Illustration © Bryan Spear
LOST IN SAN MARCOS
This college town offers cool caves and parks along the river.
By Dyanne Fry Cortez
Visiting San Marcos, I tend to take wrong turns and travel in circles. Streets curve, rivers meander. It takes a few tries to find my way to the soul of this city: the headwaters of the San Marcos River.
Here, the only directions that make sense are “uphill” and “downstream.” Behind me is the Balcones Escarpment, the geological fault zone that divides the Texas Hill Country from the Coastal Plains. Before me, the clear waters of Spring Lake, which gush from the Edwards Aquifer at rates of 50 million to 200 million gallons a day. Six hundred yards downstream, water spills over an old dam to the river channel and flows merrily through town, meeting up with the Blanco River east of Interstate 35.
I’ve been coming to Spring Lake since I was a kid. I’ll bet anyone who grew up within 100 miles of San Marcos in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s or ’80s made at least one trip to Aquarena Springs. It was a place to take visiting relatives, a destination for school field trips. We cruised the lake in glass-bottom boats, looking for fish and turtles and jets of spring water kicking up sand on the bottom. Teachers herded us into the Submarine Theatre for an underwater show that featured dancing Aquamaids and Ralph the Swimming Pig. A gift shop sold all sorts of kitschy souvenirs.
The San Marcos River gives Texas State students and other residents a place to cool off.
Today, Spring Lake and its environs are known as the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. Ralph and the Aquamaids are history, replaced by interactive exhibits about the aquifer, stream ecology, and the endangered fish and salamanders that depend on the springs. There’s a self-guided boardwalk through a restored wetland. The center still welcomes busloads of schoolkids. And you can still take a ride on a glass-bottom boat.
Downstream, the river winds through a series of public parks. Water temperature is about 72 degrees year-round, making this a lovely place to cool off on a hot summer day. The Lions Club runs an inner-tube rental and river taxi from May through September. It’s an hour’s lazy float from City Park to the small dam at Rio Vista Falls. Tubers can shuttle back from there or arrange their own transportation and keep drifting downstream. Private businesses rent canoes, kayaks and paddleboards for longer trips.
I wander through the riverside parks on a warm spring day. Plenty of people are out soaking up the weather: grilling burgers, playing volleyball or tossing Frisbees. Some are in the water, which sparkles in the sun and looks inviting. But I know from past experience that the day isn’t hot enough to make that cold river feel good. I’m happy just sitting on the bank, watching it roll by.
Heading east on Riverside Drive, I spy Herbert’s Taco Hut, a classic Tex-Mex eatery that has saved generations of budget-challenged young adults from starvation. I don’t have time for a taco, but I’m delighted to see it’s still there.
I stop at the Tourist Information Center on the other side of the street to ask about greenbelt areas I hope to explore tomorrow. The nice man at the counter provides me with trail maps of the Purgatory Creek and Spring Lake natural areas. I pick up a rack card for “Mermaid March – a Public Art Project.” It figures that San Marcos would have painted statues of mermaids instead of cows or horses. I find one just outside the office. Her tail is decorated with green and blue bubbles. And she’s holding — yes! — a pink piglet with its own fishlike tail. Obviously, I’m not the only person who remembers the swimming pig at Aquarena Springs.
Colorful mermaid statues can be seen around town.
Photo by Sonja Sommerfeld / TPWD
The downtown square in San Marcos is a hub of dining and entertainment activity.
Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
Scuba diving is allowed on a limited basis at Spring Lake.
Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
Paddlers take their boat through Rio Vista Falls on the San Marcos River.
Photo by Sonja Sommerfeld / TPWD
Grandma's Oak shades a trail at Purgatory Creek Natural Area.
On my second day in San Marcos, my first stop is a tour of Wonder Cave. This privately operated attraction claims to be the oldest show cave in Texas, offering public tours since 1903. It’s not the prettiest cave in Central Texas, but it’s worth seeing for an inside view of the Balcones Fault. Descending 160 feet underground, we stroll through fractured limestone. At the end of the tour, we ride an elevator to the 190-foot observation tower for a bird’s-eye view of the escarpment cutting across the landscape.
