Wet Hot Texas Summer

38 ways to cool off in our state’s springs, lakes, and more.

Swimmers doing laps at Barton Springs Pool.Video by Nick Simonite

A severe drought combined with higher-than-average temperatures (the second-hottest May on record!) means one thing: we are facing a scorcher of a summer. And when things get hot, Texans go to the water. Our staff and contributors set out to explore all kinds of ways—from the classic (jumping into the pool at Balmorhea State Park) to the adventurous (scuba diving in Huntsville)—to enjoy our state’s springs, rivers, lakes, coast, and pools. The more than three dozen reports here range from deep-dive essays to quick tips. Kayak polo, anyone?


water springs barton springs pool
A swimmer plunging into Barton Springs Pool just before 7 a.m.Photograph by Nick Simonite

Barton Springs Pool in the Dark Is Its Own World

Swimming before sunrise became a necessary ritual for novelist Elizabeth McCracken during an uncertain time. And then came the strangers.

I was never indifferent to Barton Springs Pool, but like many Austinites, I had a mostly summer relationship with it. The beloved landmark is both artificial and ancient, a man-made pool fed by natural springs, three acres of water in the middle of the city. I am a stout, middle-aged woman endowed with both buoyancy and insulation against the cold. Moreover, I’m originally from Massachusetts. During my first summers here, I liked to stand up to my New England waist in Barton Springs and openly mock Texans inching their way into the water, which hovers at 68 to 70 degrees year-round. “Come on in!” I’d tell big men cuddling their own torsos mid-August. “It’s not so bad when you get used to it.”

I didn’t really swim in Barton Springs until the fall of 2020, after our national summer of nothing. A couple of times I went with my daughter, Matilda, before Zoom middle school. The weather was cold, and most of the swimmers who showed up wore wet suits. They could not be mocked. Sometimes a dozen wet-suit wearers arrived to take a dip together, including one guy with a loud voice who liked to set up a speaker by the pool to play music. We called him Foghorn Larry. “When I showed up, there was no party, but when I left, there was a party!” he bellowed one day.

“Maybe they threw it to celebrate you leaving,” my daughter said quietly, to me.

For Matilda the allure of the springs wore off. Not for me.

I decided that autumn to embrace the outdoors by swimming in Barton Springs almost every day. I live about a fifteen-minute drive away, in Hyde Park—just north of the University of Texas campus, where I teach—in a converted bungalow with three human beings I love and one cat with whom I have a decent working relationship. I began arriving earlier and earlier. Generally, there were others there, but the pool is so large that I sometimes wasn’t aware of them at all.

In those early days, the other swimmers and I masked up on the concrete deck bordering the water. We nodded at one another. We swam alone, together. The diving board had been taken down to discourage congregating of any kind, but the staff left the two plastic ducks tethered to the pool floor—marking the board’s territory until it returned—as well as the third plastic duck with a sign on its back telling visitors not to touch the rocks beneath, for fear of disturbing one of the springs’ two endangered salamander species. I touched nothing but the water and, to turn around, the wall at the far end. I felt safe at Barton Springs at a time when we had no idea what safety meant. 

swimming springs balmorhea

Try It!

At Balmorhea, a Grown-up Remembers How to Enjoy a Pool

Pools have been largely decorative for me in my post–Marco Polo years. I believe that once one turns thirty, unless one is a lap swimmer (nope) or accompanied by children (double nope), a pool is a place to drink near and pee in. 

But on my first visit to the world’s largest spring-fed pool, at West Texas’s Balmorhea State Park, an hour northeast of Marfa, I splashed around for two hours. Though much of the park is closed for renovations, the 1.3-acre pool reopened last summer. The water, which rarely dips below 72 degrees, teemed with fauna. It was so clear in the deepest part, 25 feet below me, I could see a turtle clambering over the lush vegetation. The pool was thick with small fish who side-eyed the snorkelers. A man floated by in a doughnut tube, giggling. “The fish are nibbling me—I can feel them nibbling me!” he shouted to his kids. He stopped giggling. “It’s a little weird.”

