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Forever Springs

Destination: San Marcos

Known mostly for abundant water recreation, San Marcos also has caves, museums — and don't forget Old Baldy.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Travel time from:

  • Austin - .5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 5.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 3.75 hours /
  • Houston - 2.75 hours /
  • San Antonio - .75 hours /
  • Lubbock - 7 hours /
  • El Paso - 10 hours

Stock still. That pretty much describes the two of us. I've stopped along the boardwalk at Aquarena Center in San Marcos to watch a great egret. It's poised in the shallow water, slender neck extended, black eyes aimed beneath the water surface. I hold my breath and keep my silent vigil; the snowy white bird does, too. Our patience pays off. Ever so slowly, the egret takes a small step, lowers its head and then — lightning fast! — jabs its long, orange bill underwater. Uh oh, looks like an unfortunate fish just turned into lunch.

Like the egret and me, thousands before us have been drawn to the water at this place called Spring Lake. Across the lake's bottom, millions of gallons of icy water bubble up every day via natural springs from the Edwards Aquifer and form the headwaters for the San Marcos River. More than 12,000 years ago, the abundance of water lured Native Americans to the site, followed by European explorers and then early settlers.

Today, water's still the main draw for this city that sits squarely on the Balcones Escarpment, which separates the rolling Edwards Plateau from the flat Gulf Coastal Plains. Though many come to play in the river, San Marcos offers lots of other things to do, too.

Our three-day visit starts with lunch at the Hill Country Grill on the square. The trendy restaurant occupies the former State Bank and Trust Co. building, built in the 1890s and robbed in 1923 by the Newton Boys, an outlaw gang of four brothers. "The bank closed in 1964, and the building was empty for 40 years until we remodeled it and opened the grill," says owner Linda Law, who promises my daughter and me a tour after our meal. "In 1972, the building was used during filming of The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw."

Speaking of which, my "Getaway" house salad — a colorful palette of sliced fruit, vegetables and candied pecans — looks as great as it tastes. Across the table, Lindsey relishes her grilled chicken sandwich, blanketed with melted mozzarella and served with crisp french fries.

Our first outing takes us to Wonder World Park, one of the town's top attractions, and oldest, too. I can vouch for that: I toured Wonder Cave as a kid in the '60s. Then and now, the small amusement park heralded a lofty observation tower and the crazy Anti-Gravity House (where water flows uphill, not down). In later years, the park added a miniature train ride and wildlife petting area.

Package tours typically start underground. Unlike our state's other six show caves, Wonder Cave is a dry-formed cavern, which means we won't see any live stalagmites and stalactites. "So feel free to hug or kiss anything; we don't really care," jokes Austin Helms, our guide. On a serious note, he explains that prehistoric shifts in the earth's crust — along what's now called the Balcones Fault Zone — created the limestone cave, discovered by farmer Mark Bevers in 1893.

Commercial tours in Bevers Cave started after 1900, when local residents paid 10 cents for a candle and guide. In 1916, entrepreneur Arthur B. Rogers paid $50 and a gray horse for the cave. He installed electrical lighting, handrails and ladders, and gave it a new name: Wonder Cave. Since 1958, the Mostyn family has owned and operated the park, which is also a state historical site.

Lindsey's not much into museums, so I drop her off at the Crystal River Inn, where we're staying, and head over to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. Housed in the Albert B. Alkek Library, the huge repository preserves artifacts, photos, personal papers and original manuscripts of notable Southwestern writers, photographers, filmmakers and musicians. Wow, describing the collection as "diverse" just doesn't do justice to this mother lode!

For instance, "We have every single script from King of the Hill," says Michele Miller, marketing coordinator. "Journalist Dick Reavis donated the research he did for his book, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. If someone wants to see something written in Sam Shepard's hand, we can pull out one of his notebooks. And by this fall, we'll have all of author Cormac McCarthy's papers available."

Two cardboard boxes of handwritten material belonging to folklorist J. Frank Dobie inspired the collection. "Bill Wittliff, who bought the boxes at an estate sale in 1985, realized he needed a library for the papers," curator Connie Todd tells me. Founded the following year, the archival holdings have since branched into the Southwestern Writers Collection and the Wittliff Collection of Southwestern and Mexican Photography.

The Lonesome Dove collection gets the most attention. People from all over the world come to see costumes, guns, props, script pages and photos from the 1989 television miniseries based on Larry McMurtry's Western novel (Wittliff wrote the screenplay). Folks especially gawk at the muslin-wrapped, one-legged "mummy" of Texas Ranger Augustus "Gus" McCrae.

Our first day ends with dinner at the upscale Wine Cellar downtown. Lindsey's grilled lamb chops come with yogurt mint sauce, pesto-kissed potatoes and a fresh squash medley. On my plate, toasted baguette triangles surround seared bites of tuna, artfully arranged atop an Asian salad of red onions, jicama, carrots and peppers.

Day two starts with a visit to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Museum of San Marcos, located in a renovated downtown theater. Opened in 2006, the exhibit focuses on Johnson's early years as university student in San Marcos and public school teacher in South Texas. "Those experiences impacted his legislation, primarily in education and civil rights," explains director Scott Jordan.

Displays include vintage photographs, newspaper clippings, campaign posters, a Western "LBJ" hat and a framed collection of pens used by LBJ to sign landmark documents.

Next, Lindsey and I head to Aquarena Center, a 90-acre nature center spread across a former amusement park called Aquarena Springs (another place I visited as a kid). In 1994, Texas State University bought the resort, Spring Lake and its natural springs, deemed a "critical habitat" for six endangered aquatic species.

