Friday, June 5, 2015

The Natural Wonder of Hamilton Pool

Hamilton Pool
Behind the waterfall

I stood behind the waterfall enjoying the cooling mist and thinking about the year that's passed since we left Malaysia to return back to Texas. One of my biggest worries about repatriating was that life would become humdrum and routine. That returning to the city that I've called home for the last 20 years couldn't possibly be as exciting as exploring an exotic, foreign country. So, I reminded myself that I had perhaps taken Austin, Texas for granted.

Before we moved, I spent too much time browsing Target for things I didn't really need and not enough time actually enjoying the wonders of the city. Sitting in Malaysia, I'd read other people's travel blogs about trips to Austin, and I'd ask myself why I never did the fun things they wrote about. [To be fair to myself, I was in Survival Mode a lot of the time, barely holding together my sanity while mothering three young and demanding children.] I made myself the same promise that I made when I first moved overseas. I resolved to do something exciting every week.

Today is the last day of school before summer break, and I grabbed the opportunity earlier this week to do one last solo hike. A couple years ago in Malaysia, I was looking through a write up on the "Top 10 Unusual Natural Wonders" and was surprised to find an Austin site, Hamilton Pool, in a list that included the Salt Flats of Bolivia and the bioluminescent waters of the Maldives.

"After a calciferous dome broke off the ground and fell, it opened a fascinating pool. A beautiful waterfall contributes to this natural beauty." 
Top 10 Unusual Natural Wonders (Places to See in your Lifetime) 
I had visited this place a few times when I first moved to Austin ages ago, but as spectacular as it is, had kind of forgotten about it. Now was the time to return.

Hamilton Pool Preserve
Standing up here, you'd never guess what's a short hike away.

Hamilton Pool is a popular swimming hole in the summer months. It gets so full that park rangers stop cars from entering unless another one exits. People bring their ice chests and picnic lunches to enjoy lounging on the small beach and swimming by the waterfall. On a weekday during the school year, though, I was sure that the crowd would be much smaller. The Memorial Day flooding helped end the severe drought Central Texas has suffered the last few years, and I hoped that the waterfall might be a little better than usual. Unfortunately, the heavy drains destroyed part of the trail leading to the Pedernales River and washed out the wooden bridge near the pool that provides easy access to the (now underwater) beach area.

Standing near the parking lot on a grassy plain covered with cactus and wildflowers, I would never guess that I was just a quarter mile hike from a waterfall. All I hear are birds chirping merrily to each other. The trail starts descending down 80 feet into a canyon that runs along Hamilton Creek. Although the land at the top seemed dry, little rivulets of water flow down the path, making the rocks slippery and forcing me to concentrate on picking the right place to put my feet instead of being distracted by the changing scenery. At the top, squat Cedar trees, Oaks and Mesquite form the backdrop of the landscape. Down at the bottom, 120-foot-tall Bald Cypress trees reach their roots down into the waters of the creek and stretch their trunks high into the sky. What a change in flora. It's a few degrees cooler here at the bottom, too. The creek forms small swirls and eddies as it makes its way over rocks and tree roots. The sound of bird calls now combine with the noise of flowing water.

Hamilton Pool Preserve
Bald Cypress along Hamilton Creek

The path follows the creek, and I can see some flood debris that reaches chest high on me as I walk along. A log railing on both sides of the trail clearly marks where people are and are not allowed. You know that old adage, "Take only photos. Leave only footprints"? They don't even want you to leave footprints. This is a nature preserve, and part of keeping it healthy is not disturbing animals or trampling fragile habitat. The canyon walls tempted some of the other visitors, and a park ranger was quick to correct them by yelling "GET BACK ON THE TRAIL!!"

I hear the waterfall before I can see it. The roar gets louder and louder while a clump of trees keeps the waterfall from view. The washed out bridge would have been the perfect vantage point for taking a beautiful photo in front of the falls. As I round the bend in the path, there it is. The waterfall. Flowing more mightily than it probably has in years. Metal steps wet with spray take me twenty feet down into the collapsed grotto. I can feel the mist blowing against my face and cooling me off. I want to take a photo, but I'm too afraid of what will happen to my camera lens.

It truly is a wonder down here. Layers of rock jut out from the side of the old cave, and the overhang provides much appreciated shade. Ages ago, layers of hard limestone formed over shale with another layer of sand beneath it. The grotto was created when water eroded away the softer sand and shale layers, leaving the limestone as a roof. After time, that collapsed to make what we see today. Supposedly, you can look under the ledges to find the remnants of oyster beds and fossil molds leftover from the Cretaceous Period when this area was underwater.

Hamilton Pool Preserve
People relax on the large slabs that used to make up the roof, writing in journals and reading books.

The constant drip of water creates the perfect environment for verdant green moss and maidenhair ferns. It's so lush down here. So different from the dry Central Texas savannas directly above us. Stalactites hang down from the ceiling, and there's an almost primordial feel to this place. Having seen one too many Jurassic World movie trailers, I almost expect to see a large dinosaur snout — a friendly one in this fantasy — peek its way into the exposed cave.

Hamilton Pool Preserve
Moss and ferns cover a piece of travertine 

Cliff swallows flit and dart above me, quickly going in and out of mud nests that dot the grotto ceiling. This place is so alive.

