Authors of “The Swimming Holes of Texas” share five favorite spots to beat the heat
By Julie Wernersbach & Carolyn Tracy
Come June and July, all we want to do in Texas is get in the water. In Austin, we’re blessed with several supreme opportunities for cooling off, stretching out, and whiling away a chill summer day. As Austin grows, however, some of our favorite swimming holes are so popular, just finding parking can feel like a deep dive into an abyss of lost time and maddening circles. Part of the fun of researching and writing “The Swimming Holes of Texas” was discovering some terrific swimming hole hideouts not too far from downtown Austin. The capital city is within easy driving distance of dozens of awesome spots to kick back and soak up the beauty of central Texas. Here are five of our top picks for places likely to be a bit more laid back than Barton Springs on a Saturday in July.
Hancock Park Highway, US-281, Lampasas
Located on Sulphur Creek in Lampasas, Hancock Free Flow Pool in Hancock Park is one of the oldest spring-fed swimming pools in Texas. The water at Hancock is clear, cold and a steady 69 degrees all year long. It’s like a miniature Barton Springs, with a sweet little picnic area, shallow and deep ends, a lifeguard, and a historic house restored by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Popularized in the 1850s as a health resort, the mineral-rich waters attracted scores of people and were known as a veritable “Saratoga of the South.” The pool changed hands several times over the last hundred and fifty years, operated at different times by the Baptist Encampment for Central Texans, the city of Lampasas, and Camp Hood, which used it during World War II as a place for soldiers to convalesce. Today, Hancock Springs welcomes swimmers on summer weekends to revive and rejuvenate in a beautifully maintained pool that’s just about an hour outside of Austin.
2805 Pace Bend Rd. North, Spicewood
This popular spot in the Highland Lakes region of Lake Travis is a short drive out of town that takes you to the edge of the Hill Country. Nine miles of shoreline, limestone cliffs and miles of hiking trails make this a satisfying place to explore for a day. At Pace Bend, you’ll enjoy an abundance of designated swim spots: Mudd Cove, Kate’s Cove and Gracy Cove. While Mudd Cove and Kate’s Cove are great for their easy, walk-in access to the water, shade and convenient picnic areas, the view at Gracy Cove is the most impressive. Roped off from the rest of lake and protected from the wake of speedboats, this deep inlet is tucked away on the western side of the park, where the shore is lined with limestone cliffs. Be sure to remember the sunscreen when you’re hanging out at Gracy Cove. There’s limited shade here and you’re more likely than not to pull up to a sunny spot to lounge.
Across from historic Zedler Mill, on the opposite bank of the river, is a perfect spot to walk into the welcoming jade waters of the San Marcos. This no-fuss, no-muss park offers tons of shade from the ash, sycamore and pecan trees that grow here. On Highway 80, keep your eyes peeled for a Texas Paddling Trail sign; that’s how you’ll know you’ve arrived. The road down to the park is unpaved. Park your car on the grass and head down to the water, where you’re welcomed by that signature green of the San Marcos and a soft river bottom. This is a picturesque spot where the relatively narrow river and abundant shade make for a cozy, easy afternoon. After your swim, head across the river and check out Zedler Mill, which has recently been turned into a museum and opened to the public. The San Marcos River was an important part of the economic development of this part of Texas. On display are old photographs, tools, and many more personal and industrial artifacts from the mill. You’ll come away with a good sense of water not just as recreation, but as power and industry.
2820 County Rd. 414, Spicewood
The best time to catch Muleshoe Bend is during wildflower season. This enormous, 920-acre park is home to acres and acres of our brilliant, beloved Texas bluebonnets. Grab your camera, perfect your pose, and knock out a great day of swimming and your annual bluebonnet photo at the same time. Here at Muleshoe, you’ll also find more than six miles of mountain bike trails and six miles of waterfront curving around big views of the Colorado River. Getting into the water at Muleshoe is a breeze. Walk right into the shallow shoreline from the grassy bank. This is a simple, relaxing spot just about an hour northwest of Austin where you can take in stunning views of the river and those glorious bluebonnets. Camping is welcome here and sites with views of the water are available. With ample space to spread out, trails to explore, horse-back riding available, and abundant waterfront, Muleshoe is a central Texas gem.
78 Park Road 11 South, Gonzales
About an hour and a half south of Austin in Gonzales is one of the most interesting state parks in the region. Developed in an area known as the Ottine swamp, Palmetto State Park boasts a unique landscape, with trails through a rich understory that includes the dwarf palmetto that gives the park its name.
At all times in Palmetto State Park, keep your eyes peeled for the storied “Ottine Thing,” the North American Wood Ape (aka “Bigfoot”) hikers have reported experiencing here.
This spot is a delight for birders as well, known for being a hot spot on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. For swimmers, Palmetto offers two great places to jump in the water. Spring-fed Oxbow Lake, with its cypress and oak shade is close to the entrance of the camp and popular with campers and day visitors alike. Head deeper into the park and you’ll find the trail near the refectory that takes you down to a crossing over the San Marcos River. After swimming and exploring the trails, take a scenic drive up Park Road 11 where it forks left into Ottine. This beautiful tree-lined road winds up to an overlook you don’t want to miss. At all times in Palmetto State Park, keep your eyes peeled for the storied “Ottine Thing,” the North American Wood Ape (aka “Bigfoot”) hikers have reported experiencing here.
Read more from the Travel Issue | May 2017