Top 10 State Park Swimming Holes
From Galveston to Abilene, you can beat the heat by swimming across Texas.
By Elaine Robbins
Like the protagonist in John Cheever's story "The Swimmer," I experience my world through swimming. I have swum, snorkeled and scuba-dived my way across the Caribbean, lolling on white-sand beaches fringing turquoise seas. I have dived in the tequila-clear waters of a Yucatan cenote like a sacrificial maiden. Although I prefer oceans, lakes and rivers, I am also an inveterate pool hopper. I once spent a delicious afternoon in the French Riviera floating in a horizon pool at the luxury Hotel du Cap, one of Sean Connery's favorite haunts, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
But since moving to Texas, I've discovered a paradise on earth for natural swimming experiences. Here you can immerse yourself like Huck Finn in an emerald cypress stream. You can cool off in a clear, deep lake or find your smile at the bottom of a world-class swimming pool. If that's not enough, you can take your pick of beaches along more than 350 miles of coastline. When it's hot outside, the sweltering summer temperatures only intensify the pleasure.
So what are you waiting for? Come on in, the water's fine.
- Balmorhea State Park
This spring-fed pool (pictured) is a mandatory stop for car-weary travelers on their way to Big Bend, Fort Davis or the Guadalupe Mountains. The pool, the size of 1-1/2 football fields, is no mirage in the Chihuahuan Desert. Some 22 to 28 million gallons of water gush up each day from San Solomon Springs to fill what's advertised as the world's biggest spring-fed pool, proving that sometimes reality is better than fantasy. Rays of sunlight penetrate the 74-degree water, setting my mind toward a Zen-like state of tranquility. Scuba divers can take advantage of the excellent visibility to peer at the pupfish, catfish and turtles at the bottom of the 25-foot-deep pool. On the grounds, wooden footbridges cross over sweetly burbling canals. A Spanish colonial-style motel court with adobe walls and red tile roofs offers overnight stays.
Swim Tip: Bring a mask or goggles to peer at the fish and turtles.
Getting There: From I-10, turn south on Hwy. 17, go 4 miles past town of Balmorhea. (432-358-4444, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/balmorhea).
- Garner State Park
Each summer families flock to the crystal-clear Rio Frio at Garner State Park. With rough-hewn limestone cabins, more than 300 campsites and 10 acres of riverfront lined with huge cypress trees, it's no wonder that Garner is the most popular state park for overnight camping. To enjoy the Frio, one of Texas' best swimming rivers, you can rent a tube or kayak, get dropped two or five miles upstream, and float back down to the park. Or set up your lawn chair at pebbly Rock Beach, a dammed area at the park's south end, while the kids splash in the ankle- to waist-deep water. Towel off and fire up the grill, then head to the concession building for Garner's nightly summertime jukebox dance. As you head back to your campsite, you may look up at the Hill Country sky and thank your lucky stars you live in Texas.
Swim Tip: In summertime, go early or on weekdays. The park often fills to capacity on summer weekends, so you may have to wait to get in.
Getting There: Garner is 8 miles north of Concan. From U.S. Highway 83, turn east on FM 1050 for .2 miles to Park Road 29 to the new entrance (830-232-6132, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/garner).
- Mustang Island State Park
This barrier island south of Port Aransas is everything a beach should be: wild, surf-tossed, windy, strewn with flotsam and jetsam (jellyfish, piles of seaweed and trash sometimes get washed up on the beach). Fish from a jetty and get doused by waves. Run your toes through the fine white sand or walk along more than five miles of wide beach. Watch pelicans dive-bomb the surf, while terns, gulls and piping plovers sample the beach pickings. In spring and fall, you can also watch migratory species fly through. Beach camping is available for those who like their wild nature tempered with the comforts of home.
Swim Tip: Watch for undertow and rip tides. Ask park staff or look for warning signs.
Getting There: From Corpus Christi, take State Highway 358 southeast to Padre Island. Cross the JFK Causeway and turn left on State Highway 361. Head 5 miles to park headquarters (361-749-5246, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/mustangisland).
- Tyler State Park
A small, 64-acre lake in the Pineywoods, Tyler Lake is the perfect swim spot. There's a no-wake, 5-mph boat speed limit policy on the whole lake, so you can float in the mirrored waters with no boat noise to shatter the tranquility. All you'll hear is the chatter of sunbathing teenagers who pack the white-sand beach and the ker-plash of people diving off the swimming platform. "I used to go there every summer with my buddy, because that's where he had his family reunion," recalls writer Russell Graves. "The water was so clear, we'd free-dive to the bottom and pick up mussels. We'd tell his young cousins that we were getting rich off the pearls we found in the 'oysters.'" If you want to enjoy more park scenery, rent a paddleboat, kayak or canoe and paddle along the shoreline, which blooms with dogwood and redbud in springtime.
Swim Tip: Go in the off season to enjoy the lake in its most tranquil aspect.
Getting There: From Loop 323 around Tyler, take Highway 14 seven miles north. Turn left on Park Road 16 to the park entrance (903-597-5338, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/tyler).