After I climbed out, another solo Balmorhea-goer passed by. He was an alternate-universe McConaughey—grizzled, lanky, a little overcooked—in a black Speedo, an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, and reflective blue sunglasses. “Good day forrit,” he said with a nod.

Is there a bad day forrit? —Lauren Larson



water rio grande river texas
Mike Naccarato, of Far West Texas Outfitters, heading down the Rio Grande on May 27, 2022.Photograph by Nick Simonite

Paddling Down the Rio Grande in the Shadow of a Drought

My dream of navigating through Big Bend’s stunning canyons finally came true. I just had to start a little farther downstream.

From its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado’s Southern Rockies, the Rio Grande makes its way across New Mexico and into Texas, coursing through some of the country’s farthest flung landscapes. The most renowned and scenic area along the storied river’s nearly two-thousand-mile path to the Gulf of Mexico is the rugged and mountainous Big Bend country, in far West Texas. 

Paddling the Rio Grande through deep limestone canyons in the remote reaches of this isolated and wild land makes for the most picturesque river trip the state has to offer. And I’ve wanted to experience the dramatic natural grandeur of such an adventure for as long as I can remember. The seeds of this dream were first planted decades ago in, of all places, the offices of Bowmer, Courtney, Burleson, and Pemberton—my father’s law firm, in downtown Temple. There, adorning the hallways, were striking sepia-toned black-and-white photographs of the Big Bend region.

The images belonged to Bob Burleson, a partner at the firm and a devoted conservationist. He served on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission; founded the Texas Explorers Club, which helped lobby for the establishment of Guadalupe Mountains National Park; headed the American Whitewater Affiliation (now American Whitewater); and coauthored Backcountry Mexico: A Traveler’s Guide and Phrase Book. I recently learned that Burleson also wrote one of the early guides to paddling the Rio Grande through the Big Bend, which was first published serially in the American Whitewater Affiliation’s magazine and later by the National Park Service. He even once guided U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, another committed conservationist, on a Rio Grande canoe trip in the early sixties and, later, steered him to other natural wonders across the state. These explorations would become the basis for Douglas’s 1967 book Farewell to Texas: A Vanishing Wilderness.

The eye-catching photographs of the mountains and gorges of the Big Bend region, and the ribbon of river that carves its way through them, embedded in my childhood imagination and have remained there for some fifty years. Unlike Bob Burleson, however, I’m not an avid canoeist. I enjoy camping, and I like the water. But my paddling experience is limited to occasional afternoon excursions on the Guadalupe River, especially during the summers when my daughter attended camp in the Hunt area, and on Lady Bird Lake, in downtown Austin. I grew up the youngest of three boys and trailed my middle brother by seven years and my eldest by eight. I’ve heard stories and seen photos of a few canoe trips that my dad and brothers took in Central Texas and Arkansas, but by the time I would have been more than just whiny deadweight, such excursions had, sadly, come to an end.

This past spring, I decided enough was enough. The time to embark upon an epic Rio Grande canoe trip through Santa Elena and the other towering canyons of Big Bend had finally arrived. The long wait was over—or so I thought.

water rivers swimming hole utopia


Heaven Can’t Wait: The Perfect Swimming Hole

I admit to being a little reluctant to write about my favorite swimming spot in Texas. It’s blissfully uncrowded. I’ve never seen more than a handful of swimmers there, even on a scorching Saturday in July. If word got out, would that change? My hope is that Utopia Park’s far-flung location in the tiny town—Utopia’s an hour and a half from San Antonio, four from Houston, and six from Dallas—will help keep things just as they are.

A lush, verdant canopy of live oaks casts ample shade over this small community park along the Sabinal River. The river here is dammed, ensuring that the water stays deep enough for visitors to leap safely off one of several well-worn rope swings that dangle from tree limbs. On a recent visit, I noticed a deer watching me from the banks as I steered my paddleboard upriver. Passing a picturesque little cabin with a rocking chair on the porch, I fantasized about what my life might be like if that were my home. A pair of mallards paddled by, quacking and wiggling their tails as if they were late for an important meeting, while three turtles in a row snoozed on a sunny branch. The water was gin-clear, making it easy to see each inquisitive little fish that nibbled at my board.

