1) Barton Springs Pool
Now that it has been blessed twice—by Taoist monks from China and Tibetan monks from India—maybe the springs will survive the whirl of progress that continues to transform the capital. It’s long been the jewel in the city’s violet crown, and rightly so. Just below the diving board, the spring that feeds the pool—named Parthenia after one of “Uncle Billy” Barton’s daughters—pushes out an average of 27 million gallons a day, making it the largest of the many that flow out of the Balcones Fault in this area. The combination of a beautiful setting, beautiful people, and cold, refreshing water makes Barton Springs the best swimming hole in the state. Recipe for a perfect afternoon: Combine towel and sunscreen, add people- watching and shade to taste, and bake until ready for refrigeration. Repeat until sunset. For best results, add your honey. If you’re hungry: burgers and shakes at P. Terry’s. In Zilker Park, at 2101 Barton Springs Road. 512-476-9044. Open year-round; hours change seasonally. $3. Crowded on weekends – Shade – Lifeguard – Grilling.
2) Blue Hole
This gorgeous spot on Cypress Creek in the heart of Wimberley Valley is probably the quintessential Texas swimming hole. Tall old-growth bald cypresses and other trees cast pools of shade so picture-perfectly that one might imagine this to be a mirage constructed to taunt the hot and sticky. After a battle with developers in 2005, the Village of Wimberley purchased the 126-acre tract and designated it a regional park, with plans for tennis courts and a soccer field. Hmmm. All I ask is that they leave the swings. If you’re hungry: black bean tacos at the Cypress Creek Café. 333 Blue Hole Lane. 512-847-0025. Open Memorial Day through Labor Day, Sun–Thur 10–6, Fri, Sat, & holidays 10–8. $5. Crowded on weekends – Shade – Rope Swing.
3) Brinks Crossing
Shady trees, a sandy beach, a large rocky area for sunbathing, and the deep brown river make this a top-notch swimming spot. To sniff this place out, I used Guerrilla Swimming Tactic No. 2, according to which you explore anything named River Road to see where it leads (Tactic No. 1 is a secret I will take to my grave). Never has Tactic No. 2 paid such dividends! A hidden gem, and the ground was noticeably freer of beer cans and other detritus than most public spots. Gold stars to those who keep it that way. If you’re hungry: Bring a picnic. Where Center Point River Road crosses the Guadalupe River. Free. Shade.
4) Balmorhea State Park
The San Solomon Springs push out 22 million to 28 million gallons a day at Balmorhea, and the resulting oasis is worth a stop (or even a long detour) any day. The huge L-shaped pool (one and three quarters acres!) has plenty of room for the bales of turtles, schools of small fish, thronglets of children, and gaggles of scuba divers that gather in, around, and under the water. Screw up your courage and take a plunge off the high dive. The hole’s strange moniker was derived by combining the names of Messrs. Balcum, Moore, and Rhea, the gentlemen who developed the land, in 1906. If you’re hungry: homemade burritos at Balmorhea Grocery. Off Interstate 10, on Texas Highway 17 South just past Balmorhea. 432-375-2370. Open year-round, 8–sunset. $7. Picnic Tables – Shade – Grilling – Camping.
5) Hamilton Pool
Oblivious (for now) to the subdivisions mushrooming nearby, Hamilton Creek flows on gamely, making a little Niagara as it cascades over a limestone shelf into a steep wooded canyon. Generations of Austinites have played under the fifty-foot falls and swum in the big, round, bright-green lagoon. The pool is part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, so one might hope this magical spot will be preserved for many years to come. On busy summer weekends, consider pulling into Milton Reimers Ranch Park instead (the entrance is just south of Hamilton Pool) and hiking down to the Pedernales River. Be advised: Like many swimming holes, Hamilton Pool is occasionally closed due to high bacteria levels, so it’s wise to call ahead. If you’re hungry: Bring a picnic. Thirteen miles west of Texas Highway 71 on Hamilton Pool Road (FM 3238). 512-264-2740. Open year-round, 9–6. $8 per vehicle. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade.
6) Garner State Park
You can get into the Rio Frio almost anywhere the smaller roads running east from U.S. 83 cross it. The best place is at Garner, which, unsurprisingly, is the most popular of all the state parks for overnight camping. The ashe juniper-covered peaks that rise to the west between the river and the highway make a stunning backdrop to the bald cypress-lined river as it tumbles over rocky rapids into the slow, wide section leading to the dam. Tube, float, paddle, and grill your heart out all day, but be aware that the place is an absolute zoo on weekends, so you should plan on getting there very early. For a different experience, visit on a weekday morning, when you will have the park entirely to yourself. If you’re hungry: Bring a picnic. A quarter mile east of U.S. 83 on RM 1050. 830-232-6132. Open year-round; hours change seasonally. $6. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Rope Swing – Grilling – Camping.