- Abilene State Park
When summertime temperatures soar into the high 90s, Abilene-area residents head to Abilene State Park like buffalo to a wallow. What's the attraction? The welcome shade of oak and pecan trees may be part of it - and the chance to spot classic Texas critters like an armadillo or roadrunner. But the main lure is the 110-by-40-foot swimming pool built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Under the big blue sky, the pool complex – which includes a wading pool, a bathhouse and a snack bar – is beautifully framed by a red sandstone refectory building with Romanesque arches. The pool has been the backdrop for childhood memories for generations of local residents. "Baby boomers come back to visit, and their memory is that this was the coldest pool they'd ever been in," says park manager Okie Okerstrom. "They want to know, 'Is it still cold?'" It's not, she tells them – modern regulations require the water to be treated rather than spring-fed – but for summer fun, it's still the coolest place around.
Swim Tip: Be sure to go when the pool is open: 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Getting There: From Abilene, take FM 89 southwest for 16 miles, through Buffalo Gap. Then take Park Road 32 to the park. (325-572-3204, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/abilene).
- Possum Kingdom State Park
With more than 300 miles of shoreline snaking through the rugged canyons of the Palo Pinto Mountains and nearly 20,000 acres of clear blue waters, Possum Kingdom Lake is a big attraction for boaters and scuba divers. Although the state park has just three miles of that shoreline, it is a popular public access point for enjoying the lake's bounties. Immerse yourself in the 80-degree waters from the park's shallow roped-off swimming beach or swim from the rocky shoreline of the campsites (if you're a good swimmer – some spots drop off quickly from 15 to 60 feet). For the best spots, though, bring or rent a boat and motor down the lake to Hell's Gate, a famous landmark between two towering cliffs, then jump off and swim in the protected cove. Don't expect peace and quiet, though: The cove is often a big party scene, particularly on the July 4th weekend.
Swim Tip: Although there's a small beach at the park, you'll need a boat to get to the best swim spots. The lake can get as warm as 80 degrees in some areas; for a more invigorating swim, head to the cooler waters below the dam.
Getting There: Take U.S. Highway 180 to Caddo. Head north on Park Road 33 for 17 miles (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/possumkingdom, 940-549-1803).
- Pedernales State Park
I pity the poor woman who spends $100 a day at a spa to feel rejuvenated. For a mere $5 entrance fee, I get the same renewal of body and spirit after a swim in the Pedernales River. My treatment starts with the soothing sound of water riffling over pebbles as I descend the hill to the swimming area. Then there's the baptismal immersion in the cool green water. After some invigorating brisk strokes against the surprisingly strong current, I am both relaxed and exhilarated. After my swim, I walk up the riverbank (admittedly washed out from previous floods) from boulder to boulder, exploring still pools and watching greater earless lizards dart in the sun. I feel like a happy six-year-old again – a youth serum that no spa can bottle.
Swim Tip: Bring water shoes for walking across the pebbly river bottom. Swim at the designated swimming area - never at the falls. (At the bottom of the steps, walk a few yards upstream for a deeper spot.) If you hear a flash flood warning siren, move to high ground immediately.
Getting There: From Johnson City, head east on FM 2766 for 9 miles to the park entrance. From Austin, take U.S. Highway 290 west for 32 miles, then go north on FM 3232 for 6 miles (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/pedernalesfalls, 830-868-7304).
Inks Lake State Park
This popular park's sweet spot is Devil's Waterhole, where water gathers in a deep, cool pool between tall pink granite cliffs. Hike the trail along Spring Creek to the waterhole. Climb carefully over jumbled boulders to find a deep spot to slip in. Teenagers jump Tarzan-like off ledges set into the 35-foot cliff. After heavy rains, water cascades over the pink rocks into the waterhole, completing the picture of paradise. Inks Lake itself has several no-wake swimming areas near the campgrounds, for a more easily accessible swim.
Swim Tip: Bring water shoes if you want to walk along the pretty creek bed along the Devil's Waterhole trail.
Getting There: From Burnet, near Marble Falls, take State Highway 29 west 9 miles to Park Road 4. Go south 3 miles to park headquarters (512-793-2223, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/inks).
- Galveston Island State Park
Volleyball tournaments, bikini contests and sandcastle competitions aren't your style? Then skip the beaches along Galveston's seawall and head to where the birds are – the broad beach of Galveston Island State Park. OK, so it may not have the world's most dazzling ocean or soft white sand, but this park offers miles of wide beach, great birdwatching, scuttling ghost crabs and sublime scarlet sunrises – with no vehicle traffic allowed. Gulls, sandpipers, herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills all drop in. Across the highway, elevated boardwalks and observation platforms wind through the restored wetlands, providing more birding opportunities.
Swim Tip: There are no -lifeguards. Check with park staff about water conditions, including the presence of rip tides and jellyfish.
Getting There: From I-45, exit right onto 61st Street. Head south on 61st Street, turn right on -Seawall Boulevard. Ten miles to the park entrance (409-737-1222, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/galveston).
- Blanco State Park
Four blocks south of the Hill Country hamlet of Blanco's courthouse square, Blanco State Park is blessed with a deep green river. It's a small urban park, where geese squawk on the grassy banks and highway noise is audible. But on a hot summer day, this stretch of the Blanco River attracts hordes of swimmers, tubers and anglers. Children splash in the shallow areas below the CCC dams. For more room to stretch out and swim, I slipped into the deep water above the dam and swam a half-mile like a human riverboat – a great workout with not a lap lane or lifeguard in sight.
Swim Tip: Keep a sharp eye out for inexperienced young anglers casting into your path.
Getting There: Take U.S. Highway 281 to Blanco. Turn south on Park Road 23, just four blocks south of town (830-833-4333, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/blanco).
For information about more state park swimming holes, visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/activities/outdoor_recreation/swim.