During the dark days of this winter, as we were coming down off the highs of the The Standard, Miami Beach’s 10-year anniversary, we went searching for cures. We learned about the wonders of Reiki; we practiced the meditative ritual of slurping soba noodles; we explored some of the stranger corners of wellness culture in Los Angeles and New York. As lovers of global bathing cultures, we wondered what other curative bathing experiences were out there, and our buddies at Bunkhouse, the brilliant Texas hotels, were kind enough to provide this primer on the rejuvenating joys of getting wet, Texas-style.
In Texas, getting wet is a ritual. It’s also a practical necessity. In a place this hot, seasonal affect disorder is a summertime phenomenon, and life gathers around the areas where fresh water bubbles to the surface. The Lone Star state has close to 3,000 natural springs—the result of hundreds of miles of ancient underground aquifers that reveal themselves in a wild variety of oasis-like scenarios. These are sources of vital drinking water, but they also offer the simple gift of reprieve from the unrelenting heat.
In some secular way, the swimming hole is our church. These waters have restorative powers, but explanations are elusive. Some say it’s the negative ions discharged by the water that trigger the body to produce more serotonin. Believers in the metaphysical power of rocks say it’s the limestone, which is thought to have the ability to heal, restore innocence, and entice the power of positive thinking. It’s hard to say what specific alchemy is at play, but the answer may lie more in the human connections that have taken place on these sites over the centuries than in the places themselves. People have been converging at these epicenters to live, practice sacred and social rituals, and relax for thousands of years.
We’ve selected three such exquisite spots—swimming holes where you can cool off and immerse yourself in the ritual that is Texas bathing. Bring your swimsuit.
Wimberley, TX (45-min drive from Austin)
Drive 45 minutes from Austin and you’ll find yourself staring from a cliff into an abyss that’s like the yoni of the mothership. There’s something about this place that evokes an arm hair-raising mix of fear and fascination. The crystal-clear spring emerges from Cypress Creek through a 12-foot opening that descends 120 feet before curving into a system of unknown depths. The caves beneath are believed to run at least a mile deep, but no one really knows. Eight people have died trying to find its outer limits, so—you know, good luck! Just kidding. Don’t.
Here, time is measured in millennia. Ancient water flows through a labyrinth of even more ancient limestone and bubbles up to the surface as cool, crystalline water that is drinkable directly from the source. Jacob’s Well is the main artery feeding Edwards Aquifer, the largest artesian aquifer in the world, and one that supplies drinking water to over 2 million people in the Austin area. The water Austinites drink every day has been underground for between 2 and 6 million years, and there is evidence of human life there dating back 10,000 years.
To understand the power of the well, you need to travel about 250 miles west to the White Shaman Panel. This 4,000-year-old rock painting—created by a mysterious tribe that has since vanished—depicts what is considered the state’s oldest map. The painting served as a guide for a spiritual pilgrimage and peyote ritual, with instructions on how and where to worship the mystical forces of the universe. When overlaid on a modern map, one section of the panel clearly locates several springs, including Jacob’s Well.
Beyond its spiritually potent history and its foreboding beauty, or perhaps because of it, Jacob’s Well is one of the state’s most beloved swimming spots. It’s considered a rite of passage to jump from the cliff into the narrow opening. There is, of course, a rope swing, an important fixture of any legitimate swimming hole. The water maintains a constant, cool temperature of 68 degrees, offering the most important gift a Texan seeks.
Probably the most famous of the Texas freshwater oases, Barton Springs is a Shangri-La in the form of a 900-foot spring-fed pool in the center of the city. The water sustains lush surroundings and shade trees, and it’s easy to imagine why Tonkawa, Lipan Apache, and Comanche tribes and their predecessors have gathered here for thousands of years.
In the 1930s, on the heels of the Great Depression, FDR cooked up the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), an initiative to employ able-bodied men to preserve the parklands. At Barton Springs, the CCC built simple bathhouses that were intended to complement nature, not compete with it. Native materials were always given prominence, making each structure unique and reflective of its place. To some, these buildings have an equally important value and beauty to the swimming holes themselves.
"In some secular way, the swimming hole is our church."
Nowadays, Barton Springs is an important gathering place in the city, and community rituals have a significant role here. Every full moon, people gather to swim and collectively howl at the night sky. A polar bear dip on New Year’s Day is a brisk tradition and an offering of self-sacrifice to the springs (the 68 degree water can feel pretty cold in January). Old folk and athletes swim their daily laps. Teenagers get dropped off in the summer to enact their awkward rites of passage – one gets the feeling that many first kisses have happened here. The diving board has a whole culture unto itself, the raucous cries of friendly competition creating the soundtrack of the park.
As community gathering centers, swimming holes have also played an important role in addressing the social questions of the day. In the 1940s, Barton Springs became the ad hoc salon for a triumvirate of local intellectuals who gathered to discuss the social issues of the day. The liberal ideology that formed here came to define Austin, and the springs became known as Philosopher’s Rock. In 1960, when Barton Springs was racially segregated, interracial groups of students and activists staged “swim-ins,” breaking the rules of the pool and using the water as their platform to address inequality. More recently, Barton Springs has served as the social proving ground of Austin’s topless laws, and protecting the springs themselves from the onslaught of development has become a star-studded environmental effort in its own right.
Balmorhea, TX (1-hour drive from Marfa)
In the high plains desert of Far West Texas, the land is dry and water is scarce. In the midst of this arid landscape, the world’s largest spring-fed pool beckons like a mirage. The 3.5 million-gallon swimming hole, fed by nine springs, may have concrete coping and a high dive, but the beauty of its rock bottom and the wide variety of fish, invertebrates, and turtles that inhabit it are testament to the natural wonder of the place.
As the story goes, white settlers were roaming the land and came across a very sick Native American woman. They took her back to their camp and nursed her back to health, and when she was well they gave her a horse and sent her on her way. She returned with her entire tribe–she was the Chief’s daughter. In thanks for their healing, the tribe led the settlers to what is now called Balmorhea.
Much like Barton Springs, Balmorhea benefited from the CCC’s efforts. Company 1856 of the CCC built the communal bathhouse here in the 1930s, along with a cluster of rentable cabins. Back in the day, the park also included a dancing pavilion, barracks to house the CCC, and a Mexican restaurant. Now, the park is blissfully accompanied by little more than the sound of baying coyotes, the Davis Mountains on the horizon, and, at night, a vast expanse of starry sky.
Freaks and families have learned to peacefully coexist here. It’s not uncommon to see large Mennonite clans swimming in full clothing alongside tattooed teens in bikinis, and Japanese tourists lounging alongside fifth-generation cattle ranchers. The waters offer a bridge in the cultural divide, a common language between city mice and country mice, the sinner and the saved. Our similarities far outweigh our differences as we stand in line for the high dive, looking out across the majesty of the Texas plains.