After swimming and paddling, I like to unpack a picnic at one of several tables under the live oaks. There’s also a nifty tree-house playground. Tent and RV camping is available, as are screened-in shade structures for rent—“cabins” would be too grand a word, but they’ll keep the bugs out. A day pass costs $10, a bargain for the sense of tranquility the park offers.

To make a weekend of it, there are quite a few attractions within a half-hour drive, including Garner State Park, Lost Maples State Natural Area, and a slew of tubing outfitters along the Frio River in Concan. But I like to keep things simple. When I can set my tube afloat, pop open a cold drink, close my eyes, and listen to the breeze gently stir the cypress branches overhead, Utopia Park is bliss. I don’t need to be anywhere else. —Rose Cahalan



Caddo Lake
Caddo Lake, near Karnack, on May 19, 2022.Photograph by Nick Simonite

The Many Lives of Caddo Lake

The swampy network of waterways straddling the Louisiana border teems with natural wonders—and more than a few secrets.

About an hour before a torrential late-night downpour, Caddo Lake State Park came alive. Inside our roomy four-person tent, pitched forty yards or so from a large pond, my boyfriend, Sean, and I had settled into side-by-side cots, our shaggy little mutt, Bandit, curled up between us. We tried to sleep, but the world outside had other plans.

A chorus of tree frogs began singing in nasal honks all around us. Nearby ducks joined in with occasional quacks. Not quite as harmonious, some owls let out surprisingly humanlike screeches, and the shrill chirp of killdeer birds echoed all around. If any of these calls had been solo acts, I might have found them grating, even frightening, but the cacophony formed a strangely soothing kind of symphony. Then the rain came.

Camping in a thunderstorm is peak camping. A cool, starry night is great, but there’s nothing like listening to steady rainfall while you feel the rumble of thunder, a thrill heightened by knowing that only a thin layer of nylon-polyester blend and a tarp separate you from the elements. Maybe I should have been a little concerned that our site’s gravel tent pad didn’t offer much in the way of drainage, but that was a problem for the morning.

A storm was in the cards for us. That much was clear by the time we’d arrived at the park earlier that afternoon. We had driven about five hours northeast from Austin to Karnack. There weren’t any dark clouds, but the damp, earthy smell of imminent precipitation hit us the second we started setting up at one of the twenty sites in the Mill Pond Camping Area. It was late April, just a few days before the park’s historically wettest month of the year, and I wasn’t going to let the weather tamp down my excitement. Caddo Lake had been on my travel bucket list for years.

Everyone knows how big Texas is, but I’ve always thought the state seldom gets enough credit for just how varied its landscape is. To someone like me, who’s spent her entire life in San Antonio and the surrounding Hill Country, the iridescent waters and dense canopy of bald cypress trees in Caddo Lake seemed as enticing as the mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert or the canyons of the High Plains.

A game of kayak polo on Lady Bird Lake.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson


Kayak Polo Is the Most Joyful, Adrenaline-Fueled, Raucous Sport You’ve Never Tried

Around 2,500 years ago, nomads in the valleys of Central Asia invented polo, a game played on horseback that was later refined in India, and whose one lasting contribution to the culture as we know it is a short-sleeved shirt worn with its collar popped by the villains in eighties movies. In the nineteenth century, British lads began playing a new game with the same name but on rivers and lakes—and so was birthed water polo. Then, 36 years ago, water polo was revolutionized when a group based in rule-abiding Switzerland decided on bylaws for playing the game in kayaks, formally trading the swimming nonsense for a faster game, one played above water and thus easier to watch.

When I first started playing kayak polo in the summer of 2020 and told friends about it, they’d act as if I were speaking gibberish. I’d tell them it was simple and to sound it out: kayak polo is polo played in kayaks. The pitch is a body of water ideally 23 by 35 meters, set off by buoys or landmarks. Two teams of five kayakers, with watertight nylon spray skirts, in sit-in boats that can roll, compete during two 10-minute halves. The game is quick because it is intense. Each team tries to get the ball (about the size of a soccer ball) into one of two nets, which hover a couple of meters above the water at either end of the pitch. You can pass the ball with your hands or by scooping it out of the water with your paddle blade and flinging it, trebuchet-style.

