Our next destination is another state natural area, this one near
Bandera, TX a bit west of metro San Antonio.
We decided to break up the drive from Patagonia, AZ
into three travel days, stopping the first night in Las Cruces and the second
night at Balmorhea State Park in western Texas. The park is located just a few
miles south of I-10 between exits 192 and 206, not far from the western
end (beginning?) of I-20. It is named for the nearby town of Balmorhea.
Texas has a very handy 112-page 6x9-inch state park guide with a
representative color photo and description of each of its parks and historical
sites. For someone like me, it's kind of a "wish book." We've been pleased with
the Texas state parks we've already visited and we'd like to see more of them
as we travel through the state.
One of the spring-fed canals coursing through Balmorhea
Balmorhea is so special that it rates two photos and an entire page
in the guide! The photos and description of this unique park caught my
attention and I said, "Why not?" This trip back to south central
Texas was the perfect opportunity to check out Balmorhea
since it was so easy to access from the freeway.
Jim heads toward the spring-fed pool;
the Davis Mountains form a backdrop.
we plan to go back someday to camp, swim, and possibly use the park on our way
to-from the Davis
Mountains and Big Bend Country to the south. One afternoon was not enough time to
thoroughly enjoy the small (46-acre) park, let alone see any other sites.
A FABULOUS SPRING IN THE DEAD OF WINTER
What could be better than diving into a warm (72-76°F.
year round) spring-fed swimming pool on a cool but sunny day in January?
Balmorhea State Park is built around an artesian spring that is large enough to
naturally pump out between 22 and 28 million gallons of water every day
(about a million gallons each hour), constantly
replenishing a huge (77,053 square foot = 1¾
surface acre) W-shaped pool that is deep enough for scuba
diving -- 25 feet in the deepest part. It is billed as the world's
largest spring-fed swimming pool. The pool is man-made; the water
filling it flows through naturally.
Deep side of W-shaped pool, looking toward bath house
It gets even deeper than this!
Deep wing of pool looking back toward the center of the W
(toward the left in the distance)
This is not your grandma's ordinary concrete-and-tile pool, either. The deep end,
beloved by scuba and skin divers, has a gravel floor with aquatic plants and thousands of fish!!
That's where the spring empties into the pool.
Very, very cool (as in "kewl," not chilly -- the water
is nice and warm in the winter).
We were totally fascinated with the whole set-up. We've enjoyed natural
hot springs in several places in Colorado and Montana, both commercial
and in the wild, but have never seen anything quite like this.
A young man carries his scuba tank into the pool
Most of the water in San Solomon Spring comes from a large underground
aquifer system that starts under the Salt Basin near Guadalupe Mountains
National Park and flows southeast through the Apache Mountains. A portion also
comes from groundwater originating as rainfall in the Davis Mountains. The
water flows underground under tremendous pressure. At the springs, faults and
breaks allow the water to move up and out of the limestone and into the sand
and gravel at the surface. (This kind of spring is called an artesian spring.)
Canals full of warm, crystal-clear spring water wind through the park from the pool, past the
campground and San Solomon Courts
(motel-style retro lodging),
Close-up of gravel and aquatic plants at bottom of canal;
there are fish, too.
through a restored wetland,
and out of the
park for another 3½ miles, where they empty into
Balmorhea Lake. The springs provide irrigation to local ranches between the
park and lake.
The park is probably crowded on weekends. In the middle of the
week in January, however, fewer than ten young men and women were
swimming and scuba diving and two-thirds of the campsites
were empty (above). The air was too chilly for us to want to jump into
the water but we had a great time wandering around the park oohing and aahing and taking pictures.
No, Cody-Lab didn't get to jump into the pool, wetland pond,
or canals -- but he sure wanted to!
AWESOME LEGACY OF THE CCC
In addition to the paragraph I quoted at the top of the entry
about the early history of the spring, the park
website offers more interesting
historical data from the last century.
Balmorhea State Park was constructed by Company 1856 of the Civilian
Conservation Corps (CCC) between 1936 and 1941. In addition to the
huge pool, the CCC constructed most of the buildings in the park:
a limestone concession building, two wooden bathhouses, an adobe
superintendent residence, and the historic rooms in the adobe brick San
Solomon Courts. All of the CCC buildings are constructed in Spanish
Colonial style with stucco exteriors and tile roofs.
View of bath houses and
concession building from the pool area
The lobby of the park office includes several photographs of the CCC at work
in what officially became Balmorhea State Park in the 1960s. It is interesting
to compare pictures of the park property from the late 1930s with the present.
"Balmorhea State Park is a substantial monument to the construction skills and
hard work of the CCC crew and their supervisors," the website asserts.
Indeed it is. I am always impressed when I see structures remaining in state
and national parks today, over seventy years later, that were painstakingly
built by these industrious men and women, everything from magnificent log
lodges to rustic wooden furniture to adobe visitors' centers to this amazing
pool to remote roads to long bridges spanning yawning gaps to mossy retaining walls
along the Appalachian Trail . . . there was virtually nothing these
people couldn't build -- and they built them to last for generations of
Americans (and visitors) to enjoy.