7) Schlitterbahn West
A gol dang amusement park is the seventh-best swimming hole in Texas? Hey, recall that for the purposes of this article, what defines a swimming hole is flowing freshwater. Given that, how could I resist the Comal River-powered rides in the old section of the best water park in the country? The shady oak trees on the steep riverbank down which the rides swoop and glide give the place the air of a rural retreat, and the view across the leafy city does nothing to dispel this notion. When it’s your partner’s turn to shepherd the kids, grab a tube and float in the pool until you feel ready for the swim-up bar, conveniently situated in the hot tub. Family fun really doesn’t get much better than this (or, it must be noted, much more expensive). If you’re hungry: Dippin’ Dots are a must. 305 W. Austin. 830-625-2351. Open April through September 21; hours vary. $37.99 ($29.99 for kids 3–11). Crowded on Weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Lifeguard.
8) Deep Eddy Pool
While I acknowledge the superiority of Barton Springs, Deep Eddy is always my first choice in Austin, because there I can actually swim up and down the lap lanes. What, you don’t need to practice your butterfly stroke? Lots of grass to lie on and a large pool to wade in make this a popular destination for parents and kids too. Even without the fifty-foot cottonwoods that the city removed in 2004 amid wailing and lamentations, this pool, fed from two 30-foot wells, remains a special place in the heart of the city, with its own congregation of (mostly middle-aged) devotees who gather here after work every afternoon. If you’re hungry: Mag Mud at the Magnolia Café. 401 Deep Eddy Avenue. 512-472-8546. Open year-round; hours change seasonally. $3. Crowded on Weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Lifeguard.
9) Medina River
In case you’ve forgotten, YouTube will remind you that “Funky Cold Medina,” rapper Tone Loc’s 1989 hit single, was a song about a magic love potion that worked on both women and dogs. I am unaware of any connection between the song and the river but can attest to the power of this secluded loop between Peaceful Valley Ranch Road and Ranger Crossing, just north of Bandera, to relax humans and canines of both sexes. Perfect for tubing on a Sunday afternoon. If you’re hungry: buffet at the Old Spanish Trail Restaurant. Six miles north of Bandera on Texas Highway 16. Free. Picnic Tables – Shade – Grilling.
10) Fort Clark Springs
Las Moras Springs, named by Spanish explorers (moras means “blackberries,” though I found none in the vicinity), was the local spot for rest and relaxation for some 12,000 years before Fort Clark was built along the creek, in 1852. The old fort is now a gated residential community with a golf course and a motel. The adjacent pool, the third-largest spring-fed pool in Texas, is a serious rival to Balmorhea for the title of Best in the West. For day-trippers, it may be the main factor in answering the age-old “I-10 versus Highway 90” quandary. If you’re the sort who always picks I-10, take the low road next time and spend a night in Bracketville. Warning: The swimming pool is open only to motel guests or those signed in by a guest. If you’re hungry: enchiladas at Julie’s Place. Just south of U.S. 90 on Fort Clark Road. 830-563-2493. Open year-round, sunrise to sunset. Free to motel guests. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Grilling – Camping.
11) Krause Springs
The Hill Country is mecca for fans of the open-air dip, and the family-run Krause Springs is one of its most hallowed shrines. Octogenarian Elton Krause is the guardian angel at the gates of this piece of paradise on earth, or, more specifically, on Cypress Creek. There, in the shade of cypress, oak, and sycamore trees, the water tumbles down a steep bluff over ferns and crashes into a small, deep pool. Arrive early to beat the crowds. If you’re hungry: brisket at Opie’s BBQ. Just off Texas Highway 71 on County Road 404. 830-693-4181. Open year-round, 9–sunset. $5. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Rope Swing – Grilling – Camping.
12) Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area
With Boykin Springs, in the Angelina National Forest, closed since Hurricane Rita, Ratcliff Lake is arguably the most beautiful place to swim in East Texas (though the Neches River boasts a number of fine holes too). Deep in the Davy Crockett National Forest, this picturesque fishing lake has a roped-off swimming area, and you can rent a canoe for exploring and then a pedal boat when your arms get tired. Plenty of camping and great hiking (the twenty-mile Four C Trail starts here) make this an unbeatable place for a weekend getaway. If you’re hungry: Bring a picnic. One mile east of Ratcliff on Texas Highway 7. 936-655-2299. Open year-round, sunrise–10. $3 per vehicle. Picnic Tables – Shade – Grilling – Camping.
