been set aside for public use as the area nearby continues to grow.

I brought my mountain bike, a hardtail with 29-inch wheels that was perfect for exploring these trails. Other bikers had left behind tire tracks, and I could see where some had launched off of 3- to 4- foot drops formed by small cliffs located near the dam.

Other trails passed by cave openings, all of which have been fortified with heavy metal grates to block anyone from entering. I stumbled on one cavern that appeared to drop at least 20 to 30 feet down into blackness.

Heavy metal grates block off the entrance to a cave at Panther Springs Park.
Heavy metal grates block off the entrance to a cave at Panther Springs Park. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

The caves show how closely the surface of the land is connected to the Edwards Aquifer, our main drinking water supply in San Antonio. Any runoff that originates in the park or upstream will inevitably make its way underground.

Fortunately, the park looked remarkably clean. I saw none of the trash or dog poop bags that sometimes festoon other local parks like fields of plastic wildflowers.

I wish I had more time to explore and map the park’s dirt trails. I look forward to getting back to Panther Springs to spend more time exploring.

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