Where to find the very best old-fashioned wimming holes for a Texas summer.
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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, go sixteen miles out South Lamar (Hwy 71) from Austin to FM Road 3238 and turn left. Twelve miles down the road on the right is a small sign, indicating the turn onto private land. Hamilton Pool is in another world setting. The water cascades about 60 feet into a pool rimmed by a craggy, semicircular wall that slices far into the surrounding cliffs. In the midst of overhanging branches of cypress trees growing in the canyon adjacent to the pool, there are to be heard no honking horns, diesel trucks, sirens, Muzak, or screeching tires. Just the isolated call of an occasional canyon wren, the slight trickle of the meandering brook, and whispers of the wind.
Hamilton’s is mostly patronized by UT students and Austinites. It is also a retreat for the morally reserved who yearn for solitude, but do not wish to bathe in the raw à la Lake Travis’ Hippie Hollow. A rope swing, the earthy smells, and picnic facilities raise Hamilton’s to the status of an all-American prime swimming hole.
This authentic swimming hole has all the fine points of any self-respecting dunking spot without frills or fru-fru. Spartan enthusiasts will appreciate the honest roughness of its bare essentials. Does Blue Hole have spring water, cypress trees, and rope swings? Yes on all counts. And it had the most precious commodity in these times — quiet. The water runs still and startlingly blue beneath the branches and trunks of the three- and four-century-old cypress trees. Scattered along the bank are some wonderfully rickety picnic tables. Behind them is a nondescript camping area with rough-hewn stone dressing rooms against the steep cliff bank.
The overriding charm of Blue Hole is its lack of concession to the modern age. It seems to be a comfortable 50 years behind times. There is an organic, musty smell in the air that comes from the unsanitized, unchlorinated — yet clean — water, which you can enjoy at $2 per carload (up to six people) or 50 cents per person if you walk in.
Recently, the land changed hands from John Dobie, whose family had presided over Blue Hole for a hundred years, to Kirby Perry, an Austin architect. He has made minimal changes, including the addition of three trailer hookups. The charge for campers is $3.50 per night without hookups, $4.50 with. There is a $1 discount for people over 65.
Garner State Park
Not too many years ago, B. J. Thomas made a hit record all about the blooming and fading of puppy love at Garner State Park. In the early Sixties teeny boppers, usually chaperoned more or less by parents, came to Garner in droves, eager for whatever rite of passage they could experience in stolen moments on the banks of the Frio River. However, the craze has faded, and the park is no longer a teen mecca.
The Frio runs clear and cold, and the park is spacious; there are 40 screened shelters and 18 cabins that can accommodate up to six people each, but these facilities are usually booked up well in advance for the summer months. Call the park for rates and reservations (512/232-6633). Paddle boats, picnicking, and miniature golf are further entertainment possibilities.
Fifteen miles west of Garner State Park on FM Road 1050 is the little community of Utopia, on the Sabinal River. Although the accommodations and water facilities here are not the most striking, Utopia Park merits mention because of its coziness and small size. Given as a gift to the community many years ago, the park is maintained solely on rentals of camping space ($2 per night) and four screened shelters ($4 per night). No charge is made for swimming. A large old cypress provides overhanging branches for shade as well as a respectable rope swing. There is also a boat ramp and a square-dancing area.
Twenty-eight miles north of Ulvade, Hwy 83 dips toward, but does not cross, the Frio River. The little settlement there is Concan, whose center of activity is none other than Neal’s swimming camp. Open since 1927, Neal’s tenders enough services and accommodations to catapult the tiny town into competition with such front-runners as New Braunfels and San Marcos. Before delving into the other advantages of Neal’s, I wish to note that the swimming facilities are impeccable. The water at Neal’s is so exquisitely clear that bathers bring scuba equipment to peer into the depths. There is a rope swing for purists and a diving board for the more conventional. Admission for swimming is a modest 50 cents; inner tubes cost $1 a day.
And that’s not all. Neal’s is the site of the town post office, a small grocery store, a restaurant open during hunting season, a washateria, and a gas station. And in addition to that, air-conditioned cabins are rented as well as camp sites and trailer hookups. Neal’s seems to have an endless supply of old-timey diversion. There is a trampoline, horses for hire, and arrangements can be made for hay rides. Not to mention the rapids. Oh, well, the place has to be experienced to be believed.