View of pool area from bath
What an awesome legacy the CCC left for us! At the risk of getting too
political in this journal, I'll add that it's too bad that more of that
"stimulus" money doled out the last couple of years by the U.S. government to prop
up our current recession/depression* couldn't have gone toward projects like this.
(*Recession if your retirement account tanked; depression
if you lost your job!)
RESTORING THE CIÉNEGA
I learned a new Spanish word: a ciénega
is a desert wetland or marsh.
San Solomon Springs was once surrounded by an extensive ciénega
that was destroyed during the construction of Balmorhea State
Park's swimming pool in the mid-1930s.
Fifteen years ago the Texas State
Parks & Wildlife Department re-created a three-acre ciénega
near the San Solomon Courts and campground to provide critical
habitat and help prevent the extinction of two rare and
endangered desert fishes, the Pecos gambusia and the Comanche
Springs pupfish, which lives only in the Balmorhea area.
Construction is also scheduled soon for a new wetland area;
clearing has already begun and will affect some visitors to the
park this spring and summer.
I enjoyed walking around the small ciénega
at all times of day, especially in the late afternoon (below) and early
morning when the sun was lower in the sky and cast long shadows
across the water. The wetland is fed by the spring and draws
numerous birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.
My only disappointment with the ciénega
was not being able to see through the three windows built below
ground to provide a fish-eye's view of the underwater plants and
creatures that live there. There was too much scum to see
through the glass, although we sure tried:
Otherwise, we thoroughly enjoyed the award-winning ciénega
and hope the new one is completed by the time we return to the
park in another year or two.
CAMPGROUND, LODGING, & FEES
Entry into the park was free with our Texas State Parks Pass.
The entry fee for visitors over age 13 without a pass is $7/day,
the highest we've encountered so far in a state park in Texas.
I'd guess that's because use of the pool is included.
Lodging in one of the eighteen rooms in the historic San Solomon
Courts currently ranges from $60 to $80 per night, depending on the number
of beds and whether the room has a kitchen. Those prices sound
reasonable. We haven't
seen inside the rooms but they are very attractive from the
Camping fees range from $11 for a site with water only to $14
(water and electricity) to $17 for water, electricity, and cable
TV hook-ups. None of the sites have sewers but there is a dump
station. About ten of the thirty-four camping sites were taken
overnight by folks camping in everything from tents to big Class
A motor homes (above).
We sprung for a site with cable TV; otherwise, we
wouldn't have had any TV reception. We had great Verizon cell
reception so we got onto the internet just fine. Our
pull-through site was close to the bathroom (and the campground
road, below). It had a grill and covered
patio with picnic table:
Check this web
page for current fees in the
WHAT WE MISSED
We got only a little taste of what this area has to offer in our
brief overnight stay at Balmorhea State Park. In the future we'd
like to explore the scenic loop around the Davis Mountains south
of Balmorhea, including Fort Davis National Historic Site, Davis
Mountains State Park (another TX state park with a campground),
Davis Mountains Indian Lodge, and the famous McDonald
Observatory. A "star party" with access to the giant telescopes sounds
like fun! There are also several museums, wineries, and other
attractions that would keep us busy for several days down there.
And then there are the Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch
State Park even farther south . . .
After one last hike this morning around Balmorhea's beautiful ciénega,
canals, and pool, we drove to the Hill Country State
Natural Area near Bandera, TX, about an hour northwest
of San Antonio. This natural area is another site within the
Texas State Park system.
Traffic moved well on I-10 and the secondary roads we traveled
at either end of the journey, although we don't even try to keep
up with the 80 MPH speed limit on the freeway in remote areas of
the state; that would be insane hauling a seven-ton
"fiver." We usually go about 65 MPH to conserve fuel,
sometimes edging up to 70 MPH if the road is fairly flat. As we
approached the Hill Country region east of Junction, TX, we
slowed 'er down a bit.
We had to stop for another U.S. Border Patrol check-point about a
hundred miles into Texas on west I-10. (The one shown above is
in Arizona.) Guess we don't fit their profile for folks
smuggling bodies or drugs into the country; no one in AZ, NM, or
TX has ever wanted to inspect our truck or RV. The most the
agents have done is ask where we are headed. Usually they just
wave us through.
By the way, much as we like to joke we never kid around
with the Border Patrol, customs agents, or security guards at
military installations. That's a good way to get detained.
Driving conditions were good (cool but sunny) until the
last couple hours this afternoon. Clear skies morphed into
overcast, rainy conditions by the time we arrived in the Bandera
Entrance sign for the Hill Country State Natural
Area near Bandera, TX
At least it's not down to freezing yet; before the
sun went down, it was 51°F.
We've been nervously eyeing the weather forecasts for the next
few days, when it's supposed to get into the low teens here
-- highly irregular this far south in Texas! An arctic air
mass is slowly inching southward, reeking havoc over much of the
country on its way south.
We'll be camping in this large, mostly undeveloped natural area
through the weekend to help Joe Prusaitis & Company pull off the Bandera ultra trail events.
This year's event has about 600 runners participating, which is
a lot for an ultra. In the next two entries I'll
show photos from the race and whatever trails I'm able to hike
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil