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The Park that Time Forgot

Boasting the world’s largest spring-fed pool and a retro-cool motel, Balmorhea State Park is the great oasis of the Chihuahuan Desert.

By Joe Nick Patoski

To most people looking on a map, Balmorhea is just a state park. But intrepid travelers who willingly make pilgrimages across several hundred miles of lonesome highway to this 49-acre spread in Far West Texas know Balmorhea is much more than that.

To them — to us, I should say, since I’m one of the longtime true believers — Balmorhea is the great oasis of the Chihuahuan Desert, the most scenic gateway into the Big Bend, and a delightful, low-key, and relatively undiscovered retreat off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere, yet still within eyeshot of Interstate 10.

In my particular case, Balmorhea is underwater nirvana, the finest natural swimming experience on earth. The World’s Largest Spring-fed Swimming Pool, as the park’s 3.5-million-gallon centerpiece is billed, is so big — a 200-foot circle around the springs and a large rectangular tangent — it takes a good 15 minutes of a steady crawl stroke to circumnavigate its perimeter.

The cottonwood-shaded grounds, crisscrossed with footbridges over the small canals, and the distinctive Spanish colonial white adobe, red-tile-roof bathhouse, lovingly constructed in the 1930s by Company 1856 of the storied Civilian Conservation Corps, are soothing to the eye. So is the backdrop of the Davis Mountains rising majestically from the Madera Valley, the land mass dwarfed by the spacious wide-open western sky that sprawls overhead.

That setting is merely a prelude to the scenery underwater. Pure, pristine, ancient artesian water flows from at least nine springs 25 feet below the surface in the middle of the pool at a rate of more than 20 million gallons a day. The water is a constant 76 degrees year round, refreshingly cool in the summer heat and surprisingly warm in the middle of winter, and so clear, the terms “gin-clear” and “crystal-clear” don’t do it justice. Visibility is 80 feet, farther than one can see underwater in most of the Caribbean Sea.

The clear water and intense, sharp sunlight conspire to zap the waterscape with rays of Technicolor, fairyland light that illuminate thousands of minnow-sized Pecos gambusia and Comanche Springs pupfish — both listed as endangered species — and tetra, dozens of black catfish hovering near the bottom, and several families of Texas spiny soft-shell and red-eared slider turtles working every corner of the pool. In the winter, coots and bufflehead ducks live on the surface.

Over the past three decades, I’ve managed to go swimming at Balmorhea every month of the calendar year. Many times I’ve had the pool all to myself, like I did two days after Labor Day last year. The solitude, I must admit, was quite a delicious feeling. I felt very privileged to be there at that moment.

Timing is everything. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the pool can be packed on weekend days with as many as 1,500 day trippers from nearby towns such as Fort Davis, Alpine, Marfa, Pecos, Presidio, and as far away as Midland, El Paso and Juarez. Most weekends during the rest of the year, the circular middle of the pool above the springs, and the 18-room white adobe San Solomon Courts cottages and adjacent campgrounds fill up with scuba divers from all across Texas and as far away as New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. The pool is large enough to qualify as open water for scuba certification.

Weekdays, more often than not, it’s all yours.

Regardless of when I come, I’m struck by the wonder that a pool of this magnificence and aquatic abundance can exist in a dry, harsh terrain that annually averages 8-14 inches of rainfall. Dora Ceballos, a 20-something woman from El Paso whom I met on my last visit, affirmed the special nature of the place. “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses,” she explained while watching several friends splash in the shallow area by the main steps. “How can you not believe in the miracles of the Creator, seeing this? I had no idea this was here. Next time, we’re bringing the kids.”

She’s right. Water like this belongs in the Texas Hill Country, where most of the other great swimming springs in Texas are located. And sunsets like this are straight out of the American West, Mesilla Valley at the very least, especially when you’re finishing a plate of New Mexico-style stacked green chile enchiladas on the patio of the Cueva de Oso restaurant back in town.

Town, 4 miles from the park entrance on State Highway 17, is the real Balmorhea, population 500, so named for Balcomb, Moore, and Rhea, the three Scottish developers who began irrigated farming operations in the valley in the late 19th century.

The water has been around since before man arrived. Humans have been utilizing it for thousands of years. Indians were farming near the springs when the first Spanish explorers crossed this territory in the 16th century. Today San Solomon Springs sustains 12,000 acres of cultivated cotton, sudan grass and alfalfa.

San Solomon Springs is a ciénega, the Spanish word for desert marsh, a very unique and rare environment. Much of the cienega was destroyed when the pool was constructed. The pool and the park were initially under the stewardship of the Reeves County Water District No. 1 and were annexed into the Texas Parks and Wildlife system in 1960. In 1996 the unintended marshland damage was mitigated when TPWD established a three-acre ciénega below the motel and adjacent to the campgrounds. Planted cottonwood, cattails and bulrushes have flourished. The pied-billed grebe (not seen since 1937) and the green heron have returned.