Right on the arid planes that lead up to the Davis Mountains, roughly halfway between Fort Stockton and Van Horn is Balmorhea State Park, which contains not just any old spring-fed swimming hole, but the largest in Texas. It is fed by San Solomon Springs at the rate of 22 to 26 million gallons of water per day. The springs have undoubtedly been used continuously since prehistoric times. Spanish settlers tapped them for irrigation, and the Mescalero Apaches had used them for drinking water prior to the Spaniards’ arrival. Modern travelers heading to the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona look to Balmorhea as the last-chance dip.
Adults may swim for 50 cents; children at half-price during the season, which runs from the fourth Friday in May to Labor Day. Eighteen cabins are for rent all year long. Camping vehicles can be hooked up for $1.50 per night.
The school district of Colmesneil, nine miles north of Woodville, owns and operates this swimming hole. Back in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built an enclosure to hold spring waters in an earthen reservoir. Later on, the school district gained control of the property, dubbed it Lake Tejas, and began adding amenities to draw the surrounding countryfolk. Forty years later, East Texas denizens still congregate for swimming, picnicking, and lazing about. The lake has a natural white sand beach, a two-tiered diving platform, a baby pool, and a sun deck. Away from the water’s edge there is a small bathhouse, a large picnic area, and a concession stand where first-class hamburgers are concocted by the manager’s wife. The facilities are large enough to accommodate 700 people on a sweltering summer day. Lifeguards are on duty every day from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Adults pay a buck, and children under thirteen pay half to float in a quarter-a-day inner tube, and listen to the wind whistling in the pines.
Fortenberry’s Drug Store in Zavalla looks like part of a movie set of a Larry McMurtry novel. All facets of the décor are honest holdovers from the past — the clapboard floor, ratty screen door on creaky springs, and the proprietress with bubble hairdo.
“Could you tell me how to get to the Blue Hole?” I asked innocently. “Waaal, I ain’t been there in years, y’understand, but I think you go out there on the Jasper Highway, pass Concord Cemetery on the left, then turn right at th’ sign marked Bouton Lake Campground right there by the Mitchells’ house. Can’t miss it ‘cuz there’s a bunch a dogs and a couple trailers in the yard …” And her directions went on and on at a machine-gun pace. I decided to go to the cutoff to the campground from Hwy 63 and play it by ear. Thereafter I questioned a forestry crew and an obliging man on horseback. Blue Hole proved challenging, but not impossible, to find by winding about on a series of unmarked dirt roads. Perhaps the difficulty of access has helped protect its natural beauty: no fences, no bathhouses, no concession stands, no placards spelling out regulations, just a few snuffed-out campfires and a pile of beer cans.
It seems Blue Hole was dug shortly after the turn of the century. Some say it was a quarry where granite for Galveston’s seawall was extracted; some say it was a fuller’s earth pit. The latter seems more probable since the only rock in the area was a crumbly, low-grade limestone.
Regardless of the original purpose, it is now well used by the area’s youth for cooling off when they get as hot as firecrackers in July. Turquoise, crystal waters reflect the looming pines along the banks. This is not the place for Winnebago-style campers used to comforts at close proximity. It is, however, suited to lovers of the remote.
How to get there? Next time passing by Zavalla, just ask the woman at the drugstore for directions.
Big Sandy is about sixteen miles west of Longview. Hwy 80 splits right through 30 acres of spring-fed lakes which hold numerous possibilities for family recreation. The smaller lake on the left (if you’re heading to Mineola) was built by the Texas and Pacific Railroad to provide water for its steam engine boilers. During the early years the lake also was an ideal spot for mass revival baptisms and washboard-style laundering. Many years have passed since the era of steam whistles and washboards, but Big Sandy Lake still holds its own as a family swimming spot. The season runs from the end of May to the first of September; admission is 50 cents a person. There is a diving board, a higher diving platform, concession stand, bathhouse, and an adjacent roller skating rink.
On the other side of Big Sandy Lake is a twenty-acre lake for fishing; it is open to the public at no charge. The manager swears that bass weighing up to eight pounds have been landed from the lower depths.
Just about five miles farther down Hwy 80 toward Mineola is a turn-off for Hawkins Lake. It is much more rustic than Big Sandy Lake, and should appeal to sporty individuals. Fishing is reportedly excellent, and there are ramps for motorboat enthusiasts.