Three blocks from Wonder World, I find Prospect Park. Located in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, this sensitive tract of land was threatened by development in the 1990s. A campaign to save it led to formation of the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance in 1998.
Today, Prospect Park is one of three entrances to the 700-acre Purgatory Creek Natural Area, with 10 miles of trails built and maintained by a nonprofit alliance. A couple of trails start right here, but I decide to try the upper section, situated off Wonder World Drive/Ranch Road 12 on the far side of the Purgatory Creek bridge.
There’s a portable toilet at the trailhead, along with a map and a listing of park rules. A rocky dirt path leads into a juniper-oak woodland dotted with prickly pear. A quarter-mile in, two trails intersect at Grandma’s Oak, a massive live oak draped in Spanish moss. I can’t even guess at its age.
My trail veers onto a slope leading down to the creek. Trees get taller, junipers less numerous, and I start seeing a variety of understory plants. I’ve met a few fellow explorers, some walking dogs. Except for wooden trail markers, I haven’t seen any sign of “civilization” since I left the trailhead. But I’m not far from RR 12, because I still hear traffic whizzing by.
“Exactly! That’s what I think is so valuable,” says Todd Derkacz, retired city fire chief and past president of the Greenbelt Alliance, when I speak with him after my hike. “Within a short distance of downtown, you can get to a natural area and feel wilderness, even if it isn’t really wilderness.”
WONDER WORLD CAVE
SAN MARCOS TOURISM
Purgatory Creek logged 100,000 visitors in 2016–17. Many probably weren’t hard-core conservationists, Derkacz says.
“But they still want to be out in it for solace, mental fitness or physical fitness,” he says. “The community is just healthier for having these places here.”
The alliance now manages six natural areas. All are on city property — some donated, some purchased with bond money and some obtained through land swaps with developers — but the hands-on work is done by alliance volunteers. Long-term plans call for a loop of connecting green zones and an extension that will eventually link up with the Violet Crown Trail being developed in Austin.
A morning stroll in the historic downtown district brings a blend of old memories and new ideas. The courthouse square is two blocks from the university, easy walking distance for restless, hungry and thirsty students. I never attended Texas State, but several high school classmates were here in the 1970s, and I hung out with grad students later on.
When I see Gil’s Broiler and Manske Roll Bakery on LBJ Street, I know that’s where to buy the mother of all cinnamon rolls. I’d like to dig into one now, but the place doesn’t open until 11 a.m., so I try The Coffee Bar, one of a half-dozen coffee shops in the area. It’s a laid-back place offering indoor and sidewalk seating, with big windows looking out on the square. A sign at the counter says “BYOM” (Bring Your Own Mug) for a discount.
Downtown San Marcos hosts a monthly Third Thursday Walkabout from 6 to 9 p.m. I round up my spouse to celebrate a night on the town. Street parking is available on the square; if that fills up, there are three pay-to-park surface lots and a high-rise garage.,/p>
We find a massage therapist with her chair set up on the sidewalk. A Celtic duo, O’Malarkey, has a free concert going in the alley. The man running sound tells us these two are part of a bigger band. They sound great.
San Marcos didn’t have craft breweries in the 1970s, but it now has several. We sit down for dinner at AquaBrew, one of the newer establishments. The building is unabashedly modern, with high glass doors and a suspended ceiling with hanging lights. Tables and barstools are available inside, and there’s a big friendly patio in back.
“Ralphie’s” sandwich features pulled pork simmered in their Skyscraper IPA, with Porter BBQ sauce. For dessert (which we don’t need), you can get a root beer or real beer float with Rhea’s Ice Cream, made just down the street.
There are plenty of places I didn’t get to in San Marcos: museums, art galleries and the legendary Cheatham Street Warehouse. Maybe next time. Thanks to the city map and list of attractions I picked up at the visitor center, maybe I won’t get lost again.
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