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Cooling Your Heels

Destination: San Marcos

Travel time from:
Austin – .5 hours
El Paso – 7.75 hours
Dallas – 3.5 hours
Houston – 2.5 hours
San Antonio – 1 hour
Lubbock – 6 hours

Midway between Austin and San Antonio, San Marcos offers cool comfort and natural beauty.

By Stephanie M. Salinas and Alayna Alvarez

Nestled between two major Texas cities, San Marcos offers a bit of escape from the bustling metropolises of San Antonio and Austin. Located less than an hour’s drive from both cities, this college-centered Hays County seat boasts big-city attitude and small-town charm.

Many Texans know little about San Marcos beyond the gargantuan outlet malls along the interstate at the southern edge of town. We decided to devote a weekend to discover more as we embarked on a quest to discover the natural beauty that makes San Marcos tick.

Our first stop is the San Marcos Nature Center, where aquariums filled with aquatic animals native to the San Marcos area line the walls. Animals such as spotted gar, bluegill and snapping turtles call the nature center home.

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Animals, plants and education are the featured attraction at the San Marcos Nature Center.

Crossing under an open doorway at the back under the words “What’s in your backyard?” we spot a dozen tanks containing snakes and other reptiles found in the San Marcos area. The Trans-Pecos rat snake, western coachwhip, Texas brown tarantula and desert king snake are just a few of the locals residing inside.

For lunch, we walk across the street to Herbert’s Taco Hut, a regional hot spot for savory, authentic Mexican food. What Herbert Sr. and his wife, Dora, started as a small hut with five tables in 1976 has evolved into a much larger restaurant beloved by many, as evidenced by walls lined with endorsements from George Strait, Robert Earl Keen and various Dallas Cowboys. We love the homey atmosphere of the mural-lined walls. The mouth-watering aroma drifting from the kitchen does not disappoint as we dive into enchiladas, tortilla soup and tacos.

After a filling meal, we drive to the Meadows Center at the former Aquarena Springs for a glass-bottom boat tour.

The Meadows Center headquarters is housed in a beautiful mid-1920s building gracing the edge of Spring Lake. The building, previously a hotel, has a history as unique as its location and once was the pinnacle of glamour. The Spring Lake Park Hotel hosted swimsuit beauty contests and swanky rooftop parties when it was in full swing in the 1930s.

The first glass-bottom boat was launched in Texas on Spring Lake in 1945, and it opened visitors’ eyes to an entirely different world beneath the calm surface of the water. In 1951, the Submarine Theater show debuted, and during its existence, the theme park featured Aquamaids, Glurpo the Clown and crowd favorite Ralph the diving pig.

In 1994, Texas State University purchased the park and restored it to a natural state, dedicated to projects like international watershed studies and underwater archeology, among others.

During our late afternoon cruise, we learn that the lake’s diverse ecosystem is home to eight kinds of threatened and endangered species, including the San Marcos salamander, Texas wild rice and the Texas blind salamander, that are found nowhere else in the world beyond the Edwards Aquifer system. Spring Lake marks the beginning of the San Marcos River.

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“This water comes up through natural springs and flows 260 miles to the Gulf of Mexico,” says our guide, a Texas State University student. “It meets the Guadalupe River about 130 miles downstream and continues into San Antonio Bay.”

The lake is home to 40 different kinds of fish, five species of turtles and more than 160 varieties of plants. The hornwort plant, found in the lake, can grow up to 25 feet in length. A harvester boat mows the lake’s enthusiastic vegetation a couple of times a week to give the boat guides better visibility.

Spring Lake has a few interesting tales of its own. Our guide positions the boat above one of the lake’s high-pressure springs and tells us it was named Weissmuller Spring after Johnny Weissmuller, the Tarzan actor and gold-medal Olympic swimmer. We are instantly intrigued.

According to the legend, Weiss-muller took a glass-bottom boat tour in 1965 and had a lot of fans hanging around waiting for him to do something wild, so he did. Weissmuller did his Tarzan yell, dove off the boat and swam about 22 feet to the natural spring, from which he tried to take a sip of water. Even though he was a gold medalist, he nearly drowned doing the stunt and had to be helped out of the water.

As he was pulled from the water, Weissmuller said the spring had roughly the same pressure as a wide-open fire hydrant.
“Weissmuller was not so ‘wise’ on this particular day,” says our tour guide. “If you try the same stunt today, we would not name any springs after you; instead, you would be in some trouble. There are big fines for swimming and fishing in Spring Lake.”

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The A. E. Wood Fish Hatchery, operated by TPWD, specializes in raising fish for stocking into Texas lakes. Tours are offered Tuesdays and Fridays.

The next day, we drive to the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery, located along the banks of the San Marcos River. We aren’t quite sure what to expect. Since the hatchery is known for rearing freshwater sport fish and stocking more than 300 Texas reservoirs, we know at least this much: There will be fish. However, as soon as our private tour with Hugh Glenewinkel begins, he politely informs us there would be no fish to see inside the hatchery — in fact, we had “just missed them.”

