(Next) Best Paddling Towns: San Antonio, TX

You’ve heard it before: Everything is bigger in Texas. Beyond referencing the state’s massive expanse of land, the second largest in the U.S., the saying rings true for many facets of life in Texas, from meat to heat to football (and the occasional dirty joke). Lucky for us paddlers, this “go big” approach also applies to the state’s water trails.

“When people think of Texas they don’t often think of connective trails and nature tourism,” explains Matthew Driffil, Recreation Superintendent with the San Antonio River Authority. According to Driffil, San Antonio has over 2,400 acres of parkland following the San Antonio River. For reference, Central Park in New York City has only 843 acres.

Photo Courtesy of the San Antonio River Foundation

San Antonio is best known as the home of the Alamo, a historic Spanish mission and the most popular tourist destination in Texas. (The Battle of the Alamo was a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution, from 1835-1836, when Mexican troops launched an assault on the Alamo Mission.) Today, all that remains of the Alamo Mission is the church. “People travel far and wide to see the site and say, ‘That’s it?’” says Driffil. “But it is only the beginning.” There are several Spanish missions in San Antonio that provide greater insight into mission life. And many of them are connected by a paddling trail on the San Antonio River.

The Mission Reach Paddling Trail is an 8-mile segment of the San Antonio River that flows through San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and connects four historic Spanish missions. Rent a kayak from Mission Adventure Tours and paddle the most scenic stretch of the trail from Concepcion Park to Espada Park (3.5 miles), or paddle the whole 8-mile trail from Roosevelt Park to Camino Coahuilteca.

A view San Jose Mission in the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. Courtesy Image

Close your eyes. Float on the still water — a cool, shady respite from the hot Southern sun. Envision how this river was used as a highway by the mission communities 300 years ago and by the Coahuiltecans people 10,000 years ago, who called it “yanaguana” – sacred water. Listen to the birds, as 98.5 percent of long-distance migratory bird species in the U.S. pass through here before flying over the ocean. Take it all in, but don’t get lost in the serenity, beauty, and historical significance of this place. You’ll need your wits about you for the 30 fast and fun canoe and kayak shoots through old control structures and riffles during low flow levels on the river.

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña Courtesy Dana Angelo White

After getting your fill on the water, arrange to swap your kayak or canoe out for a bicycle at any of the access points along the Mission Reach Paddling Trail. The extensive hiking and bike paths in the river corridor will connect you with tours, food, and gift shops.

On top of the paddling trails and historic sites, San Antonio has a booming food, craft beer, and art scene. In such a big city it can be hard to decide where to stay, eat, and play. Located just downstream of San Antonio’s Riverwalk, the King William Historic District is the best bet for paddlers visiting the area. It has the hippest food options and the easiest access to the river, according to Driffil. “You can walk down to the access point, hop on the river, explore historic homes built in the 1800s from the water, and then walk or bike to some of the best food in the city. It’s all right there.”

Mission Reach Flotilla Festival Courtesy Image

Looking to dive right in to the funkier side of San Antonio? The city goes into party mode for 12 days in April to celebrate Fiesta, an annual celebration of the diverse heritage, culture and spirit of the city. The San Antonio River Foundation puts on an event called the Mission Reach Flotilla (which just happened April 21) where thousands of people float down the Mission Reach Paddling trail in costumes and bright neon colors (and even dress up their pets) in hopes of winning the best costume award. “It’s an exciting and colorful cultural experience,” says Driffil.

Dancing at the Flotilla Festival Courtesy Dixya Bhattara

Paddlers can stay entertained for days on the water in and around San Antonio. But the city isn’t done making plans to improve their waterfront and recreational amenities. Moving forward, paddlers can expect to see more connectivity between the existing linear trails. The River Authority has acquired more property along the San Antonio River to expand the Mission Reach Paddling Trail to connect with the Saspamco Paddling Trail, just south of San Antonio. This will open the floodgates for longer continuous paddles and opportunities for paddlers of all abilities.

The future of pedal and paddle routes is bright, too. Currently, San Antonio’s greenway trail system extends 80 miles, but the build-out plan is for 140 miles, connecting pieces of the trail over the next five to ten years. Their vision of interconnected land and water trail systems will allow residents and visitors to explore the best of San Antonio without ever getting on a street.

“We’re coming back to our history. San Antonio is here because of the river.” Driffil describes the future of paddling in the area with passion and excitement. “When I tell people about trails in Texas they say ‘Oh, that must be in Austin.’ But San Antonio has made the investment. We are starting to bloom and it only goes up from here.”

There is no doubt they are doing it the Texas way — going big.

More of North America’s (Next) Best Paddling Towns:

— Check out C&K‘s full list of North America’s Top Paddling Towns

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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