Teenagers enjoy the rope swing action at Krause Springs in Spicewood, west of Austin. The springs feature 1,000-year-old cypresses, cool waters, fern-choked waterfalls and rocks for sunning. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
Cool, clear water
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Randy Eli Grothe
August 31, 2003
The sweetest pleasure of a Texas summer is the swimming hole.
You can have your Colorado mountains, your slices of watermelon and your gallons of iced tea.
You may prefer passing as many of your waking hours in climates far away from here or in climate-controlled comfort 24/7, courtesy of 50,000 BTUs of refrigerated air and driving with the windows up and the MAX A/C control cranked to high.
You can whine all you want about how hot it is.
I immerse. With a swimming hole, anyone can fade the heat.
Which is why I can say with a straight face that my favorite time of year is right now, when these endless strings of broiling days and sweltering nights that wear down the human spirit and sap the want-to and can-do in even the hardiest of souls plod onward to the middle of September.
I will survive. In the hole.
Austin’s popular Barton Springs is fed daily by 26 million gallons of cool, clear spring water. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
Oh, I’ll tolerate a swimming pool in a pinch. But whenever I do, I’m reminded why Jed Clampett and family called pools “cement ponds”: It ain’t natural. The chemical scent and sting of chlorine negate any sensations of being cradled in the bosom of Mother Nature. Doing laps in a pool is like getting stuck in rush hour traffic on Stemmons: All I can do is stay in my lane and hope I don’t lose count of the number of laps I have to do before I’m done.
Charting my own course across a swimming hole is more like a meandering Sunday drive on a remote Farm to Market Road. With songbirds, the splish and splash of water, laughs, giggles and the occasional shout of “Marco Polo” providing the soundtrack, you can leave the modern world behind for a little while.
Swimming holes have worked as an effective antidote to Texas’ excessive heat for several millennia. Archeological evidence indicates San Marcos Springs in San Marcos – Aquarena – has been continuously occupied for at least 12,000 years, The area near Del Rio where the Rio Grande, and the Pecos and Devil’s rivers converge is pocked with caves overlooking springs, creeks and rivers containing more examples of Indian rock art than anywhere in North America.
Swimming holes are just as inspirational now, and Norman Rockwell and Thomas Eakins and Austin artists Jimmy Jalapeeno and Malou Flato aren’t the only ones who’ve seen the eternal beauty in them. A good swimming hole is church. Splashing in water that is clean and clear and surrounded by tall, stately shade trees with at least one big rock to lay out on and jump off of, and a rope swing hanging from a limb is compelling evidence there’s a higher power.
Especially in Texas.
Neal’s Lodge, on the Frio River in Concan, has several spots deep enough for diving. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
The lazy streak
Great holes stretch from the Piney Woods near Texarkana to the Chihuahuan Desert of Far West Texas, some wild and natural, others tamed and civilized. All of them promise a place in which one can cool off, cool down and cultivate the lazy streak that resides within us all. The Hill Country is exceptionally blessed. The state’s greatest concentration of swimming holes on creeks and rivers fed by artesian springs are found within a couple hours of San Antonio and Austin, most with hard limestone bottoms that eliminate the “goosh” factor on your feet and towering bald cypresses at waters edge.
Eddie Chiles, the late oilman who used to rant and rave on the radio about being mad all the time, was owner of the Western Company, an oil producer whose advertising slogan was “If you don’t own an oil well, get one.”
I must have had water in my ears because I swore Mad Eddie and his pitchwomen were talking about swimming holes, not oil wells.
So I got one.
It took two years of coaxing from my wife and adjusting to the chilly waters of Barton Springs in Austin to get hooked on swimming-hole swimming. After writing about swimming holes on numerous occasions, discovering new holes almost everywhere I looked and futilely fighting the good fight to preserve Barton Springs against a tide of development upstream, I finally moved to the Hill Country specifically to have a swimming hole I could call my own.
The picturesque Hamilton Pool features a sandy beach and boulders to perch on beneath a waterfall. The swimming hole, fed by Hamilton Creek, is in a canyon west of Austin. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
Some people live where they live to be close to work, for the schools, for the neighborhoods. I live where I live for the swimming hole. It’s like I told the mother of a playmate of my son’s, when she asked if I’d moved for the schools or the kids – I moved for me.
A happy dad can influence an entire family, I reasoned. My wife has certainly seen a difference.
“For one thing, it makes you sane,” she has observed. “It improves your disposition. It keeps you from going crazy after spending all day in the heat.”
My younger son learned to swim in the swimming hole. Now 13, he’s been honing his stone-skipping skill at the swimming hole lately, designating one exposed boulder as the “skipping rock” and an adjacent boulder as the “waiting rock,” proving there’s still plenty of kid in his growing teenage body.
My sister tells me the secret swimming hole I took her to not too long ago was the highlight of a weekend that also included a chichi party at The Mansion on Turtle Creek and a movie premiere in Austin. My brother-in-law reports the experience made him feel “giddy” and reminded him of his Arkansas boyhood.
