Everybody in Austin should go visit Barton Springs. It’s open 7 days a week year round, except for limited hours on Thursdays when they do maintenance. The water is always within a degree or two of 70F, which feels freezing in summer and freezing in the winter. It’s a natural spring with a natural floor but cement sides. The small entrance fee covers the cost of the lifeguards. It’s close to downtown. You can ride a miniature train with young kids through Zilker Park from the entrance. It’s a great place to lay out a blanket under a tree or in the sun.
None of those facts are why people should go visit. Barton Springs is tied up in the identity and soul of Austin. Austin’s culture flows out from the springs. You will never understand Austin until you have visited there. From the perspective of a long time Austin resident, it is a city of blankets on grass. spontaneous drum and guitar circles, the occasional topless hippie woman, dogs and their people playing in the water downstream, college students and old timers, kids all experiencing Austin together. Austin’s most well funded and most successful environmental organization isn’t a national group, it is Save Our Springs. Austin likes local in Austin. Barton Springs is local. When people say “Keep Austin Weird” what they mean is “Keep Austin like Barton Springs”.
Hamilton Pool is a legendary destination among Austinites. Both newcomers and longtime residents will bemoan if they haven’t been to a UT game or to Hamilton Pool yet. But a true trip to Hamilton Pool should end with a trip to Bert and Ernies General Store, bait shop, full bar, pool hall, and occasional restaurant.
The main attraction to Hamilton Pool is the 50 foot waterfall. The pool itself is surrounded by a trail that visitors can walk around to get closer to and into the waterfall.
Many visitors to Hamilton Pool expect a short hike and can be found carrying large coolers and heavy lawn chairs. Very quickly they come to realize this is a bad idea. The hike is a half mile round trip but it is a very hilly half mile. A half mile also doesn’t seem like a long distance until you try to carry a 50 pound cooler that far in flip flops.
Because the pool is fed by a creek and is largely still water, bacteria levels can get high during runoff from animal grazing areas near the creek after heavy rains. These levels are regularly checked and posted on signs. If levels get high enough the park will be closed until the bacteria levels go back down.
Your entrance fee gets you into other Travis County Parks for the day as well. Nearby is Reimers Ranch which is located on the Pedernales River and is a good spot to go for a hike, rock climbing, or even swimming.
Hamilton Pool is a protected Travis county natural area. A $10 admission will gain access to the park. Pets are not allowed.
The parking lot accommodates 75 cars and it often fills up- especially on weekends.
Jacob’s well is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the words swimming hole. There is not much to do except swim and it is just a literal hole. The mouth of the well is twelve feet across and descends straight down for about thirty feet.
It’s a place to go with a couple of friends, not with a big group. You will meet everybody there and get to know them. Through a series of iron gates to keep casual divers out of harms way the well continues on to a depth of 120 feet. The rest of the creek is wading depth. Because the swimming area is so small and serves as the central focus for the area large crowds just can’t fit.
Many of the guidebooks will list Jacob’s well as closed or needing a permit. This is all outdated information. The area is now administered by a non-profit that is committed to maintaining and restoring the well and the surrounding area. It is now open 7 days a week for swimming and hiking.
Adjacent to the deep well is a limestone cliff. Signs are posted that jumping off the cliff is not allowed. Park officials will enforce the cliff jumping ban. Jumping off the cliff is also dangerous as the water surrounding the deep hole is very shallow and it is easy to misjudge your landing. Even if you judge your landing correctly, a simple jump and rapid descent left one of our party unable to hear from his left ear for several days. Despite the danger many people still jump off the cliffs anyway, either from the high boulder or the low ledge, often to their own detriment.
New Braunfels is one of the places that is distinguished by being one of the first towns in Central Texas to ban disposable drink containers. This ban was brought about due to excessive trash and unruly behavior.
The Comal River is the shortest navigable river in Texas. It originates at a spring and runs 2.5 miles where it joins the Guadalupe River. It runs entirely in the city of New Braunfels. The water is clear and cold (72F) year round.
The highlight of swimming in the Comal is undoubtedly “the tube chute”. The best part is the part that runs from the calm part to the rapids below. The chute is mossy on the bottom, and you are faced with a choice to run it with or without a tube.
If you run the chute without a tube you can actually stand and surf for a bit until you are unceremoniously dumped at the bottom. At the bottom you can shoot off to the right as quick as you can swim and as hard as you can pull. Then, grab the rusty banister to the stairs. If you stay left or fail to exit right you will be engulfed in the plume of the discharge and it will pull you under. After being pulled under, you’ll be looking up at the world going by through the clear water above and thinking you’ve taken your last breath and what a good (or bad) life it has been. Just about the time you’ve come to accept your mortality, you get spit out sputtering breathless and grateful you are still alive.
Most people take the tube chute on a tube, which makes the lower part of the falls easier and less frightening.
The lower part of the river is surrounded by a public park complete with barbeque grills and picnic tables. The water here is slower moving and provides better access for children and those who need less adrenaline in their lives.
Christoval is unique among swimming holes in Texas. To start with it is in West Texas, a part of the world known for friendly people and dry land, not a part of the world not known for swimming holes. It almost seems unfair to start with the West Texas friendliness and also add some giant cypress trees lining a pristine river.
Like many towns in Texas, the pronunciation of Christoval is a shibboleth. You know you are in West Texas because in East Texas they would pronounce the name with three syllables “Christ-o-val”, but in West Texas the locals say it with one syllable that doesn’t seem to have vowels “Chrstobl”.
The nearest city of larger population is San Angelo, home of Goodfellow Air Force Base. Goodfellow is a non-flying Air Force base that is home to the 344th Military Intelligence Battalion and where a lot of intelligence training is done. When these best and brightest of our country find themselves with some leave on a Saturday afternoon they are astute enough to pool their money and fill every seat in the cab they pay to take them down the road to Christoval. The real A students hire a van.
The intelligence training shows in what we are declaring the best rope swing in all of Texas. Thickest & sturdiest rope, check. Three ropes of varying length so you can launch from any height on the giant cypress tree, check. Deep water, check. Retrieval line you can use to get the rope back but that you can also wrap around the rope so it doesn’t catch your leg, check. Multiple smaller rope swings aplenty in case the main one gets crowded, check. Tree sturdy enough to hold four young men at a time on the rope, check.
There is also great fishing, in our visit we caught a crappie and a catfish with just a couple hours of fishing. Entrance is free and camping is free, which is just an unbeatable price. We wouldn’t mind paying a dollar or two if they’d fix the only drawbacks of this otherwise stellar spot, a sub-par porta potty situation and a bit of a litter problem.
In the end Christoval is the kind of place you don’t want to leave. It’s the kind of place that makes you contemplate leaving the big city and working a hard and unforgiving ranch in West Texas just so you could spend your weekends fishing and swimming in a wonderful place like this.