You can dribble but can’t paddle when you have the ball in hand, so the key to success is learning how to give yourself the correct angular momentum before you catch or pick it up, so that you can coast with it. Defense usually involves ramming into the ball carrier’s boat and pushing them off their course. One of the other defensive strategies is pushing someone who has the ball, forcing them to capsize and have to roll back up—at which point, if you’ve done things correctly, you push them underwater again. Being in that death spiral isn’t fun, but it does cool you down. There is no better way to exercise in the Texas summers, for which the game was seemingly intelligently designed.

swimming lakes scuba diving

Try It!

A Scuba Paradise in East Texas

The most comfortable place on a scorching day in East Texas might be fifteen feet below the surface of Huntsville’s Blue Lagoon, about eighty miles north of Houston. Really two lagoons, it caters to scuba divers. The former limestone quarries are filled with rainwater to a maximum depth of about thirty feet, and yes, the water is a beautiful, glassy blue at the surface, though sometimes it can get murky below eighteen feet or so. There’s very little aquatic life, but the natural surroundings are pristine. Blue Lagoon is owned by a private company; its on-site scuba school offers internationally recognized certification courses. Entrance fees are $21 per diver at the park, which opens at 8 a.m. on weekends and 10 a.m. on weekdays. —Josh Alvarez

Party Island—a.k.a. “the Sandbar” or “the Brotilla”—the floating gathering that appears on Lady Bird Lake.
Nine-month-old miniature golden retriever Charley, the king of Party Island.
Dustin McInvale deejaying atop a large paddleboard.
Photographs by Jeff Wilson


Welcome to Party Island on Lady Bird Lake

At Austin’s weekend-long floating bacchanal, it’s BYOP (as in “paddleboard”).

The best thing about good-looking people is that they tend to draw even more good-looking people. So it is with Party Island, a gathering of hundreds in the middle of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake. On a 97-degree Saturday afternoon in the middle of May, legions of hotties had appeared near Lou Neff Point. Most balanced on paddleboards, though some peacocked with more elaborate floatation devices.

The first time I saw the “Brotilla,” so dubbed by Redditors, I was canoeing on the lake in 2020, during the oppressive juncture of the COVID-19 pandemic when there was nowhere to socialize but outside, but outside was too hot. My boyfriend and I navigated our canoe through the floaters gingerly, like we were in the returned lifeboat in the final scene of Titanic. Party Island was less populous then, as was Austin, but even so, there were bodies as far as the eye could see, shimmering on the horizon. The mass has grown each subsequent summer. From Lamar Boulevard Bridge, downriver, Party Island is visible in all its crowded glory, fanning out from its jam-packed center like the Spiral Jetty.

For the most part, I had avoided Party Island since my first foray, chiefly because I do not wish to marinate in the fluids of my fellow man. That afternoon in May, I voiced this concern to someone who looked like a Party Island veteran. He was wearing sunglasses, but I could tell he was rolling his eyes. “You look like an ocean girl,” chimed in his friend, who was visiting from Florida, from atop a nearby paddleboard. “This is no worse than the ocean.” But it is. Later in the afternoon, as I stood waist-deep in the water, watching a fantastic black Lab named Pearl swimming laps in the channels between floats, a Good Samaritan alerted me to an alarming sight rising behind the poo-petrator.

But most of the party dogs perched harmlessly on paddleboards in canine life vests, and most attendees seemed unperturbed by the gross realities of stewing in the broth of the masses for an afternoon. One seasoned Brotilla-goer had arrived that morning, before the crowds of floaters assembled, to inflate and dispatch a vast pink raft with a sparkly floor. Now adrift in the center of the horde of paddleboards, the raft looked like a conversation pit in a Barbie house. In aerial photos taken of Party Island that day, the raft is clearly visible on the northeast side of the flotilla; it was probably visible from space. Half a dozen young men and women lounged in it, drinking and surveying their surroundings.



Cabins on an island in the Laguna Madre.
Cabins on an island in the Laguna Madre.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Reeling in the Years at a Cabin in the Laguna Madre

My family’s shack on an island in the world’s largest hypersaline lagoon has brought us closer to the fishing—and to one another.