13) City Tube Chute
If I ever left Texas, I think the memento I would most treasure would be one of the signs that hang across the Comal just before this chute, warning of its proximity. Zooming down the slippery S-shaped concrete channel is usually the thirty-second climax after two torpid hours on the river, but there’s nothing to stop thrill-seekers from repeating the rush all day. On a recent early morning I watched a bunch of cops in helmets and life jackets run it tubeless, which I bet they wouldn’t let civilians do during regular hours. If you’re hungry: schnitzel at Friesenhaus. Prince Solms Park, 100 Leibscher Drive. 830-608-2165. Open Memorial Day through mid-August, 10–7 (weekends only mid-August through Labor Day). $5. Picnic Tables – Lifeguard.
14) Lake Raven
Thick pine forest surrounds this pretty lake fed by three creeks: Prairie Branch, Big Chiquapin, and Little Chiquapin. It was created in 1937 as a recreation destination. Fishing is what most people come here to do, but there is an area roped off for swimmers, with a sandy beach and a floating dock. Like at many East Texas holes, tannin in nearby pine trees has turned the water the color of iced tea. Recently I laid out on the dock and watched the morning sun sparkling on the water and couldn’t imagine anything much better. My only worry was whether the park’s alligators knew that the rope meant that the swimming area was off-limits to them. If you’re hungry: the daily special at the Café Texan. Huntsville State Park, six miles southwest of Huntsville off Interstate 45 on Park Road 40. 936-295-5644. Open year-round, 8–10. $4. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Grilling – Camping.
15) Utopia City Park
Two old dudes were sitting on a beat-up Dodge truck passing the time over Budweisers when I arrived at this lovely little park by the Sabinal River. “You’ve come to the best part of the best part of Texas,” one of them told me, and on a sunny afternoon, I wasn’t about to doubt him. Huge cypress trees stand like sentinels along the water, sheltering a number of camping and picnicking stations. This is one of several places along FM 187 that offer river access and riverside cabin rental or camping. If you’re hungry: panini and smoothies at Utopia Joe’s Coffee House. West of FM 187, at the intersection of Houston (FM 1050) and Cypress. 830-966-3643. Open year-round, sunrise to sunset. $5 per vehicle. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Rope Swing – Grilling – Camping.
16) Burger’s Lake
The main attraction at this old-fashioned park, located right by the Trinity River in the northwest part of the city, is a spring-fed, one-acre pool with fountains, sandy beaches, and diving boards—in other words, family fun that Fort Worthians have been enjoying for generations. If you’re hungry: Bring a picnic. 1200 Meandering Road. 817-737-3414. Open Mother’s Day through Labor Day, 9–7 (weekends only through the end of September). $12. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Rope Swing – Lifeguard – Grilling.
17) The Quince
A few hundred yards along River Road off of Texas Highway 55, you can pull over and park by the Nueces. No frills here, just cold, clear water deep enough to dive into—fifteen feet deep, in fact, which accounts for the local sobriquet. I spent a happy half hour at this spot—also known to locals by the less-evocative tag “the Swim Hole”—and the empty beer cans suggested I was not the first. If you’re hungry: Angus burgers or all-day breakfast at B.J.’s Café and Sweet Shop. Half a mile west of Texas Highway 55 on River Road, opposite the Rocky River Camp. Free.
18) The Slab
Just before the Llano River curves sharply to meet the Colorado, it tumbles through lilliputian mountains of pink granite, where you can drape yourself, Gulliver-like, over the rocks and lounge in the shallow pools. Though superb for those who just want to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature, this spot is not so good for actual swimming. So why is it eighteenth on my list? Because soaking up the sun to the sound of running water amid this much scenery is a pleasure not to be missed. Besides, the water’s deep enough to cover your belly. Be advised: Parking is extremely limited. If you’re hungry: burgers and ice cream at Storm’s. Where RR 3404 crosses the Llano River. Free. Crowded on weekends.
19) Cypress Bend Park
A little more au naturel than the City Tube Chute, this convenient park gives access to the Guadalupe River where it makes one of a series of lazy curves around the eastern side of town. Gaze at the sky through the trees and you’ll feel as if you’re a long way from the center of town. If you’re hungry: the migas plate at El Nopalito. 600 Peace Avenue. 830-221-4350. Open year-round, 8–dusk. Free. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables.
