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Swing into Summer Nothing beats the heat like a plunge into your nearest swimming hole

Story by Pam LeBlanc

When Mother Nature doles up a summer afternoon so hot you need oven mitts to handle the steering wheel of your car, smart Texans head to the nearest swimming hole.

There, beneath the lacy umbrella of a towering cypress or oak, you kick off your shoes, scramble up a tree trunk, reach for a rope as thick as your arm, and launch yourself high over a spring-fed lake or river. For a second or two you hover in mid-air, anticipating a moment you’ve been craving since the sun rose that morning. And then you feel it—the shock of hot to cold and dry to wet.

We love the free-as-a-breeze feeling that comes when you take a flying leap off a rope swing. That’s why we’ve scouted the state to find some of the best, the ones hung from gnarled old branches over cool green water, where you can while away an afternoon swinging and splashing, watching your friends channel their inner monkeys, and lounging on a towel as the water dries from your skin.

That’s Texas, and that’s why we love summers here.

Before you don your swim trunks, though, take note. Rope swings appear and disappear like smoke from a backyard barbecue pit, and what’s there now may be gone tomorrow, or possibly relocated just down the river.

Our advice? Respect private property rights. Make sure any swing is safe before you take the plunge. Hold on tight—then make it a flight to remember!

1

Camp Tonkawa Springs

On the hottest of hot days, a plunge into the aquamarine spring-fed pool here feels a lot like jumping into an alpine lake—or a melted iceberg. And the rope swings? The best one beckons from a tree that leans way out over the pool, like a debutante bowing low. Rope swingers used to climb boards nailed to the tree trunk. The boards are gone now, but well-worn notches serve the same purpose. Not up to jumping yourself? Lounge on a float and watch brave souls do backflips off the ropes. The park, tucked among the pines and oaks in a sandy corner of East Texas, once operated as a Boy Scout camp; a bottled water company used to draw its water from the same spring. Today, the pool, about two-thirds of the size of a football field, lures families and college students alike. Families tend to congregate on one side, while the rowdier college crowd hangs out at the other. A DJ spins music most weekends, and peacocks, guinea hens, and fallow deer roam the grounds.

$10 per person; free ages 5 and younger. Alcohol is banned on designated family days, when admission is $5 per person. Open year-round. 4675 County Road 153, Garrison. Call 936-564-8888; camptonkawa.com.

Photo: Kenny Braun

2

“Come and Take It” rope swing

We’re pretty sure more than a few folks have hollered “Come and take it!” as they soared off this rope swing, located near the spot where the first shot in the battle for Texas independence was fired. The rope hangs from a thick branch of an old cypress tree on the southern bank of the Guadalupe River, on the west side of the bridge. If you’re already in the water, scramble up the bank to get to the tree, climb a few steps up the trunk, and fling yourself over the usually deep pool below. And remember, while you’re airborne, that Gonzales was the only community to send men to help defend the Alamo. Check currents, which sometimes move swiftly, and consider life vests for those who aren’t strong swimmers. To get there, drive south on US 183 a few miles south of Gonzales. When you cross the river bridge, take the turn back on the right toward a pair of monuments marking the site of a confrontation between Mexican soldiers and Texas settlers who refused to turn over a cannon to them. The natural, undeveloped area isn’t part of a park, but paddlers accessing the Independence Paddling Trail launch their canoes and kayaks here, and it’s become a favorite swimming hole for locals.

Free. US 183 at the Guadalupe River Bridge outside of Gonzales.

Photo: Erich Schlegel

3

Blue Hole

Pick from two rope swings to launch yourself into the shady emerald pools of Cypress Creek—one for the big kids and adults over deep water; a smaller one for those just wetting their toes. Onlookers take pictures as one by one the jumpers peel into the water. Think shady, refreshing, and old school, with a big grassy lawn where you can throw down a blanket and nap when you’ve had enough. Then head to town for pie.

$10 adults, $6 youth, seniors, military, and local residents. To ensure entry, book ahead. 100 Blue Hole Lane, Wimberley. Call 512-660-9111; cityofwimberley.com.

The Wimberley Pie Co. is at 13619 Ranch Road 12. Call 512-847-9462; wimberleypie.com

Photo: Erich Schlegel

4

Krause Springs

Wear your river sandals to scale the big tilted slab of rock at this old-timey swimming hole 36 miles west of Austin. From there you can reach the knotted rope swing that will deliver you beneath a fern-covered cliff into a glinting pool at a privately owned park that Elton Krause opened more than half a century ago. Today his three sons—David, Hugh, and Terry—maintain the beloved oasis. You can bask on rocks beneath the sun, or pitch a tent if you can’t bear the thought of leaving at the end of the day. And did we mention the water-filled grotto? Heavenly.

