Two BIRD NAME______ perch on a pole at Mission Reach.
Two cormorants perch on a pole at Mission Reach. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

San Antonio River Mission Reach

Offers: Walking, biking, paddling
Location: Both sides of San Antonio River from Blue Star Arts Complex (1414 S. Alamo St.) to Mission Espada (10040 Espada Rd.)
River miles: 8 miles 
Restrooms: Restrooms and potable water at Roosevelt Park, Confluence Park, Mission County Park.

Like many of you, the Mission Reach was my introduction to San Antonio trails. I got a chance to walk it before I was even sure that I would move here.

When I interviewed for a job here in 2015, my former editor met me at Blue Star Arts Complex. She suggested I hop on the trail and head south to get a look at this project completed only around two years before.

I remember being surprised by this river and trail in the middle of what looked at the time like a post-industrial zone. That day I also got my first introduction to Texas gully-washers, when a thunderhead rolled over and started dumping rain that sent me hustling back to Blue Star.

Thinking back, it’s amazing how many new public spaces, art projects, and developments have popped up around the Mission Reach in the past five years. Some welcome this investment in a historically neglected part of town; others decry the gentrification and displacement of longtime residents, including most famously those of the Mission Trails mobile home park.

I see all kinds of people using the trail, which is why it can sometimes get crowded, even on weekday mornings.

At around 7 miles one-way, riding the entire Mission Reach between Blue Star and Mission Espada makes for a decent early morning or late evening workout during the summer months. South of Mission Espada, visitors can also traverse to the Medina River trail system via a new 4-mile connector completed earlier this year.

Now I’ve become the one taking visitors and newcomers to the Mission Reach to get outdoors and see some of the landmarks that portray the history of this city. Not all of it looks pretty, but I think it’s all quite interesting.

Aside from the missions themselves, the trail passes the outfall of the underground tunnel that protects downtown from flooding, the abandoned Lone Star Brewery, the former Queen Mary power plant along the east bank, the Calumet refinery, the still-flowing 18th-century Espada Acequia, the 19th-century wellness spa Hot Wells, and more.

That’s why when Michael Coleman, a communications strategist at Public Citizen’s Austin office, wanted to ride bikes and talk about energy issues, I suggested we try the Mission Reach. Coleman grew up in Austin and eventually became a Washington correspondent for the Albuquerque Journal before returning to Austin to work for the advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader.

Coleman frequently rides in Austin and wanted to give San Antonio trails a try. We met at 8 a.m. and rode from Blue Star to Mission San Juan and back.

“I was very struck by the immaculateness of it,” Coleman told me later. Much of Austin’s trail network is gravel, leaving bikes covered in dust. He was also surprised at how quickly the urban environment seems to give way to farm fields and large properties along the river on the South Side.

“It started to feel kind of agrarian out there,” he said. “You really feel like you’re getting outside of town quick on that trail, and you’re really only a couple miles out.”

By 9:30 a.m. when we got back, the heat was already rising. One advantage Coleman pointed out that Austin trails have over the Mission Reach is the shady tree canopy that covers most of that city’s systems. The Trailist recommends bringing plenty of water and sunscreen, and seeking shade often when visiting the Mission Reach during the summer months.

What many people don’t appreciate yet is how the Mission Reach functions as a paddling trail, even during dry times when more popular Hill Country rivers are low. I like to put in at Lone Star Boulevard and take the kayak out at Espada Park, the last take-out spot before Espada Dam.

Kayakers participate in the River Relay.
Kayakers participate in the River Relay. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

While on the water, visitors can truly appreciate how the San Antonio River Improvements Project took what was formerly a trapezoid-shaped drainage channel and turned it into something that looks and feels more like an actual river again.

The project created a series of pools with small rapids known as riffles in between. Kayak chutes that look like the world’s flattest staircases slide paddlers from one pool to the next. These chutes will rip up inflatable watercraft, so make sure to only take hardshell kayaks down the Mission Reach.

The natural channel features aren’t the only efforts the San Antonio River Authority has put in to restoring the natural ecosystem of the Mission Reach. The River Authority’s staff and army of volunteers has also planted native shrubs, grasses, and trees, and worked hard to beat back invasive species.

Science shows their efforts are paying off. A recent bird survey of the Mission Reach turned up 186 species, including rare birds such as the federally endangered interior least tern. These birds wouldn’t be flocking to the area if they weren’t finding productive habitat.

For those who want to get more deeply involved with the Mission Reach, there’s a way to give your time to make it even better. The River Authority’s River Warriors volunteer program deploys interested residents to plant native trees and shrubs, work on citizen science initiatives, and pick up litter along the waterway.

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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.