One of the most picturesque spots in Central Texas is Hamilton Pool, but the Preserve is also one of the area’s worst-kept secrets. After a short hike down a rocky path alongside a creek lined with cypress trees, you approach breathtaking sight: a serene pool of water framed by a collapsed grotto, complete with water droplets falling off fern-canopied cliffs. You’ll see photos of the Preserve in almost every article about swimming holes, most beautiful places to visit in the Hill Country and even in lists of places you should swim in the world.
In the 1880s, a German immigrant family bought the land surrounding the pool from Morgan C. Hamilton to raise sheep and cattle. According to local legend, the Reimers’ 8-year-old son was the first in the family to lay eyes on the swimming hole, which had also likely been visited by Tonkawa, Apache and Comanches who lived in the area before the 1800s. The Reimers recognized what a special place was on their property, and soon opened the swimming hole to the public. In the 1985, Travis County purchased 232 acres of land from the family, after the land had suffered from overuse and few restrictions. Now a part of the 30,428-acre Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, Hamilton Pool has a land management plan in place to protect the area’s ecological treasures, including the golden-cheeked warbler, the chatterbox orchid, eastern red bay, porcupine and beaver.
Hamilton Pool’s collapsed grotto and canyon was formed over thousands of years by water erosion. The combination of lots of interest in an area with a booming population, ecologically fragile land and a relatively small swimming hole means that once the parking lot hits capacity, the Preserve operates on a one car in, one car out policy. I’ve arrived very close to the Park opening at 9:20am or so in the summer and been turned away. Thankfully, both the Westcave Preserve and Reimers Ranch Park nearby offer outdoorsy alternatives. I distinctly remember the time we toured Westcave Preserve (which doesn’t allow swimming) in our bathing suits because we had planned on Hamilton Pool and were able to get to Westcave just in time for a 10am tour.
So, during the summer months, it’s extremely difficult to be one of the first wave of cars that’s let in, unless you live nearby. I had also been religiously checking the Travis County website, as swimming had been closed for some time because of heavy rains, as often happens. While I considered a trip down just for a hike, swimming would certainly be nice.
I had wanted to do something outside on Columbus Day, since it was a school holiday and unseasonably warm outside. Although I thought it was pretty unlikely we would make it in, we departed around 9:30am, after we had our parent-teacher conference. I told my son to prepare himself for plan B.
To my surprise, we went right into the parking lot! I heard the park ranger telling the car in front of us about another trail, in addition to the one that leads to the grotto. I asked for a map as I paid my $15 (per car) entrance fee. I asked him if the other trail is worth it. “If you are real nature lovers, yes,” he said. “It’s really pretty down there,” he added. I was intrigued enough that I thought we should give it a try. “Go to the waterfall first!” he recommended as we drove off.
I stopped at the composting toilet near the parking lot, as I remembered that the only restrooms close to the water are portable toilets. I pulled on my backpack, which held our two water bottles, snacks, a towel, a change of clothes for us both and sunscreen. We made our way down the rugged path (not good for flip flops and no strollers are allowed, nor would they be pratical) for a quarter mile. You have two choices: heading to the waterfall or going to the river. We headed to the waterfall, especially since I knew that the later in the day we visited, the more crowded it would be.
My son had no recollection of having visiting when he was a toddler. We put down our things on the small beach area and dipped our feet in. The water is spring-fed, so it’s chilly. We couldn’t decide if it was cooler or warmer than Barton Springs. The area by the swimming hole is rocky, so it can be painful for bare feet. The visibility isn’t very clear, and the drop offs can be quick, so keep an eye on not-so-confident swimmers. One fun thing to do is to swim underneath the “waterfall” which slows during the drier months.
After we had cooled off, I walked on the path around the swimming hole and took photos. This path is also pretty rugged, with stairs at some point and a few parts where you need to squeeze between rocks or do some minor climbing. Once we had our fill of the swimming pool, we decided to take the 0.6-mile trail to the Pedernales River.
The trail to the Pedernales is mostly shady and continues along the creek. While the majority of visitors head to the waterfall, the trail to the river was mostly empty. We stopped several times to rest our legs and have a snack on simple wood-hewn benches scattered along the way. We spotted a few lizards and other wildlife as well.
Finally, the vegetation parted and we saw the river. There was a small bank where we put down our things, and quickly got into the water. The water was warmer than the swimming hole, which suited my son better. The water level wasn’t high, but the bottom was sandy, so it was easier to walk across. There was a nice breeze, and we shared the spot only a handful of other people. [It’s worth mentioning that there is a similar stretch of the Pedernales that goes through Reimers Ranch that you can get to from the River View Parking Area.] It would have been a perfect place for a picnic. We did some skipping rocks, frog catching (and releasing) and enjoyed basking in the cool water. The water never got deeper than my 9-year-old’s head, so it would be perfect for younger kids (as long as they could make the hike there).
We both wished we had more time to stay and enjoy the nice weather and the beautiful scenery, but we had to pack up to head back for lunch. Considering I thought we wouldn’t get into the Preserve at all, it was a very successful outing. Since I didn’t pack lunch, we stopped at the Hill Country Galleria at Mandola’s on the way home, and promised we could come back again – soon.
Recap and other information:
- Call (512) 264-2740 before you go to make sure the Preserve is open for swimming, if that’s what you want to do. The phone message is updated at 9am daily.
- The parking lot is limited to about 75 cars. Once the lot fills up, the Preserve operates on a “one out, one in” basis.
- Westcave and Reimers Ranch are alternatives nearby, if you don’t want to wait.
- Make sure to bring drinking water. There is no potable water (nor food) at the Preserve. The closest convenience store is miles away.
- No lifeguards on duty.
- No credit or debit cards are accepted for payment, so bring cash!
- Trails are rugged, so wear appropriate clothing and footwear. The “beach” at the swimming hole is rocky, so water shoes are recommended.
- Tours are given October through April, starting at 10am on Saturdays, weather permitting. Tours are an hour in length and are limited to the first 20 participants.
- No pets, glass, fishing, fires, strollers or alcohol is allowed.
Hamilton Pool Preserve
24300 Hamilton Pool Road
Open 9am-6pm daily
Entry is not allowed after 5:30pm