You know Texas is HOT in the summer so although we have swimming pools every ten feet, we also have several beloved swimming’ holes (also it’s always “swimmin'” not “swimming” unless you want to sound like an out-of-towner). Growing up in Michigan we had lakes in every direction. We swam in them but they always grossed me out with seaweed and who knows what else lurking under the water (and let’s not discuss how many times I’d get out of the water with leeches stuck to me. Ew). Texas does have lakes but they’re not as common and they’re much more popular for boating.
Before I lived in Texas when I imagined a swimmin’ hole I’d imagine a pond in the dirt. The swimmin’ holes in Texas are much more gorgeous affairs. Central Texas is a land of karst topography. Meaning there’s lots of limestone everywhere and limestone, being porous and rather soft, is the kind of rock that is prone to sinkholes and caves. While it’s bad for farming and building roads it’s great for collapsing into holes in the ground that fill with water. Karst is also prime for aquifers, meaning there is lots of fresh water underground. Which also means that all the swimmin’ holes in Central Texas are spring-fed. No stagnant ponds of water! The water is clear and quite cool. Because most bodies of water in Cental Texas are essentially big dents in the rock, there isn’t much growing in the water; no seaweed, no slime. There are fish and other critters, but you won’t have to deal with muck like you do when you swim in a sandy lake. Yay for that! But it also means it is not soft and can be torture on your feet.
When visiting any Central Texas Swimming Hole, remember:
There is lots and lots and lots of rock. Everywhere. Always wear water shoes! Tevas or water sandals are fine. You’ll take them off when you swim, but the ground around every swimming’ hole is extremely rocky as is the bottom of the water. Leave the flip flops at home because most swimming’ holes require a bit of a hike too. You won’t be the only one prancing around all sexy in your bikini while wearing an ugly pair of Chacos.
Most swimming’ holes are not baby, toddler and handicapped-friendly. Remember that thing about rocks everywhere? And there being a bit of a hike? Not so little kid-friendly. You’ll be toting along a cooler and a bajillion other things like towels and water noodles so it’s a bit hard to add a baby or child who needs/wants to be carried into the mix. Only a couple of the holes have any way to get a wheelchair or stroller close to the water. Also, swimming’ holes tend not to have a beach of any sort. There are always shallower areas so there are places for tiny kids to play, but it’s really not worth the headache. I have brought toddlers to every one of these places and most of the time I’ve sat there praying silently that nobody falls down and cracks their skulls open. Take your toddler to a splash pad and you’ll both have a much better time.
There are no lifeguards. While this is no big deal if it’s a bunch of adults, when you’ve got kids it can add a big old layer of stress and worry, especially if it’s just you and a bunch of little ones. If you’re floating the river and everyone is in tubes right next to each other, it’s not worrisome. But it’s hard to keep an eye on everyone when one kid is in the water, someone else is on the other side of a big tree trying to catch tadpoles and your toddler keeps trying to run away from the cold water. An extra adult or two who can keep an eye on little people is especially helpful.
Check the swimmin’ hole’s website before you go. Some require reservations, some are closed to swimming for the day (this happens frequently if there has been lots of recent rain), some are cash only, and sometimes things change. Most swimming’ holes require a long drive and you don’t want to go to all that bother just to be turned away.
Get there early. It’s Texas. In the summer. You’re not going to be the only one who wants to cool off. Picnic tables can be scarce so arrive early to stake out the best place to make your home base. Holes can fill up to capacity early in the day especially on Saturdays and holidays. We’ve been turned away or told we could wait in line for an hour. That is no fun!
Bring a picnic. Most holes are out in the boonies so you’ll want to bring your own food. Coolers are allowed at every hole.
Bring a chair. This isn’t like a pool where there is an ocean of lounge chairs provided for your comfort. Bring a folding camp chair. In some holes people just take their chair and sit in the water. If you’re in town visiting and don’t have a camp chair, it’s not a necessity. But remember, rocks everywhere.
A waterproof case for your phone. You’ll want to take pictures and a safe case for your phone is a must.
Our Favorite Swimming Holes
While it’s hard to say which one is my favorite, these are all wonderful in their own ways. Most of these are 45-60 minutes away from downtown Austin.
Hamilton Pool is the most picturesque and stunning of the swimming holes. It is basically a massive, giant sinkhole that caved in on itself. You can hike around inside the crater but the big attraction is swimming, of course. This hole requires reservations and they’re usually booked a couple of weeks out. Seriously, don’t even bother showing up without a reservation. It is also the hole that is most affected by rain, due to the runoff of nearby farms that comes down in the waterfall. Swimming is often cancelled here.
