WHO: Anyone planning a West Texas trip this summer.
WHAT: Balmorhea State Park’s beloved spring-fed pool, which will reopen later this month for the first time since September 2019.
WHY IT’S SO GREAT: The 85-year-old, 3.5-million-gallon pool offers respite from the heat and a chance to swim with endangered fish.
My favorite memory from Balmorhea State Park, about 32 miles north of Fort Davis, is from a chilly October morning almost six years ago. When my husband and I arrived at the sprawling pool area around 10 a.m., the crystal-clear water caught the morning light, practically glowing in an alluring shade of turquoise that seemed better suited to the Caribbean than the West Texas desert. As always, I marveled at the sheer size of the pool, which, at 1.3 acres and 3.5 million gallons, is the biggest spring-fed pool on the planet. If you’ve been to Barton Springs Pool in Austin, Balmorhea looks a lot like it, except much larger and less crowded. Although temperatures were in the fifties and a steady rain was falling, we swapped our fleece and jeans for swimsuits (a sign near the changing rooms warned visitors to look out for snakes). As I sat on the edge, shivering and gathering my courage, Chris climbed to the top of the high diving board and promptly jumped right into the 25-foot-deep water below. The only other visitors that morning, a warmly dressed older couple, watched with amusement, seemingly wondering why anyone would swim on such a wet, chilly day. “Is he okay?” the woman asked. Chris suddenly surfaced in the deep end, grinning, his eyes wide. “Water’s fine!”
I’ve missed Balmorhea. The San Solomon Springs–fed pool, in Toyahvale, has been mostly closed for renovations for much of the past three years. On Monday, though, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced a piece of very good news for anyone planning a West Texas summer vacation: the pool and day-use area will reopen on June 26. You’ll need to reserve your spot before you go; camping, the San Solomon Springs Court motel, and the ciénagas, or desert wetland pools, are still off-limits. Park superintendent Carolyn Rose says she’s eager to welcome visitors back.
“We know that people are dying to get back out to the pool,” Rose says, noting that an as-yet-to-be-determined cap on the number of daily visitors will be in place. “Cultural history and the natural environment come together at the park in a really unique way.”
Five federally endangered species live at Balmorhea, including the Comanche Springs pupfish, an iridescent, inch-long critter that lives nowhere else in the world. “You can see them at the bottom of the pool when you’re swimming around down there,” Rose says. “They were in the Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton, but those were pumped dry in the fifties. This is their last chance.”
Renovations at Balmorhea take longer than at most parks, she notes, because rangers must take special care to protect the pupfish and its endangered brethren—which include another tiny fish, the Pecos gambusia; two kinds of snails; and an invertebrate called the diminutive amphipod. The 85-year-old pool underwent a first round of repairs over an almost-ten-month closure in 2018. During the most recent closure, which began in September 2019, the park’s aging septic system was replaced. A pergola near the deep end was rebuilt, and the perimeter of the pool now has a sturdy limestone and wrought iron fence, replacing its chain-link predecessor.
Balmorhea is a rare oasis in the harsh Chihuahuan Desert. When the Civilian Conservation Corps built the pool in the thirties, there was nowhere else to swim for miles around—and that’s still more or less the case. The closest public pool is in Fort Stockton, just under an hour away. In 2017, the most recent year that Balmorhea was fully open, roughly 153,000 visitors stopped by. Though oil drilling and drought continue to pose threats to the delicate ecosystem of the San Solomon Springs, Rose says she’s hopeful.
“Things are pretty good,” she says. “A lot of attention has been placed on Balmorhea, and Parks and Wildlife is starting to direct a lot of funding toward the park.” She’s also glad that fracking in the immediate vicinity of the park has decreased. But climate change looms as a serious long-term threat: “I’m very worried about water. Anybody who lives in West Texas needs to be worried about water … We’re in a terrible drought, and water is precious out here.”
Better get out to Balmorhea while you can. It’s the perfect stop en route to or from Big Bend, and there’s nothing more refreshing than cannonballing off the high dive into the strikingly clear pool, which hovers between 72 and 76 degrees year-round. Water’s fine!