For the most part, Texas is generously watered. If you skirt the arid Trans Pecos and the Panhandle, you will discover a tight network of rivers, springs, man-made lakes, and underground water systems that extend across a large part of the state. The good old swimming holes that cover Texas like a patchwork quilt have played many roles. They were natural places to relax and shoot the bull with the boys, or to go courting under cover of darkness and surrounding underbrush. Swimming holes also witnessed zealous Sunday morning conversions and baptisms. They were secluded spots where you could sit alone at dusk and think, and they were the mostly likely spots for rowdy and rambunctious gangs of kids or peaceful family reunions.
Despite urban encroachment and the rapidly deteriorating environment, a respectable number of swimming holes still exist and still deliver maximum fun at wallet-pleasing prices. The only problem with inflation comes when inner tubes need blowing up.
The Comal is said to be the world’s shortest river. True or not, its 3 1/2 miles are unquestionably the turquoise jewel of Texas water recreation spots. Hands down.
The river begins in Landa Park, where several springs bubble up and flow into the park lake. Paddle boats and glass-bottomed boats are available for the benefit of small fry and the adults they cajole into accompanying them. No swimming is permitted in the lake, but part of the flow of the Comal is diverted into Landa Park Pool, a spring-fed pool with a natural rock bottom. Picnicking is free in the park (large groups excepted) but overnight camping is prohibited. From the park pool, the river flows toward Clemens Dam, a relic of the 1890s when hydropower ran the then adjoining grain mills. Nowadays, the dam is used as a prime socializing and gathering spot for the town’s young whippersnappers. The Comal at its widest point here; swimming and sunning are ideal, and free.
Downstream a little further you will find yourself in the domain of Camp Warnecke, founded over 50 years ago. Warnecke’s big attraction is the rapids, pleasantly fast but by no means treacherous, which you can shoot in inner tubes rented from the camp concession shed. Guests staying in Warnecke’s big cabins ($8 to $20 for two persons, depending on type of accommodation) get a reduced inner-tube rental rate of 50 cents per day each. Nonguests must pay 75 cents admission and 50 cents for three hours of tube use. And for each hour past the first three, the sum of one thin dime per hour is levied.
Can that be true? Yes, and more. Just take your rented inner tube and walk upstream to Clemens Dam. Then float through the rapids at Warnecke’s and keep on going around the hairpin bend of the Comal until you come to the exit path for tube riders. You can then walk back through the grounds to the dam, and repeat the process over and over. The ride is never the same twice.
Before I leave this subject so dear to my heart, may I say that New Braunfels has a century-old bakery (Naegelin’s), a worthy and honest café (Krause’s) and a German rathskeller and beer garden (Schwankrug’s).
While putt-putting around in its glass-bottomed boats, you will undoubtedly want to take a dip in the pristine waters of Aquarena Springs. Sorry, city ordinance does not allow it. However, just a short distance away swimming is permitted at, oddly, the ice house. Earlier in the century, ice blocks for ice boxes were made from the water flowing from the springs, the current being diverted by a sluiceway into the ice plants. Nowadays the ice house produces ice from city water, but millions of gallons still crash through the old sluiceway, making a roiling pool of bubbles for Southwest Texas State kids and assorted locals to cavort in at no charge.
Starting from the ice house pool (where a scene from The Getaway was filmed), intrepid adventures can float through City Park and Sewall Park, taking in the array of aquatic vegetation. It is several miles on down the river to the bridge over IH 35 where, hopefully, you have left a car for returning to town, unless you think speeding motorists will pick up hitchhikers clad in bathing suits, face masks, and inner tubes.
Before World War I, many Austin residents regularly came to bathe in Barton Springs at Zilker Park. Sixty years later, a few old die-hards of this era still come for their hot-weather constitutional swims. So do the very young, the middle-aged, and the in-between. Some weekends close to 4000 visitors per day churn through the turnstiles.
For those who have never swum in these springs, a cautionary note: psyche yourself up before diving in. Or better yet, make the initial visit on a hot day in August after you have mowed the lawn (preferably with a push mower), run several miles, and downed a teaspoon of Tabasco sauce. It’s best to have the blood circulating well before the big plunge, because the spring water stays in the upper 60s. Not so cold, you think? On hot summer days there can be easily 40 degrees difference between air and water temperatures. Each season a number of the unprepared splash in and, stunned from the shock, have to be rescued by the attentive lifeguards.
Concrete banks have been constructed around the springs to give the pool a length of nearly 1000 feet and an average width of 125 feet. Even the most ambitious swimmers should find these dimensions challenging in view of the bone-chilling water. Admission is 45 cents for adults, 25 cents for high school kids, and 15 cents for children four through twelve. This year, because of repairs, Barton Springs Pool will not be open until August.
Geologists call it a collapsed grotto. In laymen’s terms, it is a small natural paradise for a dollar a person. To get there,