From the lookout point along Hiawatha Street, the forest at Southside Lions Park East looks like an impenetrable jungle. If San Antonio has any public land that one could call “backcountry” inside Loop 410, this is probably it.

Except for a gravel access road that cuts through the center from north to south, there are no formal paths on the property, just occasional traces cut by animals, off-trail walkers, and unlawful off-roaders (no motorized vehicles allowed). The area is about 250 acres, plenty to explore on foot. The forest is too dense and the paths too unclear to make biking much fun.

Snakes, spiders, poison ivy, and clouds of mosquitos await when exploring the area during the summer months. But in cool seasons when the undergrowth dies and the bugs dissipate, this area can be one of the quietest parks to spend an afternoon and see no other humans. Still, make sure to wear long pants and bring bug spray.

Southside Lions Park East forest

Offers: Hiking
Location: Trailhead at 4008 Pecan Valley Dr, San Antonio, TX 78210. Forest accessible from Salado Creek Greenway.
Trail miles: Some primitive single- and double-track trails, total mileage unknown.
Restrooms: Restrooms and potable water available at Southside Lions Park.

During my visit on Friday, the only large creatures I saw were two feral hogs snuffling in the dirt about a hundred yards away. They ran off as soon as they heard my footsteps. Signs of their digging were everywhere, so I assume there were plenty more that I didn’t see.

I began my walk on the west side of the property, where I followed what started as a clear single-track trail that headed south along Salado Creek.

Unfortunately, that water brings in vast amounts of trash during floods. Trash is a problem along most of southern Salado Creek, with mountains of bottles, plastic bags, and polystyrene cups piling up in the floodplains after every storm. It would take an army of volunteers many days to clean it up, only to see it return after the next rain.

The trail I followed soon branched into smaller trails; one disappeared in a clump of ragweed taller than head height. Another veered southeast through clearer forest.

None of these trails seemed to last long before disappearing into a patch of growth. As I followed the creek on the property’s western half, I started walking off-trail through open woods, without too many thorns and branches snagging my clothes.

But the trees grew smaller in diameter and more tightly packed the more I headed east. I hit a patch of ragweed taller than my head and followed a thin trace of a trail formed by animals. Hidden in the brush up ahead, I could see a series of concrete boxes.

The smell and the San Antonio Water System logo confirmed my hunch that I had found the sewage infrastructure at the end of the gravel access road that cuts through the heart of the property. What I didn’t realize when I started is that the property’s eastern half is more passable because of the double-track roads that emanate from this central maintenance road.

I took one of these wider paths and continued walking upstream along the curving creek. Huge oaks and pecans loomed overhead, and the water in the creek looked surprisingly clear.

That’s around where I stumbled upon an Osage orange, Maclura pomifera, also known as a hedge apple. The distinctive fruits look like green, baseball-sized brains scattered across the forest floor. I almost never see this species in San Antonio, even though it’s native to east and central Texas.

This tree has a fascinating history. For one thing, modern foraging animals will almost never eat them. Instead, the Osage orange was adapted to Ice Age megafauna such as the ground sloth, mammoth, and mastodon, which would eat the tough, latex-filled fruits and poop out the seeds. This lack of modern partner animals has led scientists to label the tree a “ghost of evolution.”

Indigenous peoples would use the hard, flexible, orange-tinted wood to make bows and clubs. The French named it bois d’arc — bow wood. English speakers corrupted it to “bowdock” and other variations.

Why did English-speakers care about this tree? Because it served as an early version of livestock fencing forming a thorny hedge barrier that settlers called “horse-high, bull-strong, and hog-tight.” The settlers’ desire to enclose animals and separate properties led to the tree’s spread throughout much of the eastern U.S.

The green, brain-shaped fruit of the Osage orange has been called an "evolutionary ghost."
The green, brain-shaped fruit of the Osage orange has been called an “evolutionary ghost.” Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

It only fell out of favor, I learned, after the invention of barbed wire. Many San Antonians know about how barbed wire first got its major public debut in 1876, when two barbed-wire salesmen from Illinois used the newly invented material to fence in a herd of longhorn cattle in Alamo Plaza. The strong, cheap, effective wire would be used to carve up the West into ranching parcels.

Perhaps we would all know the Osage orange a little better today if barbed wire hadn’t stepped into its place. Unfortunately, the tree I found was dying, shaded out by three invasive Ligustrum trees, which grow fast and choke the native vegetation.

I continued along the two-track path that followed the creek, later stumbling upon a concrete silo-shaped structure with a metal roof, possibly an abandoned well. Someone had spray-painted psychedelic patterns in black and red along one side.

That’s around when I got lost. The trail formed a small loop and I found myself walking twice past the same thicket of skinny cedar elm trees, one of the densest I’ve seen. Cedar elms are my favorite local fall color trees, but these had already dropped theirs for the winter. I’m making a note to come back earlier in the fall next year, when that patch will be covered in gold.

At that point, having followed most of the trail and with no more appetite for bushwhacking, I followed the path back to the central access road. That leads to the Salado Creek Greenway on the north end of the property, which I followed back to my car.

I’ll be curious to see what ends up happening with this land. The city is already building a 3-mile connection to extend the greenway from Southside Lions to Southeast Military Drive. Eventually, the plan is to join that trail to the Mission Reach.

That could bring new visitors to the forest who might find it as intriguing as I did.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.