Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Labor Day Weekend: Balmorhea State Park

We decided to take a short two-day vacation for Labor Day weekend and explore some new Texas State Parks we haven't been to yet. I've been puzzling over which parks to visit in warm weather and which to save for the fall and winter. Balmorhea was top of the list for a late summer visit because it is all about the pool! From Midland the drive takes about two and a half hours, once you turn south and the Davis Mountains begin to loom in front of you, you know you are close.

N 30° 56.279 W 103° 49.654
Just west of the park is an old church I likely would have never known about if not for geocaching.
The back wall preserves the original adobe and even mid-day on a Friday there were half a dozen or so prayer candles burning. From the cache page:
Written records for Mission Mary began in 1902, when a thirty four year old priest from the Netherlands started recording baptisms and marriages. Father Nicolas Brocardus arrived in the United States in 1892 and started serving the Big Bend in 1897. At first Father Brocardus rode the circuit on horseback or in a buggy, later in a Ford Model T. Father Brocardus made his rounds about once a month , at that time baptisms and marriages were performed.

Like all growing communities Calera residents eventually decided that they needed a church building, the structure was made of adobe and rock. Although the community was financially poor they banded together to construct the adobe structure( see Lupe Renteria's Story). This original building served the community until the late1930s or early 1940s when the diocese that was building a new church in Brogado plastered the original adobe building. Since Calera never grew into a large community it remained a mission first served by Father Brocardus from Saint Josephs Parish in Fort Davis. Later responsibility for Mission Mary fell on the priest from Brogado. Mission Mary was eventually abandoned and only the Church at Brogado remained.

N 30° 56.747 W 103° 47.009
After paying our $7 per person entry fees we drove over to the historic cienega and checked out the exhibit on the natrual wetlands that once covered a much larger area of the park before the CCC built the swimming pool in 1935. In creating the natural pool they destroyed the wetlands that the springs here fed, now they have been restored in part and are home to at least two endangered species. We found the official Texas State Parks cache for Balmorhea and spent some time looking through the viewing windows at the fish in the surprisingly clear water. It was getting hot so we left the wetlands for the pool!

One of the most unexpected encounters we had at Balmorhea was with the bats. In the cienega viewing area we first spotted a small dead bat on the ground. Once we made our way to the pool there were many more bats to be found although we never saw a single one. The building that houses the public restrooms and changing area is absolutely infested with bats! If you stand in the breezeway to the ladies room you'll here their high pitched squeaks in the rafters. There are also the tell-tale signs of guano and urine on the ground in the cracked beams and adobe. Then there is the smell. It isn't as overpowering as some caves I have been in but the ammonia smell is unmistakable. I am sure if you hung around here until dusk you would be rewarded with a good show as there seems to be a large colony.

The pool.... it is one of the coolest places I have ever been to swim. The surface is finished like two conjoined Siamese Olympic pools complete with ladders and diving boards. However, the big difference between this pool and any normal pool is that it is around thirty feet deep at its deepest, the bottom is all natural bedrock and spring fed, and lastly... THERE ARE FISH! Minnows, fish, large catfish, turtles even. There were swimmers of all ages, and towards the end of our stay three scuba divers even showed up. The whole facility is very clean and well maintained while keeping a rustic sort of feel to it.
San Solomon Springs, near Balmorhea, is an oasis in arid West Texas. It's the sixth largest spring system in Texas. The springs have provided water for travelers for thousands of years. Earlier the springs were called Mescalero Springs for the Mescalero Apache Indians who watered their horses along its banks. It is believed the Jumano Indians irrigated their corn and peach trees from the spring. The present name was given by the first settlers, Mexican farmers, who used the water for their crops and hand-dug the first irrigation canals. Today the springs are in Balmorhea State Park in Toyahvale, Texas, and the tremendous flow of the springs (22 to 28 million gallons a day) is used to feed a large swimming pool. It's the largest (two-acre) and nicest spring fed swimming pool in Texas after Austin's Barton Springs.

After getting pruned fingers, meeting new fishy friends, and doing some high dives (for Science!) we packed up for a thirty minute drive to Davis Mountains State Park where we had accidentally booked a room at the Indian Lodge thinking it was at Balmorhea State Park. In the end it was a happy accident as we had a great time there the next day. At a road side historical marker I struck out on the cache I was hunting but found this three and a half foot long rattlesnake skin!