I’ve been hammering out miles on my road bike for the past few months, riding loops around Northwest Hills, along Shoal Creek, and over that cool bike and pedestrian bridge at Barton Creek.
Lately, though, I’ve grown weary of pedaling the same routes. So when a friend invited me to join him for a spin on trails at the Purgatory Creek Natural Area in San Marcos, I left the skinny tires behind and loaded up my mountain bike.
I sometimes have a hard time finding mountain bike trails that fit my ability level. I’m pretty comfortable on knobby tires — until I’m stopped at the bottom of a hill, looking up a daunting escalator of boulders. I like the downhills better — as long as the stair-steppy rock doesn’t go on for too long. In short, I like to have fun, but I’m not super good at the technical stuff.
My verdict on the Purgatory Creek trails? Love them. They’re just my speed, with lots of single track through groves of oaks and ashe junipers, across grassy meadows, and over some manageable roller coaster ups and downs.
I didn’t ride all 12 or so miles of trail at the 830-acre San Marcos park, located a 45-minute drive from Central Austin, but I pumped my way over parts of the Dante’s, Beatrice, Ovid and Ripheus routes. The trails, managed by the nonprofit San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance, wind alongside a big rocky dam and parallel parts of Wonder World Drive. There’s a lot of twisty single track, but also some stretches of old double-track road. You’ll find easy flats, a couple of screaming downhills, and some cool rock features, including a grotto carved into a limestone cliff on a trail dubbed Malacoda. Part of the trail goes under the road, and one stretch follows stacked rock cairns through a dry (at least when I was there) creek bed.
You can access the trail system via any of three trailheads. The biggest parking area is at 2101 Hunter Road, the Lower Purgatory access, where there’s a water fountain and port-a-potty. It fills up quickly on nice weekends. Smaller access points are at 1414 Prospect and 1751 Valencia Way, also known as Upper Purgatory, where you can also access a new 1.9-mile stretch of crushed granite pathway suitable for wheelchairs.
Trails interconnect all three trailheads. Expect rocks and roots that can trip you up if you aren’t paying attention, and keep an eye out for trail runners, hikers and birders. One portion of the system, the Paraiso Trail, closes from March 1 to May 30, during golden-cheek warbler nesting season.
Purgatory Creek itself begins west of San Marcos, near the Devil’s Backbone in eastern Comal County, according to the Handbook of Texas. The San Marcos park was initially created in the early 2000s using local funds and grant money. Members of the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance named the trails after Dante’s Inferno.
"We’ve added on to it over the years and we continue to add on to it," said Bert Stratemann, parks operations manager for the San Marcos Parks and Recreation Department. "Our master plan includes a trail system that’s a loop around San Marcos, and we’re well on the way to doing that."
That system’s spine, a 10-foot-wide concrete path, will run along the San Marcos River from Sewell Park at Texas State University to Interstate 35, where it will continue to Stokes Park east of the interstate.
"When all is said and done we’ll have connection from east of Interstate 35 to campus without getting on a street," Stratemann said.
Eventually, the San Marcos trails will become part of the Emerald Crown trail system that planners envision linking with the Violet Crown Trail in Austin and the proposed Sapphire Crown Trail through New Braunfels toward San Antonio.
"No funds have been dedicated, but everybody is committed," Stratemann said. "We’re all for this common goal, so as growth happens, we can all be committed to make those connections."
The Purgatory Creek trails have grown so popular that parking lots fill most weekends. "We know now on busy weekends we have over 800 people per day use this wonderful space," Stratemann said.
The heavy use has caused some conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists, and the parks department is working on ways to mitigate those issues. Visitors are encouraged to avoid the trails after heavy rains, and to pack out what they pack in.
"We want people to help us self monitor and be responsible stewards of the property," he said. One of the biggest problems has been dog waste, left in bags on the side of the trails. "The poop fairy does not live here and she doesn’t pick up those bags."
The Purgatory Creek Trail system is just part of the city’s trial offerings. In all, the city counts more than 27 miles within its limits.
If you go, bring water and don’t cross fences. For more information and maps, go to smgreenbelt.org.
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