For an easy summer diversion, head to San Marcos and take a glass-bottom boat tour on crystal-clear Spring Lake.
Two Hundred Springs Beneath Your Feet
Photos by Caleb Kerr
After what seemed like months of never-ending rain, hot weather has returned to Texas, and summer officially feels like a Texas summer.
Reminiscing about our trip this time last year to Jacob’s Well, we were again drawn to the water’s edge. This year, our search led us to Spring Lake, on the campus of Texas State University in San Marcos and well-cared for by the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.
This serene 16-acre lake forms the headwaters of the San Marcos River. Lake water is sourced abundantly by more than 200 underwater artesian springs, pushed up from deep within the Edwards Aquifer. The springs are active even during times of drought, and recent rains have aided the resurgence of additional, previously idle springs. The result is a high volume of constantly replenished fresh water.
The ceaseless outpouring of spring water makes Spring Lake extraordinarily clear: at its greatest depth of 30 feet, the lake’s clarity has been measured to be the equivalent of 70 feet deep—meaning if the lake was 40 feet deeper than it is, you’d still easily see all the way to the bottom.
The springs also result in constantly cool water temperatures, which hold steady around 72 degrees (°F) year-round.
Don’t get too excited about the cool water; swimming’s not allowed in Spring Lake. To enjoy these waters at their freshest point, you can access the San Marcos River several hundred yards away, just below the dam in City Park.
Rather than swim, you’ll experience the splendor of Spring Lake via their charming and informative Glass-Bottom Boat tours. A small fleet of wooden boats, including one built way back in 1945, await you beneath a stunning canopy of 350 year-old Bald Cypress trees.
Your boat tour will likely be led by a friendly Texas State student, who will introduce you to the turtles (Texas River Cooters and Red Eared Sliders); large mouth bass; freshwater eels; and the “cream of wheat,” which is how some refer to the pulsating clouds of sand on the lake floor indicating an underwater spring.
Don’t be surprised if among the wildlife you also see some scuba divers. While swimming’s not allowed, certified scuba divers are permitted to volunteer their time to help maintain the lake (if you’re in Central Texas, check with your local dive shop to see if they’ve partnered with the Meadows Center for such activities).
Your tour guide will also share with you tales of the lake’s former life as a popular theme park called Aquarena Springs. Leading up to the early 1990’s, a generation of visitors to the lake were entertained by underwater dancing Aquamaids, Glurpo the clown, Ralph, a diving pig, and other outrageous attractions. For an excellent read on the Lake’s transition from theme park to conservation, read Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine’s “The Transformation of Aquarena.”
More fascinating than its theme park history is Spring Lake’s human history. Your tour guide will explain that archaeologists have determined humans began congregating around the springs more than 12,000 years ago. Amazingly, that makes little Spring Lake in San Marcos, Texas one of the longest continuously inhabited sites in North America.
The glass-bottom boat tours at Spring Lake are a leisurely, easy activity for families. Tours leave every 30 minutes, and last about 30 minutes.
Afterwards, you can take a guided (a mere $3 added to your boat ticket) or self-guided walk on the Wetlands Boardwalk, which extends out over the marshier, pond-like portion of the lake.
It’s also worth paying a visit to the Discovery Hall and Aquarium Exhibit in the Meadow’s Center’s headquarters, which in yesteryears was the historic Spring Lake Park Hotel. Make sure you head up to the upper terraces to get a birds-eye view of the entire park.
Glass-Boat Tour Hours: Monday - Sunday 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m.