20) Lake Fryer at Wolf Creek Park
After a short time, I stopped thinking that the six flags hanging at the entrance might be some deluded attempt at false pretenses, since this roughly seven-hundred-acre county park can stand proud on its own merits as a delightfully low-key getaway with the emphasis, as usual, on fishing and camping. There are the usual picnic tables and grills. Designated swimming areas are on the north side of the lake by the concrete dam. Like many places on my list, Lake Fryer has drawn people for thousands of years, from the Indians who built villages along the creek to the local families who have gathered here since the land was settled. If you find yourself up in the Panhandle, Lake Fryer is well worth a visit. If you’re hungry: burgers at the Lobo Restaurant. Six miles east of U.S. 83 on County Road U. 806-435-4559. Open year-round, sunrise to midnight. Free. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Rope Swing – Grilling – Camping.
21) Rio Vista Park
The San Marcos River bubbles up through the springs at Aquarena Center and heads south right through town on its way to the Guadalupe. The water (a constant 72 degrees) is perfect for swimming and tubing, and it’s also a popular destination for snorkelers and scuba divers. Renting tubes upstream at City Park and floating down to the tube chute at the Rio Vista Falls is a good choice. If you’re hungry: Bobcat cheese fries at the River Pub and Grill. 555 Cheatham. 512-393-8400. Open year-round, 6–11. Free. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Rope Swing – Grilling.
22) Hunt Crossing
Ah, the Guadalupe River . . . the only difficulty is getting into it. Its beauty and proximity to San Antonio and Austin mean that those who have river access guard it jealously (and often charge for it). The path of least resistance is to join the armies of tubers that jam the river below Canyon Lake, but generally I prefer the waters above the reservoir. For a classic park-and-dip experience I recommend pulling over at Hunt Crossing, where the sound of splashing and laughter will quickly make you forget the din of cars zipping over the bridge. (Other spots nearby: Kerrville-Schreiner Park and Louise Hays Park, in Kerrville; Ingram Dam, Johnson Creek bridge, and Schumacher Crossing, all along Texas Highway 39 east of Hunt. For those looking to try Guerrilla Swimming Tactic No. 3–according to which any place a road crosses a river is a potential swimming hole–the highways between Kerrville and Comfort are promising, but be mindful of private property.) If you’re hungry: burgers at the Hunt Store. At the eastern end of Hunt, the first place that Texas Highway 39 crosses the Guadalupe River. Free. Crowded on weekends – Rope Swing.
23) Village Creek State Park
Village Creek, as wide and brown as the real Limpopo, slips slowly and silently through the Big Thicket to its confluence with the Neches, south of Lumberton. A one-mile hike through a dense forest of beech, tupelo, and magnolia trees takes you to a place where the stream makes a stately curve past a large sandbar. No need to worry about alligators here: The creek is spring-fed, which keeps the temperature lower than other bodies of water in the area, 74 to 78 degrees, making this hole less hospitable to the giant, fanged reptiles. Despite the constant metallic banging and screeching from an invisible manufacturing plant (which, one hopes, would be closed on weekends), I spent a pleasant hour or so here, alternately lounging in the sun and wallowing in the hole, and gradually the noise of civilization merged into the buzz and hum of the woods behind me and the gentle splashing of the water at my feet. If you’re hungry: Bring a sandproof picnic. Half a mile east of FM 3513 (Village Creek Parkway) down Alma Drive. 409-755-7322. Open year-round, 8–10. $2. Crowded on weekends – Shade – Camping.
24) Blanco State Park
Oak and pecan trees shade the ducks waddling along the grassy banks of the Blanco River at this quiet spot near the welcoming town square. A small dam creates a wide lagoon for swimming and floating and a waterfall for splashing. This little city park (that’s what it is, despite being in the state parks system) has a perfect small-town-Texas feel. If you’re hungry: apple pie at Deutsch Apple Bakery. 101 Park Road 23. 830-833-4333. Open year-round, 8–10. $4. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Grilling – Camping.
25) Hancock Springs Pool
Lampasas grew up around these sulfurous springs, which were famous in the late 1800’s as a health resort. Train travelers would be ferried by mule, one trolley carload at a time, from the station to the Park Hotel. The open-air swimming pool was built in 1911. There’s a tearoom in the quaint two-story building next to the pool, which was restored in the nineties by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. If you’re hungry: cheeseburgers at the Country Kitchen & Bakery. Hancock Park, at the intersection of U.S. 281 South and U.S. 190 (E.E. Jr. Ohnmeiss Drive). 512-556-6831. Open June through August, Thur–Sat 12–7, Sun 1–6. $3. Crowded on weekends – Picnic Tables – Shade – Lifeguard – Grilling.