$8 adults, $5 children, free ages 3 and younger. Cash only. 424 County Road 404, Spicewood.

Call 830-693-4181; krausesprings.net.

Photo: Erich Schlegel

5

San Marcos River

You’ll feel like Tarzan when you swing on a rope over the chilly, non-crocodile-infested waters of this cool-as-a-cucumber Central Texas river. Start at CabanaSMTX, formerly the Olympic

Outdoor Center, where you can spread out a picnic or rent a cabana with easy access to several family-friendly rope swings—as well as a flexible floating dock, a slide, and a sand badminton court on a jungle-like piece of the San Marcos River. First-timers can learn the ropes in this family-friendly environment.

Want something a little more daring? Grab a kayak or standup paddleboard and glide two to five minutes downstream of Interstate 35, where the biggest oak you’ve ever seen spreads its arms over the river. And then glance up. The highest branches of what locals call the Stokes Oak hold everything from high-slung hammocks and chairs to (occasionally) a barbecue pit. (City rules prohibit grills within 25 feet of the river.) When we visited, rope swingers could choose from two ropes tethered to the beloved tree—a big one that requires a scramble up boards tacked to the trunk and a smaller and lower one with a round plastic seat. Both are epic.

Free. Cabanas: $95-$190. CabanaSMTX, 602 N. Interstate 35, San Marcos. Call 512-203-0093; kayakinstruction.org.

Photo: Erich Schlegel

6

Bandera City Park

A short trot from the town known as the Cowboy Capital of the World, where chances are better than good you’ll see a horse tied to a hitching post or someone riding a Longhorn down the street, flows a stretch of the Medina River so tempting you might jump in wearing shorts and a T-shirt if you don’t have a swimsuit handy. One of the highlights? Scaling the boards nailed to the trunk of a huge bald cypress tree on the opposite bank (technically outside of the park’s boundaries), then pausing on the platform high in its branches before swooping down like a dive-bombing seagull and raising a spray of water when you land. The park’s cypress trees have more knobby knees than a schoolyard playground packed with kids. Bring a picnic or fire up the charcoal on one of the 77-acre park’s barbecue grills.

No entry fee Mon-Fri; $5 per adult weekends and holidays March-Oct. (free ages 3 and younger). No lifeguard on duty. Call to check conditions during drought. 1102 Maple St., Bandera. Call 830-796-3765; cityofbandera.org.

Photo: Erich Schlegel

7

Utopia Park

You’ll have to steel your nerves to get to the highest launch point of the rope swing at this leafy small-town park, established in 1929 on a dammed stretch of the Sabinal River, about 16 miles downstream from Lost Maples State Natural Area. But shimmy your way up and take the plunge, and you’ll find yourself in one of the finest swimming holes in the Texas Hill Country. When you pop back up, lean back and enjoy a good float—and keep your eyes open for birds, including the painted bunting, so colorful it looks like someone melted a box of crayons over it. The park is adjacent to an old baseball field, and huge bald cypress trees shade the river’s edge. Well-worn screened shelters and picnic tables can be rented for $50 and $25, and there are showers in the restroom. No lifeguard.

$10 per person day-use fee. 241 Utopia Park Road, Utopia. Call 830-966-3643; utopiapark.org.

Photo: Erich Schlegel

Before You Plunge

Soaring high off a rope swing into an ice-cold Texas river feels great. But stay safe when you do it by heeding these tips:

  1. Check to ensure the branch—or whatever the rope is affixed to—can hold the weight of a happily swinging human being and won’t snap when you’re mid-air.
  2. Make sure the rope is tied securely in place and is not frayed or rotted.
  3. Test the water. You don’t want to land on a rock, branch, or other obstacle. Water depth changes, and tree branches and rocks move with the current, so what was clear last summer may not be clear now.
  4. Avoid getting tangled in the rope, and never loop it around your wrist.
  5. Check to make sure any boards you climb to reach a swing are securely attached and show no signs of rot.
  6. Don’t release too soon—or too late. You want to land in the water and not on the bank or anything else. And it’s no fun to slam into a tree trunk.
  7. Don’t drink and swing—and don’t swing if you can’t swim

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Pam LeBlanc is a staff writer at the Austin American-Statesman. When she’s not at the office, you’ll likely find her leaping into a lake at Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve, where she’s working on a book about conservationist J. David Bamberger.

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