When I tell folks that my family owns—well, leases—a cottage on an island in the Laguna Madre, I see the look on their faces. Oh, well, aren’t you fancy. But before they can sarcastically ask about the appurtenances of yacht life, I hasten to add that it’s really more of a shack; in fact, we refer to it simply as “the cabin.” Built in the fifties from scrap lumber by a cohort of Corpus Christi weekenders, it consists of three small, uninsulated rooms frequented by mice and smelly fishermen. There’s no potable water or flushable toilet. In the summer the air is soupy, the mosquitoes biblical. Until a recent makeover, the pier was a rickety hazard to life and limb. When we last visited, this spring, we arrived to find that a corner of the living room floor had collapsed and the salt air had eaten a hole in the metal roof. 

Still: Location, location, location. And the location is, at least by Gulf Coast standards, enviable.

To get to the cabin, you drive south down Padre Island—the longest barrier island in the world—past the sand dunes and amber waves of sea oats into the national seashore, 66 miles of protected coastline that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre. From here, you launch your boat at Bird Island Basin, a favorite spot of windsurfers and anglers. Take a moment to appraise your surroundings. The Laguna Madre lacks the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the obvious splendor of the Pacific Ocean, but it is nonetheless a natural wonder, its subtle majesty hidden in plain sight. Stretching 130 miles from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande at the southern tip of Texas, the “Mother Lagoon” is, together with its Mexican counterpart, the world’s largest hypersaline lagoon. No major rivers feed the Laguna Madre, and its interchange with the Gulf is limited, making its water even saltier than the Gulf’s—the result of sun-powered condensation.

Nonetheless, it is an extraordinarily productive ecosystem, thanks mainly to its thriving meadows of seagrass, which improve water clarity and control erosion. In all, 80 percent of the state’s remaining seagrass is found here. The Laguna Madre is a haven for more than three hundred bird species and yields 43 percent of all the speckled trout harvested along the Texas coast and 31 percent of the black drum. Not every species can survive in this extreme environment, but those that do, thrive. Remote Baffin Bay, which can be accessed via a long boat ride from Bird Island, is one of the Gulf’s great trophy trout fisheries, its waters studded with unusual rocks formed by marine worms as many as three thousand years ago. Farther south, near Brownsville, anglers target common snook, a hard-fighting tropical species that is increasingly flourishing in the warming waters of South Texas.

water oceans dolphin spotting


Fin-Spotting on a Dolphin Cruise

Bottlenose dolphin sightings are easy to come by in Port Aransas. Within a minute of entering the busy Corpus Christi channel between Port A and Aransas Pass this spring, our guides aboard a pontoon boat from Scarlet Lady Dolphin Adventures drew our attention to the dorsal fins all around us. The passengers offered plenty of help.

“Dolphiinnnn!!!” shouted a toddler.

“There’s one!” whispered one man.

“Here’s two!” shouted a woman.

After everyone on board had spotted at least one, my next order of business was to grab a drink at the bar so that I could properly lounge and take in the scenery as the captain drove us out near the jetty, the Lydia Ann Lighthouse, and San José Island, a private property with public beaches.

Along the way, the crew doled out educational tidbits. Some of the pods were groups of males, a guide said, while others were mamas and their calves curling up to the surface in coordinated pairs for a sip of air before diving back down for as long as eight minutes. We were impressed that we were seeing so many fins—until we heard the captain say that often the mammals will jump out in front of the many passing cargo ships and play in the waves. Alas, they didn’t do this for us during our brief tour.

Just as I started fantasizing about hopping off the boat and, like a mermaid, grabbing the fin, the guide, who must have been familiar with that particular daydream, announced that feeding or swimming with dolphins was a crime and that domesticating them was dangerous to their well-being. Busted.

