The Trailist Brendan Gibbons floats down the San Antonio River at Saspamco.
Brendan Gibbons floats down the San Antonio River at Saspamco. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

This may sound lame, but after nearly three years in Texas, I’m getting a little tired of the weekend river tubing scene.

Sure, I still occasionally get the urge to join hundreds of my fellow floaters along a sunny section of the San Marcos or Guadalupe rivers, the air filled with the sounds of party people and their waterproof Bluetooth boom boxes.

But more often these days, I seek shade, nature, and solitude. That’s what led me to the San Antonio River at Saspamco.

I found this place while looking up official Texas Parks and Wildlife-sanctioned paddling trails in our area. Other than the Mission Reach, the Saspamco trail is the closest one to San Antonio. The name puzzled me – what in the world is a Saspamco?

I learned that it comes from a nearby hamlet, itself named after the San Antonio Sewer Pipe Manufacturing Company. Around the turn of the 20th century, people were using the abundant red clay in the area to make pipe and tile products. There’s still a plant in the area that uses that red clay to make chimney flue liners.

I found some eerie photos of the old factory from 1914-1915. One shows two men in suits standing atop a brick wall. The building sits in a blank and treeless landscape, like the background in a painting by Dalí or Magritte.

The area looks nothing like that now, with small towns interrupting vast stretches of farms, ranches, country roads, and the occasional oil pump jack. The river itself also feels like a place apart.

Here, you ride the murky, green-tinted water along the snaking 6.5-mile path, shaded by trees. Expect to spend about four hours on the river.

You put in at Graytown Park, where you have to walk down metal stairs to access the river. You take out at the muddy banks of Helton Nature Park (If you pass the bridge of FM 775, you’ve floated too far. Neither park has a boat ramp, making this a place for kayaks and small canoes.

Chances are you’ll have the river to yourself. I’ve floated this reach twice, once on a Sunday, and have never encountered another person outside my party.

Prepare for an active float that requires constant attention to avoid snagging your boat on branches below the water’s surface or brushing your head against a dangling willow limb covered with spiders.

As you quietly drift along, you’ll see a riot of bird life – herons, ducks, kingfishers, and other water-loving species erupt from the trees. The feral hog population also appears to be thriving. I heard their grunts, snorts, and the pounding of their hooves on the river’s banks as I passed by.

In its entirety, the Saspamco paddling trail is 12 miles long, stretching from an access point on Loop 1604 all the way down to Helton Nature Park, just north of Floresville. The 1604 access point was closed recently because of flood debris but was reopened in early June, SARA officials said.

The Graytown-to-Helton section is clear. I last floated this reach on Wednesday and found no major obstacles blocking the river. That could easily change after the next flood, though.

This is not a beginner float. Even experienced paddlers should be prepared. I always bring at least 3 liters of water, food, plenty of sunscreen, bug spray, a phone, and cash (the last two in a waterproof bag). Beware of venomous snakes and the surprising variety of wasps and hornets touching down on the surface.

WARNING: DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS FLOAT IN A TUBE OR OTHER FLIMSY INFLATABLE CRAFT.

I shudder to use all caps, but I’m serious: You could easily puncture a tube and get stranded on this stretch of river. You would have no other option than to scramble up a steep, slippery, brush-covered river bank, find your way through someone’s property back to the road, and hitchhike to your car. In the words of South Park, you’re gonna have a bad time.

You probably don’t want the kind of close water contact you’d have tubing on a more pristine Hill Country river, anyway. I have a lot of warm feelings toward the San Antonio River, but it’s no crystal-clear stream. A city of 1.5 million people tends to leave its mark on a water body.

In this case, trash is the most obvious reminder of the city upriver. Here’s where you can go to revisit all of that unnecessary stuff you used for five seconds and then threw away. Unfortunately, the trash distracts you from the subtle beauty of this place.

When I last floated this reach of the river, I came across an island of trash and driftwood choking the channel. The trash portion was mostly plastic water bottles and mud-stained chunks of polystyrene. I hope that one day they won’t cover the banks of our river.

At least the water is relatively clean.

Unlike the urban San Antonio River and its tributary streams, this section of the river is officially considered clean enough to swim in, as determined by water quality testing by the State and the San Antonio River Authority.

The water here does have elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, according to the River Authority’s most recent Clean Rivers summary report. That’s likely the result of fertilizer runoff. The Trailist recommends keeping the water out of your mouth.

Still, the river here seems clean enough to host a variety of fish life. Lounging just below the surface, I saw longnosed gar with their pointed snouts and slender spotted bass plunging deeper into the water as I passed.

At the Saspamco reach, the San Antonio River has grown quite a bit compared to the relatively shallow stream of the Mission Reach, having merged upstream with its little sister, the Medina River.

Even in dry times when some Hill Country rivers slow to a trickle, the San Antonio River at Saspamco has a reliable flow. That’s largely thanks to recycled water from the San Antonio Water System re-entering the river.

The river gets a big boost upstream of Graytown with treated water from SAWS’ Dos Rios Water Recycling Center. Surprisingly, this water is cleaner than the river water into which it flows. SAWS is required to treat it to almost drinking-water quality standards.

Overall, this river reach offers a kind of solitude in a natural setting that’s hard to find in this area during the busy summer season. It might not become your favorite float, but it will always leave you tired and satisfied.

Brendan Gibbons

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