Open Road

Finding An Oasis—and Facing Fears—in the West Texas Desert

Diving at Balmorhea State Park is worth the eight-hour drive from Houston.

By Katharine Shilcutt July 18, 2016 Published in the August 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

My toes curled over the edge of the high-dive, and the board was rough under my feet, which hadn’t climbed the steps of a diving platform in years. The view of Balmorhea’s historic swimming pool was stunning: perfectly clear water, in a deep cerulean shade rarely seen in nature. In the distance, high West Texas desert stretched out in every direction, interrupted by occasional peaks of the Davis Mountains. A warm breeze fluttered up my bare legs. Somewhere, I could hear the squeaky voices of little kids cheering me on to dive, but I couldn’t do it. I stared down into the water, feeling petrified.

A few days earlier, my husband and I had stood on the banks of the Rio Grande, practically daring each other to enter the water. There wasn’t much of it—in fact, crossing into Mexico, just yards away from our campsite in Big Bend National Park, would have been terrifically easy. The river, which gets smaller every year as dams upstream divert more water away for drinking and irrigation, was running especially low during our mid-April visit, thanks to the prolonged drought in West Texas.

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San Solomon Springs Courts at Balmorhea State Park

Still, a park ranger had warned us—not once, not twice, but three times—don’t enter the river, and don’t cross the border, under any circumstances. And so we poked at some smooth stones along its banks with a stick, like children, fretting over how good the cool-looking water would have felt on our sunburned skin. The long-suffering cottonwood trees in our campsite surely would have agreed; throughout Big Bend, efforts to keep the few green spots green had been underway for months, as park rangers and volunteers moved soaking hose after soaking hose to the bases of trees that were, despite their best efforts, still wilting and dying.

Water is a precious thing in Big Bend, which remains the most heavily protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America at nearly 140,000 square miles. This is a place where the incredibly diverse list of species—1,200 plants, 450 birds, 56 reptiles and 75 mammals at last count, not including us humans—have mostly figured out how to survive without it for long periods of time. While this isn’t Death Valley—in the past, the desert would receive on average around 13 inches of rainfall each year—Big Bend has suffered from extended drought conditions since 2010. 2011, in fact, was the driest single year in the area’s recorded history.

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The high dive hovers above deep waters.

Still standing on the high-dive, I regarded the literal oasis stretched out before my feet, feeling none of the excitement that usually accompanies my first swim of the year. We’d driven to West Texas in part to experience the majesty of Balmorhea State Park, whose 46 acres contain the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world, painstakingly hand-crafted by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1935 and 1940, its 3.5 million gallons of water contained across 1.75 acres naturally hovering around a satisfying 74 degrees year-round. And here I was, facing the mortifying fate of having to climb back down the diving platform.

My inner 12-year-old was screaming at my outer 35-year-old to suck it up, but that 12-year-old was also a city girl raised among chlorinated pools, who’d never had to dive into waters that also contained dozens of giant, jet-black catfish and untold millions of minnows. I could feel their collective eyes watching me, and imagined smacking into a catfish with my face (why were they all black? Were they some kind of horrible mutants?), or swallowing a batch of minnows (would I choke on them? Would I suck them into my lungs and be the first person to have minnow-induced pneumonia?), or worse—hitting the bottom of the spring-fed pool, which I could not see from such a great height despite the clarity of the water. It should have been 25 feet deep here, but who honestly knew?

“This is how I broke all the bones in my right foot!” I wailed to my husband, bobbing below, who is definitely tired of hearing that story. But it’s true: Back in my high school swim team days, I’d misjudged the depth of a diving well and hadn’t untucked from a somersault in time; my foot was crushed on the bottom of the pool, and I spent the next three months in a cast. In the intervening 20 years, I also developed a deep-seated phobia of “things in the water with me,” which include everything from weeds and knobby cedar knees (both of which I feared would entangle and drown me) to deep-water zombies (which don’t exist but definitely would also entangle and drown me).

In the end, I couldn’t face the embarrassment of climbing down. I couldn’t let some happy-go-lucky 9-year-old make me look like a schmuck. And I certainly couldn’t live with myself if I chickened out after finally making it to this long-awaited desert oasis. I took one final breath, curled my toes once more, and did what any good former lifeguard would do: I dove into the fish-filled waters headfirst.

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A cienega at Balmorhea

The velvet-black catfish, it turns out, are one of the chief tourist attractions at Balmorhea. Along with the endangered Pecos gambusia (those friendly little minnows) and several other underwater species, these unusual catfish are rarely found outside of the park itself. Snorkeling and scuba aficionados from across the U.S. come here not just to swim, but to get up close and personal with these fish, who are accustomed to the attention. Whether you want them to or not, they will crowd around you, nipping at your toes and coming eye-to-eye with your snorkeling mask.

In addition to the spring-fed pool, the park is also home to two large cienegas, desert wetlands inhabited by many more animals in their own shallow waters (off-limits to swimmers, naturally). Here, you’ll find spiny, ancient-looking, soft-shelled turtles that seem older than the lava flows in Big Bend and feisty roadrunners who lap at the water before dashing off to catch more insects—all of it in your backyard if you stay at the state park itself.

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A spiny softshell turtle

As the afternoon wore on, the sun broke through the clouds, beating down on us with the kind of intensity only found in West Texas and certain equatorial countries. The crisp water felt like a reverse blanket against the heat, and I’d become friendly with the clever little minnows that darted between my fingers when I tried to close my hands around them. My husband and I sprawled out on the grassy lawn, basking in the desert sun like lizards, then slipping back into the pool on stone steps slick with algae; practicing our cannonballs from short, stout boards; and climbing the high-dive over and over again, standing in line with the giggling gaggles of kids waiting their turns to leap onto the catfish over and over again. The fish always moved just in time.

Before we left, we stopped at the camp store to grab a souvenir: “I Dived Balmorhea,” read the T-shirt I wore proudly during our car trip home. I knew it was meant for scuba divers, not for 35-year-olds who finally worked up the courage to dive into a swimming hole full of fish, but I cherished it nevertheless.


  • Balmorhea State Park is a three-hour drive from Big Bend National Park and an easy eight-hour drive from Houston down I-10.
  • Admission to Balmorhea is $7 for adults, free for children 12 and under.


  • San Solomon Springs Courts, a long row of low-slung, white-stucco, Spanish-tiled haciendas with modern amenities and bathrooms, start at $75 per night.
  • Campsites range from $11–$28 per night.
  • If you opt to stay outside of the state park, nearby Fort Davis, Alpine and Marathon offer excellent accommodations:
    • The Indian Lodge at the Davis Mountains State Park in Fort Davis: 1930s adobe lodge with swimming pool, restaurant and backyard access to Davis Mountains, $95–$150
    • The Holland Hotel in Alpine: Texas Deco masterpiece turned pet-friendly boutique hotel with onsite spa and restaurant, $132–$292
    • The Gage Hotel in Marathon: historic railroad-baron lodging turned rustic retreat with spa, restaurant, bar, swimming pool, lawn games and much more, $229–$279


  • During off-peak season, pack a cooler; there are no snacks for sale in the park. During the summer, there's a concession stand.
  • Nighttime scuba dives can be booked for $5/person.
  • If you forget any basics (swim trunks, snorkels, sunscreen, towels, goggles), the camp store at the entrance has them at a charitably low mark-up, and for less than you'd pay in fuel to reach the nearest Walmart in Fort Stockton, an hour away.
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