My swimming hole isn’t really mine. I just bought legal access. And to be honest, it’s no rival to Balmorhea Springs in West Texas. But it’s clean enough to attract squadrons of dragonflies and to test better than my well water, and clear enough for visitors to be able to see minnows, perch, bass, catfish, carp and turtles in their element through the goggles, which is enough to make me feel proprietary. Lord knows, I pick up enough trash around it that some litterbugs think I act as if I own it.
Close to nirvana
Trevor Barrientes rides along the rapids of the Medina River at a low water crossing between Medina and Bandera. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
During warm weather months, my calendar revolves around my swimming hole. From early spring until late fall, I swim laps in my swimming hole almost every day. During the heat of the summer, two-a-days and sometimes three-a-days are not unusual. Morning swims are a better wake-up jolt than two cups of coffee.
There have been evening swims at dusk while surrounded by fireflies twinkling under the cypresses and bats fluttering overhead accompanied by the croaking chorus of frogs that have brought me as close to nirvana as I think I’ll get on this earth.
Moonlight swims can be both romantic and spooky.
The end-of-swimming-season swims are tests of endurance, requiring a swim cap and considerable intestinal fortitude. Swimming after floods is not a good idea due to dirty runoff and the fact that snakes can’t see you any better than you can see snakes in murky water. A New Year’s Day plunge has become a small ritual, but nuts nonetheless.
Last month, I went back to Burger’s Lake on the far west side of Fort Worth, site of my first natural swimming experience. Not quite 50 years later, I was pleased to see nothing much had changed. The petrified wood cottage and the little rock building under the pecans and sycamores at the entrance still beckon like an elf’s sentry at the gates to an enchanted forest. The high diving boards at one end and the diving platform near the jet fountain in the middle of the lake were still crowded with kids. The line to the trapeze swing was just as long as I remembered.
Obviously, I wasn’t the only kid who liked the cheap thrill of swinging out, then into the water. Lifeguards patrolled the lake in rowboats same as ever. I didn’t recall the chlorine in the water, but times have changed, I guess. What has not changed is that hundreds of people are willing to pay for the sweet relief of cooling off in the water.
I couldn’t help but wonder if at least one of those visitors I saw at the lake will someday want a swimming hole of his or her own, too.
Crystal Oden, 15, snorkels in the Caribbean-clear waters at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas. The oasis teems with aquatic life, including two endangered fish species, frogs, crawfish and turtles. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
Laurie Carlton enjoys the peace and quiet of the waters of the Blue Hole, in Wimberley. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
A swimmer enjoys the rush of the San Marcos River as he clings to the Rio Vista Dam in San Marcos. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
The 2.5-mile-long Comal River begins and ends within the city limits of New Braunfels. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
Swimming Holes Across Texas
A small sampling of Joe Nick Patoski’s favorite swimming holes across the state.
DMN staff graphic
San Solomon Springs Pool, Balmorhea State Park, Balmorhea. A literal oasis in the West Texas desert that was walled in during the early ’30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Balmorhea is the bomb of Texas swimming holes with 76-degree spring water so Caribbean-clear that New Mexico and West Texas scuba diving clubs practice here. 915-375-2370
Barton Springs, Zilker Park, Austin. The best urban swimming hole on Earth. Period. 512-867-3080
Krause Springs, Spicewood. This magical hole – 34 miles west of Austin, actually on Cypress Creek – is fed by a waterfall tumbling from an exquisitely manicured bluff chock-full of maidenhair fern. It’s the best-looking natural swimming environment in the entire state. 830-693-4181
Hamilton Pool, Westcave Preserve, Bee Caves, west of Austin. A placid grotto below a surreal limestone overhang that spews a 75-foot waterfall during wet periods, Hamilton Pool is the stuff that picture postcards are made of. 512-264-2740
San Marcos River, Sewell Park, Lions Club Tube Rental in City Park, and Rio Vista Park, San Marcos. Contiguous parkland lines the banks of the San Marcos River as it winds its way through the town of the same name, its transparent waters making for the finest tubing and underwater viewing in the state. Tube rentals and shuttle information,
512-396-5466. 512-353-3435 or 888-200-5620
Landa Park, New Braunfels. The 1.5 million-gallon spring-fed pool at the Landa Park Aquatic Complex on the Comal River, a few hundred yards from Texas’ biggest spring, is a compact version of Barton Springs without the crowds. Wilder thrills are less than a mile downstream at the Prince Solms Tube Chute. 830-608-2163, 830-608-2165
Blue Hole, Wimberley. This private campground along a narrow stretch of Cypress Creek features cool, blue water and several rope swings dangling from the trees for easy entry. Scenes for the upcoming movie The Alamo were shot there earlier this summer. 512-847-9127
Medina River, between Bandera and Medina. Pick your spot along one of the low-water crossings along State Highway 16 between these two Hill Country towns or jump in at Bandera’s city park where the river runs through it. 800-364-3833
Burger’s Lake. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)
Neal’s Lodges, Concan. A bucolic, old-fashioned family retreat established in 1926, Neal’s is perched above one of the nicest stretches of the Frio River, with several holes deep enough for diving and swimming laps and on-premises tube rentals and float shuttles. 830-232-6118
Burger’s Lake, Fort Worth. The one-ace lake that started my swimming hole obsession has held up well over the years, functioning like a low-key water park in a natural setting. 817-737-3414
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