Tales of the River Walk

Lynn Houghton discovers hidden nature and a vast number of animals in central San Antonio.

Paid partnership with Visit San Antonio

Tales of the River Walk

Lynn Houghton discovers hidden nature in central San Antonio — and the vast number of animals that reside along the famous River Walk.

To listen along to the River Walk story, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

If it hadn’t been for a squabble over where to hang fairy lights, the 400-year-old Ben Milam Bald Cypress tree might not exist. A city council ruling in the 1930s would have been the death knell for the trees growing along the banks of the San Antonio River; the council wanted to alter the layout of a 100-year-old flood control channel to assuage the river’s seasonal flooding.

But when the local Fiesta de San Jacinto Association, who needed these incredible arboreal specimens to hang lights and decorations, found out the plan to remove the trees, they decided to fight City Hall. The locals won and the trees stayed.

Now the original cottonwoods and sycamores stand proud along the bank, along with 200-year-old Bald Cypresses as tall as 37 metres, thriving because their roots are able to access this abundant water source. Importantly for those sensitive to the sun like me, their shade brings welcome relief if enjoying the plethora of hospitality outlets on the River Walk’s Horseshoe Bend.

Of course, there are also a number of bars along the path serving tasty margaritas that will quench a thirsty palate. Yet, not everyone is aware of another important layer to the River Walk, a different element to take in: the natural one.

I started noticing the abundance of nature along the towpath when out with the early risers, the joggers and the dog walkers. On a stroll along the River Walk to the San Antonio Museum of Art, in the former Lone Star Brewery, I saw wood ducks, American wigeons, and black-bellied whistling ducks all enjoying an early morning paddle.

Further help to wildlife came in the 1980s with the linking of Brackenridge Park to the Pearl Brewery then, further south, creating access to the King William stretches of the river and to the Blue Star Arts Complex. Now there are 15 miles of contiguous sidewalks, a linear park in fact, and trails along the river, making it possible to walk all the way from Brackenridge to Mission Espada, 10.9 miles away.

The River Walk extension included an ecological restoration of the San Antonio River in the area. Astonishingly, this is the largest urban ecological restoration in the history of the U.S. and the project received a Thiess International Riverprize Award.

Those residing in San Antonio know there is an astonishing amount of wildlife in all of Bexar County due to its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and vast open expanses of the Hill Country to the northeast.

This part of Texas is known to have an abundance of amphibians and frogs in wet, marshy areas. According to the Alamo Chapter of the Master Naturalist Society, the relatively quiet Mission Reach section of the River Walk is where you’ll likely hear the click – click – click of Gulf Coast Frogs.

Even though decades ago many of the river’s twists and turns were ironed out (yes, flood control reared its ugly head again), the River Walk still follows the path of the river.

Though Texas folklore proclaims this is where ‘the deer and the antelope play’, it’s unlikely anyone will see rutting on the River Walk. But there is a bachelor colony of Mexican free-tailed bats roosting in the former Pearl Brewery close to the RiverWalk. The colony’s proximity means you could very well see the tiny shadowy figures flying about after dusk. 

Bats are perhaps San Antonio’s most famous immigrants. Millions of pregnant female Mexican free-tailed bats arrive every spring to have their babies. As many as 20 million migrate to the famous Bracken Cave just north of the city. They come out every sunset to feed and I had the opportunity to go out with the Bat Conservancy to watch this exciting phenomenon.

Fascinatingly, the bats create a vortex in the cave, which is audible, before one bat decides to leave and the rest follow. It takes about three hours for millions of these tiny creatures to exit and it is magical to watch. The bats are much loved by farmers and urban dwellers alike as they eat tonnes of insects over the course of an evening. 

Sometimes spotted near or in the river are snakes; these species are non-venomous and good swimmers. Don’t be too concerned if you see a slithering friend on the towpath; just give them a wild berth. Growing up in dusty California, children like me often spotted rattlers out in the dry stream beds but were never attacked.

Snakes are particularly prevalent when rodent populations are on the increase. The Texas rat snake, known for the black and tan diamond shapes on its skin, does as its name suggests and keeps rat populations down. 

Of the many fish in the river, the reintroduced Guadalupe bass is an important addition. Tiny specimens were raised in the Hills Fisheries Science Center in 2015 and then let go into the water with studies showing a couple of years later that these bass were doing well and spawning. There are also the usual suspects such as trout, tilapia and carp; naturally, fishing in the main channel of the river is hugely popular.

And where there are trees, there are birds. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the cheerful chirping and see the gorgeous red of a northern cardinal, or perhaps spot a scissortail flycatcher fluttering its tail.

Blue buntings or Carolina chickadees, which I first saw when travelling in Tennessee and are similar to our great tits, are also a common sight. Spring is the optimum time of year for spotting waders.

When egrets, herons, and cormorants are out on the river you know there is plenty of fish to be caught. The same is true of predatory birds such as owls, hawks and even eagles. Sightings of large waders and predatory birds are possible, past the locks and out towards Museum Reach.

If staying in Horseshoe Bend, it is a fascinating walk out to the locks and sluice gates to see waders looking for a snack.

For those who come to enjoy this sunken world perched on the water’s edge, the variety of wildlife around might just be a surprise. Human endeavours are certainly fun but do keep an eye out for the thriving flora and fauna – a true testament to the wonderful achievement of the Fiesta de San Jacinto Association, almost a century ago.

Need to know

Getting there: San Antonio is served by multiple, easy one-stop flights through British Airways/American, United, Virgin Atlantic/Delta and JetBlue

Best time to go: San Antonio is a year-round warm-weather destination. Spring and fall are best for solo, couples and friends trips, whilst summer and winter holidays are great for family holidays

Where to stay: The Hotel Valencia River Walk, 150 Houston Street, San Antonio, 78205. On the banks of San Antonio’s famed River Walk is the 213-room Spanish-influenced Hotel Valencia which combines modern elegance with Mediterranean design. Amenities include an open-air European style courtyard, and a stunning terrace overlooking the River Walk and, additionally, a tequila bar plus Argentinian restaurant Dorrego’s.

Food: Known as the birthplace of Tex-Mex cuisine, also a hotbed for Texas BBQ, unique fusion cuisines including Asian Curry with Texas BBQ at Curry Boys BBQ, and Chinese/Japanese/Latin American cuisines at Botika.

Must-pack item: Good walking shoes – San Antonio is a very walkable city!

How to do it: America As You Like It (americaasyoulikeit.com / 020 8742 8299) has a five-night package to San Antonio from £1545 per person including return flights on Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to Austin, five days’ car hire and five nights’ accommodation (room only) at the Hotel Valencia River Walk.

In the area: In addition to the famous Alamo, check out the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park – the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas – and unique restaurants and shops along the River Walk

More information: Go to VisitSanAntonio.com for details and booking.

More information

This article was brought to you in partnership with Visit San Antonio.

From the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas to one of only two Creative Cities of Gastronomy in the entire United States, there is so much to appreciate in San Antonio. Welcome to Real Experiences and True Adventures.

JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.