Hiking the path that leads to San Antonio's Mission Reach reveals hidden marvels

click to enlarge On the latest leg of his trek circumnavigating San Antonio, Bill Baird visited the historic Hot Wells ruins. - Bill Baird
Bill Baird
On the latest leg of his trek circumnavigating San Antonio, Bill Baird visited the historic Hot Wells ruins.
Now more than 50 miles into my attempt to circumnavigate San Antonio on foot, my feet are sore and my is skin burnt, but my eyes are newly opened to huge swaths of the Alamo City.

During my last trek, Leon Creek revealed miles of wonderful rocky cliffs and native plants, while the Medina River’s Land Heritage Institute proved an essential — and heretofore unknown to me — destination for local nature lovers. The leg I’m recounting in this installment of my occasional series — connected the Medina River Greenway to the River Walk’s Mission Reach.

Past the Land Heritage Institute’s expansive spread, the Medina River Greenway reaches an eventual confluence with Leon Creek at a bridge so pristine and peaceful, you forget you’re in a major city: a fitting end to a wonderful trail. Coming up the Pleasanton Road trailhead, I met an old fisherman with a tie-dyed headband living out of his 1968 VW bus. His tattered T-shirt read, “In guns we trust.” He hadn’t caught anything that day.

“Doesn’t matter,” he told me, with a smile. Me being the world’s worst fisherman, I tend to agree.

From there, a short walk along Pleasanton Road led to Mitchell Lake. Originally called Laguna de los Platos, the lake was first used during the 1700s by Spanish settlers. The family for which it’s named subsequently turned it into a hunting ground, and the body of water became a SAWS sewage treatment facility until 1987, when discharge ceased.

It’s now home to more than 300 types of birds, and the Audubon Society maintains a visitor center to facilitate spectacular birdwatching while the lake is open to visitors from Friday through Sunday. And, from what I sniffed while walking by, the smell from its previous life seems to have dissipated.

Past Mitchell Lake, the trail ended, and I trudged a mile-long stretch along the littered shoulder of U.S. Highway 281. As cars zoomed past, I felt like an oddball. Proudly so.

As I continued, I encountered an unexpected highlight: the network of trails above Cassin Lake. The open space is actually owned by TJ Maxx. The retailer operates a 1,000-employee distribution center adjacent to the lake, but an easement agreement opened the wonderful wilderness for public use. Veering up a rocky embankment just south of the lake, I felt a thousand miles from the city. Wind rustled through the brush, and rocks beneath my feet revealed a many-colored splendor.

From Cassin Lake, Mission Espada is only a few more miles, skirting old fields, an ancient road and the remains of an acequia. My feet tingled as I walked these pathways, as if the footsteps of the ancient travelers resonated through my shoes. Or maybe the tingling was just my feet falling asleep.

From Espada, I headed north along the San Antonio River. Having hiked a fair stretch of the city now, I can say unequivocally that this is a wonderful stretch, especially the water cascade at Padre Park. The mesmerizing water feature, combined with my many miles of meandering, induced a zen-like calm. The busy city’s background noise — buzzing mowers, blowers, traffic and airplanes — blurred to a white noise ocean wave.

Past Padre Park, I veered east, taking the Acequia Trail for a short detour. Like other city parks, it’s mowed within an inch of its life. Hopefully, one day parks departments will start seeding their massive lawns with native grasses, wildflowers and trees.

Further up the Mission Reach trail, I reached the Hot Wells ruins, another fascinating window into SA history. In 1892, the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum — later known as the San Antonio State Hospital — drilled a well there for its water supply. Rather than potable output, however, the well spewed 104-degree sulfurous water at a whopping 180,000 gallons per day.

The asylum moved to a neighboring site, and the Texas Hot Sulphur Water Sanitarium Co. took over. A hot springs resort went up at the site, making advertising claims the waters could cure syphilis, herpes, indigestion, chronic diarrhea and hair-loss. Celebrities and presidents “took the waters,” including Charlie Chaplin and Teddy Roosevelt, according to historians.   

In 1910, Star Film Co., one of the largest film studios outside of Hollywood, was founded across from the resort and connected to it via drawbridge. More than 70 silent films were produced on the grounds.

Fire plagued the hotel at the hot springs, though, and it burned down at least five times. The last business to occupy the site was a bar called The Flame Room and it too, well, burned down. That time, the flames claimed not only the bar but its collection of taxidermy frogs playing musical instruments, reportedly the largest in the world. 

The property got a new lease on life in 1999, when it was purchased by Blue Star Arts Complex developer James Lifshutz. He asked Justin Parr, a Blue Star gallery owner, to become caretaker of the site while he worked through details of its redevelopment.

“This spot was huge for ghost hunters,” Parr told me as he guided me through a quick tour.

Parr has been living on site since 2004 and has organized events showcasing the Hot Wells property. Bexar County turned the ruins into a park and a newly drilled hot water well is slated to become part of Lifshutz’s planned development. 

I only wish I could have soaked my poor, blistered feet while I was there. I’m sure the original spa purveyors would have touted it as a miracle cure for my malady.

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