Perched on the springy high dive above the spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park, I feel like I’m about to walk the plank of a pirate ship.
I trot down the length of the board anyway, launching myself into the crisp waters of San Solomon Springs with a splash. I dive deeper, and a giant aquarium embraces me.
This place looks like Barton Springs, plopped in the middle of prickly, dry desert. The water’s about 5 degrees warmer, though, and that means lollygagging is comfortable even in brisk weather. Twice my husband and I have leaped into this pool on New Year’s Day.
It’s plenty warm outside now, and our only company at the moment is a pair of ducks bobbing on the surface. We swim toward them and they plunge like submarines into waters that are home to two thumb-size species of endangered fish — the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos Gambusia
It’s magical, slicing through glinting water so clear you can see catfish swirling 20 feet below. The site has long attracted people — Native Americans, Spanish explorers and U.S. soldiers watered up here long before the Civilian Conservation Corps turned a desert wetland into a spring-fed pool in the 1930s. In retrospect that wasn’t such an environmentally friendly move, but swimmers and scuba divers today reap the benefits.
Private concessionaires operated the park until the 1960s, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took it over. Today visitors flock from around the state to dip a toe or two into the enormous V-shaped pool with a natural bottom. On hot summer weekends, the park fills to capacity by noon and cars are turned away.
“It’s an oasis in the desert,” says Jacob Barton, the park’s superintendent. “Anytime you have water in the desert it’s going to be a special place.”
The pool is usually a pit stop on the drive back to Austin from Marfa or Fort Davis for me, but this time my husband and I booked a room in the retro, adobe-style 18-unit San Solomon Springs Courts motel, also built by the CCC. Or you can pitch a tent in the spartan-looking campground (RV hookups available).
After our late-afternoon dip, we dry off and settle in for a picnic on the table outside our room, right next to a trickling canal. The springs that form the pool pump out about 15.5 million gallons of water a day, which is diverted by 3-foot conduits to Balmorhea Lake, two miles below, and used to irrigate alfalfa and watermelon fields.
Then we go for a walk.
Native reeds and bulrushes sway in the San Solomon Cienega, a three-acre wetlands restoration built at the park in 1995 to provide habitat for migrating birds and other native species. As the sun sets, we prowl the pond’s edge, catching a glimpse of a kingfisher looking for dinner. Then we wander back toward the pool, where we spot the first of two great horned owls gazing down on us from the treetops.
We’ll get one more heavenly dip in those waters before we load up and roll back to Austin the next morning.
IF YOU GO
Balmorhea State Park is located four miles west of Balmorhea off Texas 17. Open daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, free ages 12 and younger. For reservations at the park’s motel, call Texas Parks and Wildlife’s reservation center at 512-389-8900. For more information, go to bit.ly/M3pVRG. The pool will be closed May 5-12 for annual cleaning.