Balmorhea State Park

Balmorhea State Park
When most people think of West Texas they think of hot, flat, and dry. Those people are right. This is the land of cactus and mesquite bushes. In this barren land Balmorhea sits there as an oddity. The world’s largest spring fed swimming pool sits in the desert.

The name Balmorhea is a portmanteau from the name of three land promoters. Balcom, Morrow, & Rhea. They established the town in 1906. Twenty six million gallons of 74F water come out of the ground every day. The pool itself has a capacity of three point five million gallons, which means the water in the pool is entirely replaced 7.4 times per day. The pool itself was built during the great depression of the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp and remains largely unchanged today.

A trip to Balmorhea is a purposeful one. You will spend many hours driving through the unforgiving desolate expanse of west Texas crammed into the seat of a hot car. After this journey the image of Balmorhea is about as welcome as a cold beer after mowing the lawn on a summer day or arriving home after a long plane flight riding in coach. Since you are halfway to nowhere you will likely want to stay the night at some of the local motels or at the San Saloman Springs courts motel rooms located in park itself. Having a reservation for the night at the park itself also ensures that upon your arrival you can get in even if the day use is full and there is a waiting line.

The first thing the pools make you want to do is to dive deeper and surround yourself with the many species of fish. Mexican tetras, headwater catfish, comanche springs pupfish, and other species. This is not a swimming hole that you want to stay on the surface, though one wing is about five feet deep. Very quickly you are drawn to the rest of the pool which is about twenty feet deep. Bring a set of goggles or even better bring a full snorkel.

Unlike many of the public pools today Balmorhea still has two diving boards. One near the middle of the pool is about one and a half feet high. The other near the end of the pool is 9 feet high. The water below the high dive is 18 feet deep so there is no danger of bottoming out no matter how hard you try.

Hancock Springs

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Lampasas is in the middle of nowhere but is on the way to everywhere. Highways 183, 190, 281, and FM 580 all collide here. People usually just stop long enough for a red light or two. A few more stop long enough to put some gas in their car and some food in their bellies. Most don’t realize that if they had an hour or two extra for the journey they’d be able to find someplace that might exceed both their origin and their destination.

Old Fashioned. As the oldest spring fed swimming pool in Texas Hancock Springs hasn’t changed much. I expect if you came here in the late 1800s or early 1900s you’d recognize it as not too different from today. Big pecan trees provide deep shade to picnic tables. Lifeguards sit under a large umbrella scanning the pool for kids who can’t swim quite as well as they thought they could or who wandered too far from the shallow end. From time to time they whistle the kids out of the pool for adult swim. There is no diving board, just an end of the pool you can dive off the edge from. Simple, pure.

People come for the water. It comes straight up out of the ground ground on one end and overflows down to the nearby creek on the other. It comes out cold and clear year round. No pumps, no chlorination, no filters, no influence of man. Locals say the water heals your cuts and is good for other ailments of your body. If you ask them if the water heals your mind and your soul I expect they’d say it heals those too.

Hancock Springs Lampassas
Hancock Park Highway, U.S. 281, Lampasas, TX 76550
N 31° 03.321 W 098° 10.949

Sculpture Falls

Relaxing at Sculpture FallsWater sculpts the rock here into many narrow channels that form miniature rapids. Some of these rapids are sized just right for a person to lounge in. Below the rapids lies a deep pool with one bank lined in trees and the other lined with a five to eight foot high cliff. Above the channels lies shallow water perfect to wade in while throwing a frisbee.

Sculpture Falls is the farthest swimming hole from a road of any in Barton Creek. The distance is not too far for those used to hiking, but is far enough that it tends to be a little less crowded than some of the others. It is far enough that a heavy cooler would seem a burden even to the very fit.

It is not the quantity of people that makes this spot more enjoyable, there are still quite a few people. Instead, it is the fact that those who would purposefully pick the farthest hike in Barton Creek to swim tend to be really enjoyable people to share space with. Everybody who is there has earned it and in the earning of the enjoyment have found a greater appreciation.

Krause Springs

Time lapse of the Krause Springs rope swing.
Time lapse of the Krause Springs rope swing.

Waterfalls, giant cypress trees, clear cold water, camping, a butterfly garden, a rope swing, an unchlorinated spring-fed pool. Krause Springs is one of the best swimming holes anywhere. The authors of this book would like to take a moment to thank the Krause family for opening up their home to the public. We can’t describe this place well enough to do it justice except to say it is a true Texas gem and if you haven’t visited it you are missing out.

It’s also worth stopping at Opie’s barbeque right at the turnoff from the main highway either on your way out or even better on your way back. Opie’s is a BYOB establishment. They also have some of the best sides of any BBQ joint in Texas. Tater tot casserole, three kinds of cobbler, brownies, banana pudding. Sometimes it’s hard to know if you are going to Krause Springs for the swimming or because Opie’s is right next to it.

Barton Springs

Barton Spring Swimmer Photo by Randall Chancellor, Licensed Under the Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jrandallc/5314034863/
Barton Spring Swimmer Photo by Randall Chancellor, Licensed Under the Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jrandallc/5314034863/
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

Hamilton Pool Waterfall photo by Julian Garduno, Licensed Under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic http://www.flickr.com/photos/zennomad/4268138458/
Hamilton Pool Waterfall photo by Julian Garduno, Licensed Under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic http://www.flickr.com/photos/zennomad/4268138458/

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

20130803-111638Jacob’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.

Landa Park

Surfing the Tube Chute at Llanda Park
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

Rope Swing at Christoval
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.

Hot Sun and Cold Water

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