The trip from the parking lot down to the water is quite treacherous. It’s a steep walk downhill with massive rocks all over the path, taking about 10-15 minutes. There is no way to get a cooler down to the bottom except to carry it. So make sure you bring the lightest and smallest cooler you can get away with. The walk back up is very, very strenuous and–like I said–super rocky. This is not the swimmin’ hole to bring Grandma to unless you’re hoping she has a heart attack. It’s going to take a month of Sundays for your toddler to walk down and back as well.
There is no running water at Hamilton Pool which means porta potties are the only bathroom. Most are at the top of the hill near the parking lot. Make everyone uses it before you go down to the water! There is also zero cell phone service down at the water since you’re essentially surrounded by rock walls on all sides.
Krause Springs (pronounced KROW-zee. The “krau” rhymes with plow) is another stunning swimmin’ hole and it’s very unusual because it’s actually someone’s backyard. Don’t let that put you off because you’ve never seen a backyard like this. You can also tour the cute little grotto with wind chimes of every size and the lovely butterfly garden in the front yard. There is tons of parking and there are nice public bathrooms at the top of the hill. There are also lots of rock picnic tables in the shade.
As you go down the hill you’ll see a swimming pool. It’s fun and my kids like to swim in it but be prepared because it is entirely spring fed and it is COLD. You can continue down the hill, down an incredibly steep metal ladder or down an incredibly steep hill. Either way, when you get to the bottom you’ll reach the most green and lovely swimming hole. The “beach” is a bald rock face that is not very chair-friendly. If you keep going you’ll find some dirt outcroppings along the water that are much more amenable to chairs.
There is a little waterfall to swim under (always a favorite of couples making out) and a rope swing. The water here tends to get more churned up due to so many people jumping in. Krause is verdant and and shady and you’ll feel more like you’re in Hawaii than in Texas.
About a mile from downtown Wimberly is Blue Hole. This is the most stroller and handicapped-friendly swimming hole. Instead of climbing down a steep, rocky hill there is a fully paved sidewalk meandering down to a grassy field and a few picnic tables (picnic tables go fast so be prepared for a picnic on the grass).
Blue Hole is a small spring-fed river. Despite being a river it is as clear as can be (until the kids start jumping in) and there are bald cypresses shading it for the most part. The water is catch-your-breath chilly.
There are a couple of rope swings so this hole is quite popular with teenagers and older kids. We moms usually set our camp chairs right in the water so we can keep an eye on the kids because you can’t see them from the shore.
This artesian well is actually the source for Blue Hole. It’s a VERY deep hole (that is–surprise–blue!). In the olden days people would dive down to the bottom of the hole and quite often died. Cheerful, right? But diving isn’t allowed anymore so hopefully there will be no death on your visit.
Reservations are required and they’re booked out for weeks in the summer (you only have a two hour window to swim). If you don’t have reservations you’ll still be allowed to walk around Jacob’s Well; you just won’t be able to swim.
There are several rock cliffs to jump off of into the water which is super chilly like at Blue Hole. This isn’t a huge place for swimming, but the point is that big old hole.
Again there is lots of slippery rock and a ten minute walk to the swimming hole from the parking area. There are decent bathrooms. It’s not my favorite place but it’s definitely worth a visit.
Tubing the Comal (or Guadalupe)
Although they aren’t technically swimmin’ holes, we have some great rivers in Central Texas. They tend to be clear and clean and so wonderful on a sweltering summer day. Most companies offer tube rentals and they’ll pick up at the bottom of the river. You can either go home after one run or go over and over. I prefer the Comal River (this is the river that runs next to Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels) but the Guadalupe can be great too. There aren’t a ton of differences between tubing companies (I ask who has cup holders in their tubes and that’s who I go with!), and pretty often you can find Groupons or online deals.
Tubing takes several hours so hydration and sunscreen are extremely important. Lots of people will get an extra tube to put a cooler in (alcohol is completely allowed but remember that nobody likes loud drunks). Tubes are available with mesh bottoms that are better for children (and coolers!) If you’re not getting an extra tube for drinks, bring along a lanyard or cord to tie a water bottle onto the handle of your tube. A waterproof bag is also great for valuables, your phone and car keys.
Most of the rivers are quite mild, although there is a small chute on the Comal that can be a little scary for tiny kids. The water is usually pretty shallow. Most rental places have life jackets available but call first if you’re concerned. We usually hook our tubes together and nobody wears life vests. We’re all right next to each other so I don’t worry too much. As I mentioned, there are tubes with bottoms and those are really good for young kids. Even so, I wouldn’t bring a child who’s not a good swimmer. We held off on tubing the rivers until our youngest child was seven just to be sure.
There are so many ways to cool of in Central Texas during the summer and I hope this helps narrow down your choices a little. Have fun and be safe!