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Love and Swimming Holes

Friday, August 11, 2017

By Hannah Grace Martin
Photo by Gideon Tsang

When the high August sun burns brightest, people flock to swimming spots across the country. Back woods waterfalls, springfed pools, shady coves with rock jumps. The key is simple: cool and clear water as far off the radar as possible.

Julie Wernersback and Carolyn Tracy know these secrets of summer as well as anyone. Their new book, The Swimming Holes of Texas, published by UT Press in May, profiles the top swimming spots across the state. Wildsam spoke with Carolyn earlier this week about the inspiration behind the book, her scouting process, and the palpable nostalgia that comes with summer and swimming. 

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How did you both decide to write this guide to swimming in Texas?

My motivation was the invitation of adventure. To get to scour the far reaches of Texas, to explore, and most of all, to inspire folks to get outside. To me, that’s where conservation begins.

Is there anything unexpected you learned about these swimming spots while working on the book? Even beyond Texas?

One of the most exciting discoveries for us was the incredible work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was a public work relief program set up during the New Deal that helped people earn a living during the Great Depression all across the U.S.  The infrastructure they built allows us to safely and comfortably enjoy so many Texas parks, not to mention the beauty of their craftsmanship. You can see their work all over Texas, from state parks such as Balmorhea, Blanco and Palmetto.

For someone not from Texas, how do you describe the state's unique affinity to swimming holes?

It’s all about surviving summer. Plus, swimming holes seem to demand that we all set aside our differences and have a good time. They really are hallowed ground.

This is somewhat unfair to ask, but for someone from outside Texas, what's the single swimming hole they should experience in their lifetime? 

That's impossible for me to answer without offending half of Texas. I can say that, for me, James Kiehl River Bend Park in the heart of the Texas Hill Country offers up a pretty idyllic scene. Few people, huge Bald Cypress trees, and a nice little stretch of the cool Guadalupe River. And it’s free.

Tell us a little about your research methodology. What are the things you look for in a top-notch spot? And how does one find some of these more undiscovered places?

Our strategy was pretty straightforward: get off of the main roads and follow the rivers. We needed to see as much as possible when we were road tripping, so we visited a great many places that didn't make the cut. We did decide to only include designated swim spots and with a few exceptions we chose not to include privately owned swimming holes. We also made a very conscious decision not to list 'secret spots' or places that we felt were proprietary.

There's a timeless joy associated with summer swimming. Can you remember an early memory of swimming from your childhood? 

My earliest memories of swimming holes are from summer visits to my grandmother's house in the Sierra Nevada. We'd drive up to the Kern River, which has sandy banks and huge boulders to climb on, and the water is so cold. I tried to recreate that back home in east Texas, but it looked more like sloshing through muddy creeks in pursuit of frogs. Still though, a really really good time. 


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The best thing about swimming holes? You can find them anywhere. Even the desert. See below for a few favorites from recent Wildsam guides. 

The Inkwells
8889 Fir Francis Drake Blvd, West Marin
Twenty-three miles from SF, and just east of Samuel Taylor State Park, these flowing cascade pools and boulder rocks make for a delightful Saturday excursion, if the weather is right. Also of note: a pedestrian bridge spans over 160 feet over Lagunitas Creek's cobalt blue waters.

Mill Creek North Fork
Moab, UT
A mile from this favorite trailhead, a blue-green waterfall and lush plant life stand in stark contrast to the Utah red rock. Keep going along the path for two additional—and often quieter—sets of falls, as well as thousand-year-old Petroglyph figures carved into the canyon walls. And back in Moab proper, don’t miss Milt’s Stop & Eat for a bacon cheeseburger and shake.

Jacob’s Well
1699 Mt. Sharp Rd, Wimberley
This one is the eye candy of the bunch. Sublimely blue water (68 degrees even on hot summer days) flows from a deep karst spring, and standing on the limestone surface, this watery cave seems to take an endless dive down. And in truth, it is enormous, 120 feet deep and nearly a mile wide, which lures free divers year-round, despite a risky reputation. Important to note: Jacob’s sits between San Antonio and Austin, so weekends are crowd heavy. Midweek visits offer a more low-key vibe.

Bridge to Nowhere
Camp Bonita Rd, Angeles National Forest
A five-mile hike down the East Fork of the San Gabriel rewards ramblers with desert views atop the secluded 120-foot Bridge to Nowhere. There are a number of great swimming spots along the way, but our favorite is just down into the canyon from the bridge. Set out early and pace yourself for the homeward leg. Permits required.

Barton Springs
2101 Barton Springs Rd
Spring board divers, sunbathers, lap swimmers, ducks, kids in water wings — Texans of every stripe gather at this revered sanctuary and throwback oasis. Parthenia, its underground font, flows at a constant rate, nearly 30 million gallons of chilly freshwater into the pool and river. And all year long, locals and travelers alike come to pay cannonball homage.

Capers Island
Ospreys, loggerheads, and a mystical bone-yard beach on Capers create a feeling of a gorgeous coastal time warp. Just north of Mount Pleasant, the boat-only access to the barrier island offers visitors a peaceful retreat from the more touristy Isle of Palms. And if you really want the true experience, sign up for the blue crab excursion through local outfitter Barrier Island Eco Tours.