By the time we returned to the dock after an hour and a half at sea, we’d seen a few dozen dolphins—enough to make me wonder how many more I could observe if I had a whole day on the water. —Katy Vine

Glowing kayaks
Zack Jurasek/Courtesy of GlowRow

Scene Report

Glow, Glow, Glow Your Boat

Just off the Texas coast, the marine life is probably wondering what’s up with all the glowing kayaks. Zack Jurasek, who last fall began offering nighttime tours in transparent plastic kayaks equipped with bright-colored lights, says that baitfish, black drum, and stingrays occasionally come in for a closer look. “The dolphins are very curious about the lights too. We’ve had them follow us around,” he says. GlowRow tours, lasting an hour or so, are available in mostly shallow waters around Corpus Christi, North Padre Island, Port Aransas, Port O’Connor, and Rockport from March to November. Paddlers can pick from seven colors—or set the lights to “house party” mode and rotate through all of them—but the critters seem to prefer green and aquamarine. Tours start at $40. —Pam LeBlanc



water swimming pools lazy river
The lazy river on the rooftop of the Marriott Marquis Houston.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

On a Texas-Shaped Lazy River, Just Enjoy the Ride

When you’re floating on top of the Marriott Marquis in downtown Houston, you might have reached peak Texas.

I fell in love with the first swimming pool I met. It was at the historic Norfolk Hotel, in Nairobi, where the grounds were lush with palm trees and the ambrosial scent of frangipani mingled with chlorine. I remember thatched umbrellas shading the lounge chairs and waiters in starched white uniforms serving Coca-Cola in condensation-pebbled glass bottles. The drinks came with cups of ice, a rarity for my mother and me, age five at the time, because we lived on a farm with no refrigerator outside the African city.

And that blue. There’s something about it—Tiffany blue, robin’s-egg blue, swimming pool blue—that quintessential color of summer that gives life a halcyon filter. Underwater, human sounds are muffled, your body is near-weightless, you feel invisible to the world above. Surfacing, you’re a new person. It’s transformative.

I’ve been chasing that blue, that feeling, ever since. When I moved to Texas twenty years ago, I found it in natural spaces, such as Blue Hole Regional Park, in Wimberley, and the river at Blanco State Park. But I still love a swimming pool, from a stock tank at the Floresville ranch where my mother has lived since the nineties to a family resort such as Schlitterbahn, in New Braunfels—especially at a family resort. Maybe it’s because I spent my overseas childhood dreaming of coming to the U.S., with its Golden Arches and bright plastic wonders, but there’s something about a manufactured environment that is especially alluring to me.

So on a recent Saturday, one of the first of many overwhelmingly hot days to come this year, I head for Houston along with my sixteen-year-old daughter, Willa, and her friend. We’re making a pilgrimage to the Playmobil tree house of pools, the Apollo Creed “Living in America” entrance of pools: the world’s largest Texas-shaped lazy river, which is on the roof of the downtown Marriott Marquis Houston.

water swimming pools adults only


Adult-Only Pools Aren’t Always Laps of Luxury

The state’s rivers and lakes have their funky charms, yes, but sometimes all you want is a clear, cold, inviting swimming pool. And sometimes you’d prefer that it be a little more, shall we say, peaceful than the local public option, with its enthusiastic horseplay and flotilla of detached Band-Aids. You might conclude that the next best thing to a private pool is an adult-only pool at a hotel or resort. But that concept can mean different things to different people. As can the word “adult.”

Perhaps you and your book arrive early in the morning at your selected pool, which you briefly have all to yourself until a young woman settles into a nearby lounge chair, fires up her phone, hits speaker, and launches into an hour-long conversation, the gist of which is “OMG I got a resort pass, and I’m having a daycation!!!” Or maybe you’ve just closed your eyes when a dozen groomsmen toting contraband cigars settle in behind you. Perchance you’re enjoying the view of rolling hills beyond the vanishing-edge pool when you notice that the at-capacity water is growing ever murkier beneath an opalescent, coconut-scented sheen.

All of this is to say, if it’s relaxation you seek, choose your pool carefully. Weekday visits are preferable. Look into a spa pool; access to turquoise tranquility often comes with the purchase of a treatment. Or pick a hotel that seems more interested in providing a restful experience than selling gallons of premixed piña coladas. Or reconsider the public pool. You may discover that sharing the water with toddlers is a lot more fun than sharing it with adults behaving like toddlers. —Courtney Bond