"At the center, we teach people about the unique river habitat here and how important it is to protect our endangered species," says Sonja Mlenar, instructional programs coordinator. "A lot of people take our field trips, which last a half hour or as long as three hours."

Those educational outings include a ride on one of the center's popular glass-bottomed boats, initially launched in 1946 at the resort as canvas-topped rowboats. This morning, my daughter and I join an Austin couple for a half-hour cruise across Spring Lake. From our seats, we peer down through a glass window that offers a scuba diver's perspective of underwater life within the crystal clear water.

"We're above the deepest part of the lake now, which is about 27 feet," says guide Pearl Hooks midway through our trip. "See that crack down there, how it's blowing the sand around? That's a high-pressure spring. And over there is a bigger opening. It's like a mini-cave. You could fit your torso in there, but only if you could fight against the water coming out. It'd feel the same as sticking your hand out of a car window going 55 to 60 miles per hour."

After our ride, we explore the natural aquarium and endangered species exhibit. The latter houses live fountain darters, Texas blind salamanders and San Marcos salamanders, all federally protected and indigenous to the springs system. In a huge room-sized aquarium, Guadalupe bass, channel catfish, spotted gar and other native fish eye us curiously when we walk past. Several smaller tanks exhibit freshwater prawn, other fish species and - Lindsey's favorite - juvenile Texas river cooters and red-eared sliders.

Next, we tour the Texas Rivers Center Gallery, an interactive exhibit that focuses on the Edwards Aquifer and how freshwater systems interconnect. Then I stroll over to the wetlands boardwalk, where I spot the great egret stalking lunch.

Hey, did someone mention food? It's way past one o'clock so off we go. At the San Marcos River Pub and Grill, we share a juicy Cajun cheeseburger and enjoy our table's view of Rio Vista Falls, a drop-off point for tubers and kayakers. Afterward, we stretch our legs along the Rio Vista Trail, which meanders alongside the river and through woods.

During our recent visit, it's too chilly to get in the water, but I'm told the Lions Club rents tubes at nearby City Park. It takes about an hour or so to float from there to the take-out point at Rio Vista Falls, where a shuttle service returns floaters back to City Park. Kayak and canoe rentals are also available around town.

Though shopping's not my forte, I'm game to go downtown for an hour or so. Our first stop: Paper Bear, just off the square. This jam-packed, eclectic store stocks nearly everything imaginable — toys, books, party goods, candy, Mexican imports, stationery, jewelry, beads, incense, pottery, clothing, candles and lots more.

That evening, we grab a salad at Centerpoint Station, south of San Marcos (across Interstate 35 from the outlet malls). Barn wood siding, wooden floors and antique signs all around make us feel like we're in an old-time general store. Later, I buy a fat loaf of their homemade bread and some cinnamon rolls to take home, and Lindsey browses through the gift shop. I'm pooped.

Our last morning starts with breakfast served in Crystal River Inn's dining room. A basket of cranberry brickle bread accompanies our eggs Benedict, sliced fresh fruit, broiled tomato quarter, coffee and orange juice. Owners Cathy and Mike Dillon have welcomed guests to their two-story Victorian inn for nearly 25 years. In all, the B&B complex offers 12 comfortable rooms in the main house (built in 1883) and two nearby buildings. Lindsey and I stayed in the Cypress Creek room, located upstairs in the Victorian-style house next door.

Always eager to please, the Dillons will arrange rentals (and provide towels) for guests who want to tube, canoe, raft or kayak on the river. Several times a year, the couple also hosts murder mystery weekends, complete with costumed characters and gourmet meals. "We write our own mysteries," Cathy says. "So far, we have six chapters, which we call our 'Murder by the River' series."

Before we turn homeward, Lindsey and I drive through the tree-shaded Belvin Street Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The three-block area showcases turn-of-the-century residences, most of which reflect the Victorian style of architecture.

Just for fun, I surprise Lindsey with a side trip to nearby Wimberley. I want to share one last spot I also frequented as a kid: Old Baldy, one of two peaks locally known as the Twin Sister Mountains. We park the car at the base, then embark up the rock staircase — constructed back in the 1950s — that leads to the top. The climb takes less than 10 minutes.

From the summit, we admire the surrounding hills, and Lindsey snaps a few photos, then she's ready to go. Must be somebody's lunch time!

Details

San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau
(888-200-5620, www.toursanmarcos.com)
Wonder World Park, fee (877-492-4657, 512-392-6711, www.wonderworldpark.com)
Wittliff Collections, free admission (512-245-2313, www.library.txstate.edu/swwc)
Crystal River Inn (512-396-3739, www.crystalriverinn.com)
LBJ Museum of San Marcos, free admission (512-353-3300, www.lbjmuseum.com)
Aquarena Center, free admission, fee to ride glass-bottomed boats (512-245-7570, www.aquarena.txstate.edu)
Kayak and canoe rentals: Power Olympic Outdoor Center (512-203-0093, www.kayakinstruction.org). TG Canoes and Kayaks (512-353-3946, www.tgcanoe.com). Austin Canoe and Kayak (512-396-2386, www.austinkayak.com)
Tube rentals: San Marcos Lions Club (512-396-5466, www.tubesanmarcos.com)
Old Baldy: From Ranch Road 2325, turn north onto Woodcreek Road, then right on El Camino Real. Wind through the neighborhood, then turn right on La Toya Trail. Follow this road until you're at the foot of Old Baldy.

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