July 2006 Park of
Balmorhea State Park
Balmorhea State Park A Desert Oasis For Humans, Critters Alike
Pure artesian waters that have long gushed to the surface in the foothills of the Davis Mountains in West Texas continue today to flow at a rate of a million gallons an hour into Balmorhea State Park's two-acre swimming pool and into canals that breathe life into the parched lands.
The almost two-acre, V-shaped pool is the handiwork of Civilian Conservation Corps workers who built the park in the late 1930s, harnessing the spring waters of a sprawling desert marsh, or ciénega, as the area’s 19th century Mexican farmers called it. More than 200,000 people a year flock to the desert park to enjoy the pool's crystalline, 74-degree waters, to stroll picturesque canals and visit the park's recreated desert wetland that serves as critical habitat for a variety of flora and fauna, including two federally endangered fish species.
"People who have been coming here forever have told me Balmorhea used to be their own private little desert oasis where they could just drop in and grab a motel room," park superintendent Tom Johnson said. "Now, they complain they can’t even get a campsite."
A recent weekday stay at the Son Solomon Court, the park's 18-room, Spanish colonial-style motel built by the CCC bore out Johnson's observation and cemented the park's reputation as a top wildlife-watching location and great family retreat.
Youngsters cavorted along the canal banks under the watchful eye of nearby parents, chasing each other, blowing soap bubbles and scurrying after elusive ground squirrels that scampered into their tiny dens. It could have been a scene out of the 1950s, with kids playing outside instead of holed up indoors playing video games or talking on cell phones. Barn swallows chattered noisily as they built nests beneath eaves of the motel's back porches. Storybook-cute cottontail rabbits nibbled grass nearby and coal-black catfish cruised the shallow, canal waters.
Just beyond the white, adobe walls and red clay-tiled roofs of the motel, the desert sun was setting on the San Solomon Ciénega. Federal, state and local governmental agencies joined forces in 1995 to recreate an example of wetlands once found throughout the desert Southwest to serve both as a tourist attraction and critical habitat for the endangered Pecos gambusia (mosquito fish) and Comanche Springs pupfish. The marsh is filled by springs bubbling up from the sandy bottom of the 25-foot deep swimming pool and sluicing through the park via a canal system.
An interpretive sign at the observation platform overlooking the marsh denotes the variety of fish species and other wildlife that can be spotted, such as Mexican tetra, green sunfish, soft-shell turtles, blotched water snake, vermilion flycatcher and belted kingfisher. Visitors seeking a fish-eye view of marsh inhabitants can head down into a concrete bunker housing the Window Wall – three, thick panes of glass built below ground level that provide an underwater look at the aquatic creatures.
Just beyond the ciénega lies the park campground, where wildlife is just as abundant. According to the park superintendent, it's not unusual for campers to spot nocturnal visitors, such as coyotes, foxes, javelinas and the occasional bobcat emerging from the Chihuahuan Desert scrub. The cooler, drier desert high country air at 3,300 feet above sea level makes even summer camping enjoyable.
Balmorhea State Park has a total of 34 campsites, all but six of which have shade shelters. Campsites accommodate tent tempers as well as RV campers. There are 12 premium pull-through sites that come with water, electricity and cable television hookups. There are restrooms with hot showers.
Visitors who prefer not to "rough it," can stay in the motel, which is centrally air conditioned and heated, and has cable TV. (Note: Reservations should be made well in advance of your visit.) Rooms have two double beds and no kitchen or two double beds and a kitchenette.
The 46-acre park features several other CCC-built structures apart from the motor court, including a group dining hall/meeting facility, limestone concession building and two wooden bathhouses. A playground, picnic sites and several native plant gardens also are found inside the park. Be sure to check out the vintage CCC photos and other historic park memorabilia in the park office, including an image of 4,000 mounted U. S. cavalry and a shot of the Balmorhea marsh in its native state before development.
Now that the state park has been "discovered" by residents of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, it stays busy most of the year. Even during the colder winter months, deer hunters and scuba divers from as far away as New Mexico and Oklahoma head to Balmorhea. Visibility of up to 70 feet and plentiful aquatic life make the park a popular destination for divers looking to get certified for open water. A dive shop is adjacent to the park. January and February are the slowest months.
Bird watchers, too, find Balmorhea a rewarding destination thanks to the variety of flora and habitat. Giant cottonwoods and desert willows hug canal banks, giving refuge to horned owls and other bird life. The marsh habitat amid the desert scrub of creosote, mesquite and mimosa attracts neotropicals, as well as interesting specialty birds such as black phoebe, green heron, Bullock’s oriole and sora.
Balmorhea State Park is located on State Highway 17, just off just off Interstate 10, four miles southwest of the town of Balmorhea in Toyahvale. It is one of more than 115 state parks that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information visit the Balmorhea State Park web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle