Travel & Outdoors

Hope Springs Eternal at Balmorhea

The pool at Balmorhea State Park, on March 23, 2019.

Photograph by Wynn Myers

Among the many celebrated swimming holes blessedly scattered across Texas, the most sublime would have to be the big beauty found way out in the Trans-Pecos, at Balmorhea State Park. Sure, all bodies of water into which you can plunge are pretty wonderful in the sweltering summertime. But this high-desert oasis is unlike any other. How did we get so lucky to have a pool like this in a place like this?

Covering a whopping 1.3 acres of the park’s dusty 103-acre total and impounding some 3.5 million gallons of remarkably clear and refreshingly cool water from the prolific San Solomon Springs, the pool at Balmorhea is huge even by Texas standards. In fact, it’s the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. And situated as it is in the semi-arid climes of the eastern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert, its location is unique too.

But last year, this aquatic jewel gave us all a scare when serious structural issues were discovered during its annual cleaning, prompting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to close the pool for what would turn out to be almost ten months, which meant that Texans had to survive the summer without it.

My first trip to Balmorhea occurred back in the mid-seventies, when I was attending summer camp at Prude Ranch, outside Fort Davis, thirty miles to the south. I was struck by the crystalline waters, the mostly natural rocky bottom, and the pool’s unusual shape, two rectangles jutting from a big circle (which I later realized sort of resembles a bong). I swam with the fish, turtles, and other aquatic creatures and jumped off the distinctive high diving board, which is perched above the 25-foot depths atop a stone-and-concrete platform (the pool has three low diving boards too).

Since those days, I’ve had the pleasure of returning to Balmorhea every few years (the park is actually located in tiny Toyahvale, about four miles down the road from its only slightly larger namesake burg). It’s a requisite stop when I’m traveling to or from Big Bend or to the tri-cities (Alpine, Marfa, and Fort Davis) area. And every time, the rock work, the pool’s brick coping, the spindly trees, the desert-dry grass, and the picturesque Davis Mountains to the south prompt the memories to bubble up. 

The sparkling waters at Balmorhea pool.

Photograph by Wynn Myers

The CCC-built park facilities at Balmorhea State Park.

Photograph by Wynn Myers

Left:

The sparkling waters at Balmorhea pool.

Photograph by Wynn Myers

Right:

The CCC-built park facilities at Balmorhea State Park.

Photograph by Wynn Myers

The San Solomon Springs, which replenish the pool to the impressive tune of 15 million gallons a day, have gurgled forth for millennia, but the park built around the ciénaga, or desert wetland, is the handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps. For several years starting around 1935, the nearly two hundred young men of Company 1856 managed to not only harness the springs’ natural wonder but do so with the sturdy panache that was the CCC’s trademark. In addition to building the pool, whose unique shape is credited to architect Frederick William Digby-Roberts, of Abilene, Company 1856 quarried nearby limestone and made adobe bricks to construct two bathhouses, a concession building, and the funky San Solomon Springs Court, where travelers have, for decades, spent the night. And it’s all still there, a testament to the quality of the CCC’s work.

It’s no surprise that a big swimming pool with year-round water temperatures between 72 and 76 degrees that is located in the desert would be a popular attraction. But in the decade prior to 2017, annual attendance more than doubled to 163,000. So that year the park instituted a day-use capacity of 1,300, a number that was regularly met on summer weekends. 

Last May, though, as workers were getting the pool ready for the busy season, they noticed that the concrete beneath the high diving board was severely deteriorated. The problem was serious enough that the pool was closed immediately—right at the beginning of summer. Some speculated that the damage was caused by seismic activity related to the drilling and fracking currently going on in the area’s Alpine High prospect. But a Parks and Wildlife Department geotechnical examination determined that it was due to “years of undermining erosion behind the wall caused by the flow of water from the springs.” Remember the 15 million gallons of water that flow through the pool each day? As evidenced by Big Bend’s impressive canyons just a few hours south, flowing water can do a lot over time, including undoing even a well-built creation of the CCC. 

Balmorhea enthusiasts were rightfully bummed when they learned they would be deprived of their watery recreation. The closest swimming experiences that are similar to Balmorhea’s are located quite a ways away, at Austin’s Barton Springs Pool, 390 miles to the east, or, if one is willing to leave Texas, at Blue Hole, 350 miles to the north, in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. 

It was estimated that the pool’s repairs were going to cost $2 million, but once the call went out, it didn’t take long for fans of Balmorhea to come to the rescue. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation partnered with the Houston-based Apache Corporation, a major player in the Alpine High, which threw down a $1 million challenge match that was quickly met. Nearly six hundred donations, many from individuals, were received from across the state. Garrison Brothers Distillery, which named one of its whiskeys after the pool, even hosted a series of parties to raise money and awareness. Apache plunked down another $1 million toward an endowment to benefit Balmorhea in perpetuity. With the funds pouring in, work commenced.

Jet Hawkins, nine years old, jumps off the high dive.

Photograph by Wynn Myers

And then, on March 1 of this year, Parks and Wildlife announced that the pool was open for business once again, just in time for spring break. I got there as soon as I could, arriving on a beautiful Wednesday in April. Because the San Solomon Springs Court and park campsites are undergoing a previously planned renovation, the park is open only for day use, but the repairs and enhancements to the pool were barely noticeable to my untrained eye. The turtles and the endangered Pecos gambusia and Comanche Springs pupfish were still there. And so was the iconic high dive, which was painstakingly preserved during the repairs. The water was just as divine as ever. 

Alas, a few weeks after my visit,  the gate that drains the pool became stuck in the open position, which created a safety issue and forced the pool to close again in early May. There was no word on just how long a fix a might take; assessments are still underway. For the sake of the 150,000-plus visitors who were so sorely deprived last year, my fingers are crossed that Balmorhea is back by Memorial Day. Hope, as they say, springs eternal.

Update: The Balmorhea pool did in fact reopen on May 25, but it’s never a bad idea to call ahead just in case. Enjoy! 

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Back to Balmorhea.” Subscribe today.

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Tags: Travel, Balmorhea State Park, West Texas

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