Back Roads Nature–Balmorhea State Park

It’s a prideful secret that area residents would like to keep to themselves—many Texans have never heard of it. Thousands stream down Interstate 10 each day, unaware that one of the world’s largest natural swimming holes is just a few miles off the highway. It has existed as a desert oasis in one form or another for more than 11,000 years and has reinvented itself many times over the ages. Today, Balmorhea State Park protects a spring-fed pool that boils up through the sandy bottom and pumps out 15-26 million gallons of crystal clear water each day! You can imagine the euphoria of early explorers stumbling upon this fountain after traversing the Chihuahuan Desert, kissing the ground like some parched cartoon prospector crawling to his salvation.  These days people come to swim, snorkel, scuba dive and relax in 1.3 acres of cool glistening water, shining like fine sterling under the warm Texas sun.

Balmorhea State Park is isolated, nestled in the foothills of the Davis Mountains of West Texas. It’s a rough and tumble landscape that scorns finesse.  Everything around you is stark and unforgiving. Even so, the park has all the amenities needed to draw visitors for an extended stay. There are overnight campsites, motel-style lodging built by the CCC, a small café and ranger-led nature and history programs.  The feature attraction, of course, is the pristine pool which sets light to dancing like the reflection of your mother’s ring on the ceiling.  The water maintains a stable 72-76 degree temperature year round and because of its constant inflow, chlorination of the pool is unnecessary. It’s a Texas Aquatic Science Certified Field Site. There’s even a full-service dive shop nearby to supply swim gear or scuba diving lessons. It’s as rare as a one-armed banjo player!

Understand, this is not a day trip for the Post Oak Savannah tribe. Situated south of Pecos, Texas, it’s too far away for a casual Sunday drive.  Located in Reeves County, just a short distance from the tiny village of Toyahvale (the county seat), on sleepy State Highway 17, you will, for sure, lose the city congestion and lemming-like tourist hordes—but it can still get busy on weekends and holidays. As the temperature rises, it’s not uncommon for traffic to bottle to a stop at the entrance gate. If you’re swimming pool days are over, it’s worth a visit anyway to groove on the joyous sound of gurgling water, majestic shade trees, covered picnic sites, outdoor sports area, playground and a large meeting hall. The park is also a convenient stop on the way to somewhere else. Davis Mountains State Park is 33 miles away, which puts within striking distance such area attractions as McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis National Historic Site, Pecos Museum, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine.

Naturalists, though, will find other things to get excited about besides swimming or tourism. This wetland habitat (cienega) is unique to the American Southwest—there are only 4 left in Texas. It forms from an aquifer system originating some 400 miles northwest of the spring.  Water collected from the nearby Davis and Apache mountains moves through the porous limestone and along fault lines, as if running in a water pipe.  It pushes up through a geologic fault at the park, known as San Solomon Spring.  Because the water is under pressure and spews out from above the water table, it’s dubbed an “artesian spring” (versus an ordinary gravity-fed spring).

Natural springs are disappearing in Texas. We’ve already lost Leon Springs and Comanche Springs in the mid-1950s because of falling water tables. There remain two artesian springs near San Solomon (Phantom Lake and Giffin) which still flow, although at much reduced rates. These desert springs are effectively islands, separated from each other by miles of desert. Additional ground water pumping could cause these two springs, and possibly even San Solomon, to fail. We seem intent on depleting what nature provides while denying our own destruction in the process. There’s a difference between ignorance and a refusal to know.

Cienega is a Spanish term for desert marsh or bog. It differs from a “swamp” in that historic cienegas could not support trees—the water would drown them out.  Problem is, there are damn few “historic” ceinegas left.  They’ve mostly been destroyed by frontier landowners’ appetite for crop irrigation, drying up marshland environments and leaving behind few undamaged cienagas. Construction in the 1930’s of the Balmorhea pool itself finished off the natural cienega surrounding San Solomon Spring. TPWD, in conjunction with local groups and federal agencies, restored part of it by building two man-made replacements which support fish, birds and other animals. Visitors can see some of the cienega’s unusual aquatic life through an underwater viewing window within the park.

Ever hear of a pupfish? The silvery fish are tiny and look like minnows. The small café within the park, the Pupfish Café, was named after the Comanche Springs pupfish. It’s an endangered species which used to thrive in Comanche Springs near Ft. Stockton, before it went dry.  Today, their life hanging by a thread, pupfish exist only in the park and a few other West Texas springs. Another rare fish fighting for survival is the tiny Pecos gambusia. Presently in Texas, populations of the Pecos gambusia occur in Jeff Davis and Pecos counties, as well as Balmorhea State Park. Historically, the species was found all over the Pecos River basin in southwestern New Mexico and western Texas.  Will our future be towering urban centers interlocked by shriveled wasteland, our only wildlife domestic dogs and cats?

Not all the critters here are endangered. White-tailed deer, javelina, ground squirrels, turtles, lizards and dragonflies depend on the water and lush greenery for sustenance and shelter.  Birds thrive here too—migratory and otherwise.  A veritable wildlife spa, if you will. After water from the spring flows through the pool, it drains slowly through the cattails, sedges, rushes and reeds leaving behind long, wide-scale mats of thick, sponge-like wetland sod. Aquatic and moisture-loving plants flourish along the wet edges.  Beyond, you will see typical shrub-lined desert and grasslands, much of which has been converted to farm fields.  Water from San Solomon Springs irrigates 10,000 acres in the farming towns of Balmorhea, Saragosa and Toyahvale—and gives life to nearby Balmorhea Lake.

As stated, this spring has served many purposes and many masters over its time. In the late 1840’s it was called Mescalero Springs because the Mescalero Apache commonly watered their horses there. Later, Mexicans dug the first canals by hand to water their crops, enabling them to sell to the burgeoning population of nearby Fort Davis—and they named it “San Solomon Springs.”  In the late 1920’s conservation continued to be trumped by agriculture as the Bureau of Land Reclamation came in and dredged the pool to improve the canals for more efficient irrigation flow.  Finally, the State Parks Board in 1934 stepped up and acquired the property around the spring and sent in the Civilian Conservation Corps to build a park. Ironically, the awkward odd-sounding name (pronounced “Bal-Mo-RAY”) derives from the surnames of four partners of a once prominent irrigation company:  E.D. Balcom, H.R. Morrow and two Rhea brothers, Joe and John.

There have been few government work programs in our political history more enlightened than the Civilian Conservation Corps. For 6 years the men of company 1856 reinvested their wages into our economy while working to build the park. They finished in 1940.  In the beginning, task #1 was to build a barracks and a mess hall/kitchen to support themselves in this stark desert landscape.  At peak manning levels, 200 men lived and worked here. All-in-all, they crafted what is now the pool area around the spring, constructed a concession building, two bath houses, San Solomon Courts (the small motel) and other structural improvements to the park.  One of the first customers to enjoy the fruits of this labor were troops and horses of the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Bliss.  For a number of years they made a point to camp nearby.  Not a bad bivouac!

Now let’s talk about you. Why on earth would anyone from the Bastrop area travel 2-3 days to visit a 46-acre park in the middle of the desert? Maybe because your wanderlust requires more than Texas Highways? Per chance to escape the stifling mob for a little peace and quiet?  Possibly you are traveling through the area anyway, and choose to rebel against that black hole known as Interstate 10? The high desert—it’s unlike the rest of Texas—is the most complex and, perhaps, the most beautiful region in the state. Balmorhea State Park will never draw visitors like, say, Garner State Park, but it still attracts ~200,000 visitors a year. Add it to your bucket list . . . and experience it while you still can.

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