Hamilton Pool Preserve
Cliff swallows in their mud nests

I'm glad I picked a quiet day. Everyone else here seems contemplative, too. I imagine that the atmosphere is much different, much rowdier on a hot summer day when hundreds of people are here looking for a scenic way to cool off. It first opened as a public swimming hole back in 1948, but the crowds were small back then when it was so far out of town. Driving in, I've seen how much the surrounding population has grown since my last visit. Large suburban neighborhoods are now just minutes away down the road.

I want to make my way to the other side, over to where I can get a good view of the waterfall. Mother Nature wasn't very careful where she let the limestone fall. With the bridge washed out, I have two choices. I can go over the boulders or squeeze through the small gap between the slabs and the grotto wall. Not quite sure of my agility, I turn and squeeze through. It feels like trying to make my way into my car when some other auto has parked too close.

Hamilton Pool Preserve
Narrow passage to the other side. (Orange drawstring backpack for scale.)

It wasn't that far to the other side where I finally see the view that draws people here. Water cascades over the edge of the limestone down to the jade green swimming hole below. From there, it flows into Hamilton Creek, around the towering Bald Cypress trees and out into the Pedernales River. I've seen photos of drought days when the water slows to a trickle and kids are able to sit on the boulder right under the falls letting the water pour over them. On this day, the water thunders down hard.

Hamilton Pool Preserve
Water cascades from the springs above to the pool 45 feet below it.
See the person on the rocks near the center of the photo?

I hope to bring the family back here to enjoy this natural wonder. However, I'm also grateful to have this chance to do it solo when I can take my own sweet time gazing around and taking as many photos as I like. Summer has arrived, and the weeks stretch out before us until the next First Day of School. Finally, we have more time to get reacquainted with our hometown via an adventure every week.


  • Located at 24300 Hamilton Pool Road, Dripping Springs, Texas; about 45 minutes from downtown Austin
  • Open 9AM-6PM daily, weather permitting. No entry after 5:30PM. Allot at least one hour for your visit.
  • Entry fees are $15 per vehicle, $8 per pedestrian/bicycle, and $2 per trailer. Only cash is accepted. Permit is good for all Travis County Parks that same day including nearby Reimers Ranch Park.
  • Check the Travis County Parks website or call 512-264-2400 to check the status of the preserve. Updates are made at 9AM. Heavy rains may close the preserve, and swimming is prohibited on days when E. coli levels are too high.
  • See the Travis County Parks website for their policy on Waiting Times during busy summer months. If the wait is too long, consider visiting Reimers Ranch Park or Westcave Cellars Winery which are both nearby.
  • Only foot traffic is allowed on the trails. No strollers or bicycles allowed.
  • Drinking water, food and beverages are not available at the park. Remember to bring your own supplies. Public display of alcohol consumption is prohibited. No glass containers.
  • No fires or cooking allowed.
  • Pets are not permitted in Hamilton Pool Preserve.
  • Fishing is prohibited.
  • No lifeguards are on duty. Children may use life jackets as water is up to 30 feet deep in some parts. No diving due to submerged boulders.

This post is part of the following link ups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. It's such a lovely place! Nature is amazing, isn't it? I know how you feel about re-discovering the city that you lived for so long. I now returned back to Athens, Greece after spending 9 months in Boston (and travelling around the US as well). I have a list of places I want to re-visit!!

  2. This looks amazing! What a cool local secret. Thanks for sharing.

  3. That looks like an amazing place to visit - and how lovely for it to be right on your doorstep.

  4. Wow... it looks stunning!

  5. Michele, It looks like a wonderful place to hike and photograph. It really is nice to be outside by yourself once in awhile!

  6. I have read a lot of times about this place! So sad, I discovered it after I spent 10 weeks in Austin (for an internship). I would like to go back to the area and this is one of the top places to visit in my list (up there with the BBQ). Have you been to Barton Springs? It is not as pretty as the Hamilton Pool but I still think it is pretty. You can also rent canoes nearby (and use them to ride around Lake Austin).

  7. After seeing some photos on Pinterest, I added Hamilton Pool to my wish list. Glad you made it to visit and were able to share. Looks fantastic.

  8. Have been to Austin many times and never knew this existed! Obviously, need to spend more time exploring and less time in conference rooms. ;) Definitely added to the Austin Must See list for our next visit! Thanks for sharing.

  9. I love hearing the sound of a waterfall while approaching - it certainly builds excitement. It certainly is a beautiful pool. The water is very green. Is that from algae? I wondered too how you would reintegrate into life back in America. Looking at everything through new eyes is a great way to go about it.

  10. Wonderful! So good to have such a place near by home! I imagine how packed it might be in summer, I would also prefer to see it on a quiet day. Nature is amazing!

  11. It is so scenic! Hard to believe it is not too far from where you live, one always expects such places to be miles and miles away.

  12. Just gorgeous, Michele! Sometimes the best place are right in our own backyards. I have a cousin who lives in Austin, and I have heard and read that it's a wonderful place to live.

  13. I have never heard of these falls, but I certainly would like to see them. Your photos are spectacular.


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