I recently asked a friend who grew up in San Antonio if there’s any good hiking on the Northeast Side. “Nah,” he said. “There’s really nothing out there.”
I wanted to see if I could prove him wrong, and that’s how I stumbled upon Cibolo Creek Primitive Trail on the boundary of Universal City and Schertz. The route runs from Universal City Park to Veterans Park just north of State Highway 78 and Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
The main trail is a mix of concrete and gravel and runs 1.7 miles, for a 3.4-mile out-and-back. There are 3.4 miles of trails total, including the main trail and its loops and offshoots.
The trail follows Cibolo Creek, the dividing line in that area between Bexar and Guadalupe counties. Rising northwest of Boerne and flowing 96 miles to the southeast, Cibolo Creek is a significant tributary to the San Antonio River when the two converge in Karnes County.
Easy creek access is one of the main selling points of this trail, as are some of the interesting limestone rock formations along the creek bed.
Length is another. Cibolo Creek Primitive Trail offers one of the longest hikes available on public land in this part of the San Antonio area.
The trails are passable for mountain bikes, though they won’t make for too exciting a ride. I would take only a mountain bike or sturdy gravel bike on the main trail and mountain bikes only on the packed-dirt offshoots.
Disc golfers may already know this trail system well because of the 18-hole course that winds through the woods and side paths along the creek. I haven’t played the course yet, but one online review describes it as “mix of open shots, elevated shots, and tight Blair Witch-style holes.”
That’s an apt description. For some reason, this trail felt a little spooky.
When I visited on the afternoon of Halloween, a half-dozen disc golfers were finishing their game near the trailhead. I hiked past them along the main trail, taking a detour to check out a stream trickling down a shallow ravine of limestone.
The second my rubber soles touched the moss-covered rocks, my feet shot out from under me and I landed hard on my hip and elbow. I’m glad no one was there – it would have looked like the classic slipping-on-a-banana-peel routine.
I tried to walk off the pain, heading deeper into the woods. I could hear trucks on SH 78 and, at 5:30 p.m., a bugle retreat and the national anthem emanating from Randolph, but there were no people around.
I started thinking about how long humans have lived in this area, starting with Native Americans tens of thousands of years ago. I thought about how many lives have come and gone along the banks of Cibolo Creek. I’m not usually the superstitious type, but I thought about how many souls might still be lingering there.
Bad idea. I started to feel the hair rise on the back of my neck. My breathing grew shallow and my heart rate increased. I felt the temperature drop and the wind begin to pick up.
When I turned around and looked north, I saw the wall of dark clouds bearing down on me. Lightning cracked, and gusts of wind swirled the dry leaves. It felt like a good time to leave.
I started walking back, then trotting, then broke into a full-on run as the storm bore down. The parking lot was within sight when the deluge started, but I couldn’t make it before I got soaked.
I returned later last week under blue skies and did not get the creepy vibe I had felt on Halloween. I’m sure it was all in my head, but the experience inspired me to look up some of the history of the creek in this area. I wanted to know who had walked there before me.
First, of course, were Native Americans. The creek’s name was “Xoloton” in Coahuiltecan and “Bata Coniquiyoqui” in Tonkawan, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Spanish explorers gave the creek a series of Catholic names during their visits in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Europeans, particularly Germans, later settled the area. When the railroad arrived in 1877, the nearest stop was named Cibolo Valley.
“Cibolo” is a Spanish word for the American bison, and herds of these giants of the plains once roamed the creek’s banks. I found some reports online that the steep banks of Cibolo Creek in this area were once used as buffalo jumps, where Native Americans drove bison off cliffs to kill them more efficiently.
I wasn’t able to verify whether there was a buffalo jump at what is now Universal City, though the bank may be steep enough in some places, including the Universal City Caves.
The caves aren’t true caves that let you get lost in darkness, but a set of small grottoes in a cliff bank that lies at the end of the Cave Trail that branches off the main route. Graffiti covers some of the cliff rock.
During my visits, the creek had pooled below the cliffs, making the caves inaccessible from the trail. Some rock formations in the creek stuck out of the water and were easy to climb on, though.
Although it’s often dry, Cibolo Creek can experience some epic flooding, including in the historic downpours of 1998 and 2002. More recently, in 2013, an 18-year-old boy drowned after trying to cross the creek from Universal City to Schertz.
Because of the flash-flood hazards and mud, steer clear of this park when rain is in the forecast. Pick a bright, clear day, when the heat of the burning sun makes you want to step into the shadows of the forest.