The above details came from Tom Johnson, the park manager of Balmorhea. Like the Jehovah’s Witness, he too confirmed Balmorhea is hardly the typical Texas state park.

“People that come out here all the time don’t want anybody else out here. They want it as their own private oasis,” he says.

But the numbers don’t lie. The annual visitation count is up to more than 200,000 and rising, ranking Balmorhea one of the top ten most-visited state parks. “For a little park out in the middle of nowhere, those numbers are way up there. We have a busy season, and a busier season.”

Dove hunters book up motel rooms in early September. Birders from the eastern United States flock to the park to witness western flyway migrations in the spring and fall.

Cyclists regularly stop to ride the local roads. West Texas and New Mexico motorcycle groups hold rallies in town. Rock hunters drop by while seeking out Balmorhea blue agate. Word of mouth has prompted an increasing number of long distance travelers on Interstate 10 to pull off and spend a night in the comfort and quiet of motel rooms with 18-inch adobe walls before resuming their cross-country trek. Then there’s the growing number of urban refugees “trying to get out of the city and wanting to find an unspoiled place,” Johnson says. “They’re coming here. They don’t like the TVs in the room, they don’t want phones, and they don’t want us to make it too nice. They’re happy that the nearest Wal-Mart is 53 miles away.”

And why not? With simple retro-cool CCC motel kitchenettes for $60 a night, a dive shop next door that sells air and rents masks and snorkels, nearby restaurants, a café/soda fountain, an RV park, and the new Laird Ranch bed & breakfast with private dining facilities, Balmorhea Lake three and a half miles downstream from San Solomon Springs, and endless vistas of wide open spaces no matter where you look, why bother going anywhere?

Johnson fetched a trove of old postcards and photographs of the springs and the park out of his desk to show me the cult of Balmorhea is no new thing. Two photos are of Tom Johnson’s father on a high diving board in the 1940s. His father and mother, residents of Van Horn, 67 miles west, were pool regulars when they were growing up. Many cards identify the pool as the “world’s largest.” Comments written on the back politely acknowledge the dusty surroundings and occasionally violent weather: “… the country here is so much different from our part of the state.”

“We came here but a tornado broke loose over us. What a night!”

On Johnson’s wall are a couple of publicity photographs. One is the Paladins, a modern greased-up rockabilly band from Los Angeles who stop in whenever they’re going to or from Austin, The handwritten message accompanying the band’s autograph declares: “This is the greatest place in the world.”

Another publicity photo on Johnson’s wall is signed by Divin’ Sam Hernandez, the first and only American to win the Acapulco Cliff Diving Championships. “He’s a truck driver now,” Johnson said. “His route is from Los Angeles to Dallas, and he says this is the only place between those two cities worth stopping for a swim.”

The longer one pauses, the greater the appreciation for the simpler pleasures of Balmorhea. The playground next to the pool has all the swings and slides a kid could ever need. Picnic shelters with small cooking pits may be no big deal in Dallas or San Antonio, but on this part of the desert, the tables and benches, the shade awning, and the grass around them are luxuries. The small network of canals emanating from the springs into the restored cienega provides a subtle, sweetly melodic soundtrack while observing the abundant aquatic life thriving in the see-through water. It’s an elementary, sometimes deeply spiritual exercise comparable to contemplating a tidal pool. (Shorter attention spans will benefit from the window wall viewing area of the San Solomon ciénega as well as the adjacent observation deck.) The mere act of sitting on the porch outside a motel room takes on its own appeal. Hang around long enough and you’ll finally make sense out of the older couple who spent at least half of one day reclining in their folding beach chairs by the pool without ever moving.

One February day a couple of years ago, I emerged from the water to encounter a weathered old man gazing onto the scene. He was from California, he told me, and he hadn’t been to Balmorhea since the days shortly after it was constructed. Back then, he said, there were dances staged on the pavilion and a Mexican café that operated on the premises. He was passing through and just wanted to see if the old place was still there. He seemed reassured it was. His experience synched with the first impressions two clean-cut gentlemen wearing leather chaps had when they stumbled onto the park last September while riding their motorcycles from Big Bend National Park back home to Kansas. “This is the park that time forgot,” one whispered to the other as the ranger checked them into their room for the night.

All kinds of people from all over are Balmorhea fans, I’ve come to find out. From unsuspecting bikers from Kansas to the husband and wife walking in tandem in matching shirts, shorts and knee socks to the peregrine falcon biologist in search of relief from the heat to the displaced bathing beauties in bikinis making like lizards and lying on the concrete wall by the pool to work on their tans.

It’s convinced me that no matter where I go or where I may end up on this earth, sooner or later I, too, will come back to Balmorhea, just to see if it’s still there, just to get that feeling again of being in a park that time forgot — in a place that feels like it should be somewhere else. It will be worth the trip, I’m sure.

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