Hamilton Pool sits at the top of the list as debatably one of Texas’s most beautiful natural features and best sites swimming.
Hamilton Creek, a spring fed stream that runs at all times of year, reaches a precipice above a 180-degree limestone amphitheater before falling fifty feet into the large pool below. Each day park staff will take bacteria samples of the water in order to determine whether swimming in the preserve is safe, so it pays to check ahead of time on their website for the daily forecast. Only about fifty cars are permitted into the park at any point in time; this means that shortly after the park opens, it reaches capacity and rangers subsequently start turning people away. The trail to the pool winds among limestone boulders and through thick foliage along Hamilton Creek. For those seeking to ditch the crowds present at the main attraction, follow the trail down to the Pedernales River and go swimming.
Jacob’s Well is a perennial karstic spring situated within the Cypress Creek in the Texas Hill Country town of Wimberly. The pool features a 140 foot deep artesian spring that once served as a popular cave diving location until a number of people scuba diving in the 70’s lost their lives after losing their way in the caverns beneath the main chamber. Now, scuba diving is no longer permitted, but diving into the hole from the natural limestone slab diving board is highly encouraged…at one’s own risk of course.
Just about 50 minutes from downtown Austin, Pedernales Falls features some of the best swimming holes I have ever discovered. The falls themselves are certainly worthy of exploration, but swimming in this area is no longer permitted. There is also a designated swimming area located downstream, but in my experience, the best swimming holes are located along the creeks that trickle into the Pedernales River and accessed by the Wolf Mountain trailhead. On your way back to Austin, don’t forget to stop by Stanley’s Farmhouse Pizza and adjacent Jester King Brewery for some artisan wood-fired pizza and farmhouse ales – in my opinion the perfect way to top of a day of exploring the Texas hill country.
Pace Bend Park is a finger of land that juts out into the Colorado River about 45 minutes northwest of downtown Austin in a town called Spicewood. The northern coast of the park features sharp limestone cliffs that serve as prime spots for cliff diving and deep water soloing (rock climbing with no harness over a body of water) for the more adventurous types. The southern side features a gentler landscape of rolling beaches. The middle of the peninsula remains closed off to vehicular traffic and serves as a wildlife preserve accessible by foot, mountain bike or horseback.
Barton Springs Pool maintains a 68-70 degree temperature year round, fed by a series of underground springs, making it the perfect place for a refreshing dip within the Austin city limits! The pool itself covers three acres and reaches a depth of 18 feet in some places, with a natural rock bottom spanning its length in entirety. Barton Springs Pool is located in Zilker Park and draws a wide variety of patrons ranging from families to topless and tattooed alternative types.
The Greenbelt runs all the way from Barton Springs Pool down to the southern reaches of Austin’s city limits. A variety of access points and different geologic features provide a plethora of different experiences to be had along the way. Typically, water levels are not high enough to sustain cliff jumping or floating the river, but after a significant rain the valley fills with a torrent of fast moving white water. The limestone cliffs along most of the greenbelt serve as a popular destination for rock climbers, with a number of bolted and well-tested routes lining the walls.
McKinney Falls State Park is the closest state park to downtown Austin and features two swimming areas and a number of different hiking and biking trails. The pools among the upper falls feature natural waterslides and a number of places to jump into the water. The lower falls, although less popular, are also worth a gander and are a good place to go when the crowds at the upper falls are overwhelming. Due to its proximity to Austin, McKinney Falls starts to pack out fairly quickly, so get there early!
Perhaps the most accessible and most popular of this list, Town Lake is the portion of the dammed off portion of the Colorado River that runs straight through downtown Austin. Popular activities include stand-up paddle boarding, rowing a canoe to watch the flight of the Congress Street Bridge bats at dusk, and a violent-looking version of water polo played in personal kayaks underneath the Mopac Boulevard bridge. The water here, although not the cleanest, is still extremely refreshing on a hot summer day.