Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


The Apple of Your Eye


A River Runs Through It

San Antonio’s historic waterway offers new opportunities for lovers
of culture, nature and history.

THE SAN ANTONIO River Walk sees more than 9 million visitors annually, making it one of the top tourist attractions in Texas. The stone paths, graceful bridges, colorful boats, towering cypress trees and bustling crowds have been an integral part of Texas family road trips to San Antonio for generations.

The iconic downtown stretch of the waterway, just steps away from the Alamo, is now just a small part of a linear park that stretches 15 miles from the river’s source to south of Loop 410. The River Walk has become so much more.

In spots, wide walkways hug the water’s edge; in others, the path may trail away from the river entirely before making its way back to the water. All of it is walkable, much of it can be biked or paddled, and tourist barges run on some of it. Throughout its length, the river harbors a story dense with history, tragedy, dogged determination and continual growth.  



The northern River Walk section, which opened in 2009, is called the Museum Reach. Overgrown bottomland was sculpted into generous riverside paved paths that connect the historic Brackenridge Park to the original Downtown Reach. The southern section, the Mission Reach, is an ambitious ecosystem restoration project completed in 2013 that serves as a corridor connecting downtown to the four Spanish missions of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   

It’s a cool morning with promises of a warmer afternoon when we arrive in San Antonio. After the scorching summer, Pamela Ball tells us, the San Antonio River headwaters known as the Blue Hole have run dry. Ball is the executive director of Headwaters at Incarnate Word, a 53-acre conservation easement hemmed in by the surrounding city. My husband, Roy, and I have run into her accidentally — our stop to see the source of the river coincides with a workday to clear trees dying of Hypoxylon fungus. She details the history of the property and the planning efforts that may one day connect it to the River Walk. (The springs may also be connected by trail to three other Edwards Aquifer springs as part of the Great Springs Project.)

“It’s a spot for contemplative recreation,” Ball says. We walk the Circle of the Springs Garden overlooking a prairie of native grasses. Looming oaks rise above us, and, yes, the springs are dry. We know, though, that this wasn’t always the case. In 1857 Frederick Law Olmstead described the springs as a “sparkling burst from the earth” reaching 20 feet in the air.

Earlier still, in June 1691, a Spanish expedition stopped near an encampment of indigenous Payaya people. Father Damian Massanet wrote, “I called this place San Antonio de Padua, because it was his day. In the language of the Indians, it is called Yanaguana.” It’s unclear if Yanaguana was the springs, the river or the settlement. Whichever, Massanet renamed it San Antonio. He extolled the virtues of the river, noting the diversity of trees and the flowing waters teeming with fish.   


It’s difficult to reconcile that with my memories. Growing up in a northeast San Antonio suburb, my experience of the river consisted of visiting the River Walk for events like senior prom, busking with choir friends during Christmas or twisting through throngs of tourists when family was in town. There wasn’t much natural about it. As it turns out, this was by design.

In 1921, remnants of a hurricane flooded San Antonio. In response, the city decided to create a bypass around a large, flood-prone river bend downtown. In 1929, as construction of the cutoff was nearing completion, San Antonio native Robert H.H. Hugman submitted his vision for the soon-to-be-abandoned bend. Instead of becoming a sewer, water flow would be regulated by a dam, gate and weir, creating commercial arcades in a setting inspired by Mexican water gardens and Spanish villages. This would become the River Walk of my memories, which is still the reach most visited today.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, the Works Progress Administration built 17,000 feet of sidewalk, 31 bridges, an outdoor theater and extensive landscaping along that stretch of river. Buildings utilized existing basements, or excavated new ones, to became riverfront offices and commercial space. River tourism boomed.  



ON OUR recent visit, the Go Rio sightseeing tours are packed, with multiple barges plying the Great Bend. Each has at least 35 riders and a tour guide with loudspeaker. We opt instead to take the shuttle to the Museum Reach. A day pass allows us off and on at will. As we transition to the Museum Reach above the ruins of Hugman’s original dam, we are lifted 9 feet by a river lock. It’s like the Panama Canal on a Lilliputian scale. We view public art as we pass the San Antonio Museum of Art and the vast Victorian mansion that houses VFW Post 76 on our way to the Pearl, the turnaround point for the Museum Reach and a redeveloped brewery.

On the ride back downtown, our discussion turns to food, and our barge captain directs us to Casa Rio.
We are seated inside at my request. We could sit at tables with brightly colored umbrellas that line the water’s edge, but jostling crowds and constant patter from tour guides are a little much. This was the first restaurant on the River Walk. Seeing opportunity in Hugman’s vision, Alfred Beyer dug deep (literally) into the building housing his street-level appliance store. He opened Casa Rio in 1946, and it remains locally owned, serving delicious Mexican food at affordable prices.

Lingering over margaritas, we have a direct view up the channel that first heralded growth. This extension leads to HemisFair Park. Nearly 6½ million people attended HemisFair ’68, and the advantages of a direct connection was obvious. Other growth followed. In 1988 a short arm was carved from it to the Rivercenter Mall.   



TO THE south, riverside improvements were completed through the historic King William District in 1968. Walking through the district is a delight. Rather than tourists, we are greeted by neighbors walking their dogs or jogging. The houses here are gorgeous — architectural works of art. It’s difficult to believe people live in these magnificent homes.

Past the King William District begins the Mission Reach. I have plans for this section. BCycle operates a system of bike rentals with docking stations at each mission. We stop at Confluence Park, where San Pedro Creek feeds the river, and grab bikes. We head out … in the wrong direction. After a mile or so a directional sign makes that clear and we make a U-turn.

If the Museum Reach is urban, the Downtown Reach touristy and the King William District peaceful, the Mission Reach feels natural.

The river’s paved flood channel has been replaced by a narrow, winding channel, like the river’s original course. Native trees and grasses grow along the banks. Egrets stalk prey hiding on the banks, and anglers cast lines into the water. While the city is never far away, it’s easy to feel that this is what the river was like centuries ago.

The Spanish-built missions — Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada — are historic and unique in their own ways. They vary in size and architecture. Where the paths leave the river, monumental works of art create a visual bridge to the mission. The acequias that carried water from the river to the complexes are also present. These are some of the oldest buildings and structures in Texas. But we see more than just history in these places. At San Juan, a priest is hearing confession. At Espada, wedding photos are being taken. These are living places where the past and the present meet.

In the same way, the river itself is a connection of the past to the present. The river is what brought people here, and it still acts as an irresistible draw. Today, millions of gallons of recycled water from the San Antonio Water System flow daily into the river at Brackenridge Park, ensuring that the beauty of the San Antonio River Walk can be enjoyed even in years when the headwaters run dry.  

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