After what must have been a failed attempt to mask our disappointment, he quickly assures us we can still check out the catfish in the outside ponds. Perking up, we look at each other and smile. Let the tour begin.

The hatchery, originally built in 1949, underwent $14 million in renovations from 1984 to 1988 and reopened to the public as a state-of-the-art facility and one of the most modern fish hatcheries in the nation.

Fish are kept inside the hatchery building’s raceways in the spring during spawning season and in the winter when rainbow trout are being raised. The rest of the year, brood fish are maintained and fingerlings are grown in outside ponds.

Tours of the facility take visitors through the 33,000-square-foot Robert J. Kemp Fisheries Center as well as the hatchery grounds. The Kemp building houses intensive fish culture operations, including an incubation room and a laboratory capable of water quality testing, genetic identification, law enforcement forensic techniques and fish disease diagnosis and treatment. Millions of fish are raised at the hatchery each year for stocking in public waters.

“We do a pretty good job of raising fish and getting them out there to the public,” says Glenewinkel, who has worked at the hatchery for more than 20 years. “That’s what we’re here for: to try to make fishing better for the state of Texas.”

Outside the Kemp building — where we finally meet some hungry, whiskered fish friends — are 50 plastic-lined ponds, 45 of which are one acre in size. The water comes from the spring-fed San Marcos River, which flows at a fairly constant temperature year-round and serves as an ideal source of water for rearing fish.

“I get a really good feeling whenever I drain down a pond we’re working on and there’s a bunch of big fingerlings in there that we can take out and stock into the lake,” says Glenewinkel. “Our work makes a big difference. The public is able to go out and have a good fishing experience — that’s what I really enjoy.”

After an hourlong tour, we leave equipped with fresh fingerling facts and head toward a little slice of heaven a short drive away.

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The 1-mile Ottine Swamp Trail at Palmetto State Park winds through swamps and thick tropical foliage.

Drive too quickly and you might just miss it, this 270-acre plot of palmetto-filled paradise just southeast of Luling. With our dogs Norma Jean and Ralfie in tow, we pull into Palmetto State Park. (The park suffered damage from this year’s Memorial Day weekend flooding and was closed for several weeks.)

Undaunted by the scorching July heat, we start our hike, taking comfort in the cool, close presence of the San Marcos River, which flows through the park. Fortunately, we have plenty of trails to choose from — eight to be exact, ranging in hiking time from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours long.

While we decide which trail to take, we check out several beautiful structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s. We admire a dignified stone table and grill, water tower and refectory, which originally had a thatched roof made from the indigenous palmetto plants.

We choose the 1-mile Ottine Swamp Trail, which meanders alongside swamps and tropical foliage. After working up a good sweat, we all climb into the river to relax and refresh before hitting the road back home. On our walk back to the car, we are quiet, tired, happy and hungry, simply worn out from a full day.

On our way back to San Marcos, we decide we must stop for Luling barbecue — not only because we are ravenous, but because it would be sinful not to. Luling is known, among a few other things, for its wickedly good barbecue. Sweaty and smelling like river water, we walk up to the counter of Luling Bar-B-Q and order brisket, sausage and the must-have sides: potato salad, white bread and pickles — and tons of barbecue sauce. Too tired to stay, we take our food to go and eat it back at home, our car filled with tempting smells emanating from the package.

For our final day of fun, we decide to kayak the Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail on the San Marcos River.

The T.G. Canoe Livery located on the outskirts of town hooks us up with a tandem, or two-person, kayak. Before we leave, the outfitters show us some photos of where our put-in spot is, what we would see on the trail, which direction we’d be traveling and where our take-out point would be. All set, we head out for our paddling adventure.

We launch the boat from John J. Stokes Park and begin five miles of paddling in complete awe.

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On the Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail canoeists and kayakers pass through small rapids and clear, quiet pools on the San Marcos River.

The entire trail is canopied and cool. The sweet songs of the birds keep us company while we maneuver around a few fallen trees. The river is calm but flowing. The whole atmosphere makes us feel as if we are miles from the packed roads and bustle of San Marcos during a weekend of sunny weather.

For the first section, we are shaded by towering trees and surrounded by scurrying squirrels, jumping fish, sun-bathing turtles and even a few sly water snakes gliding along the river. Then, we come upon a dam where we have to carry our kayak down. With a little elbow grease and a bit of luck, we get it down and are treated to the sights and sounds of a refreshing waterfall.

This kayaking trip is definitely a success. We are enchanted.

On the way home, while stopped at a busy intersection, we notice Purgatory Creek Natural Area.

With our faithful four-legged friends by our side, we head off on the Beatrice Trail, one of the beginner trails available at the park. The hikes vary in difficulty and include a 4.1-mile path called Dante’s Trail.

Our dogs walk ahead of us with their noses in the air smelling the intoxicating aroma of flowers springing up in patches around us. Thankfully, our dogs don’t take a closer whiff, or they would have come across the skunk hiding under juniper trees in the late afternoon sun.

As we take in the soft glow around the trees from the setting sun and finish up our final hike, we reminisce on our fun-filled weekend.

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