Have you ever seen a swimming pig? Well, neither have I. But The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos, TX was once the location of Aquarena Springs. There you could take in an underwater show featuring mermaids and Ralph the Swimming Pig, and enjoy a glass bottom boat tour on Spring Lake.
Today, the area has been much restored to its natural beauty. And while you might not be able to catch an underwater theater performance, you will still be able to experience one of the most unique and beautiful ecosystems in the western United States.
Let’s be honest. As much as we all love Austin, sometimes we just need to get out of the city. Located just 25 minutes from South Austin, San Marcos is the perfect day trip destination.
I know what you might be thinking: what’s in San Marcos other than outlet malls, tubing and Texas State University? Only one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in North America, that’s all. Believe me when I say that you won’t feel like you’re in Texas anymore.
The Transformation of Spring Lake
Some might refer to the area as Aquarena Springs, and others the River Systems Institute. But today, The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment is the location of an important and unique ecosystem, Spring Lake.
The dammed waters of over 200 springs make up Spring Lake and are the headwaters of the San Marcos River. These springs have been a source of life for centuries, with archaeological findings in the area dating back 12,000 years.
In 1929, a hotel was built at the headwaters in hopes that it would become a top tourist destination. By the 1950’s, the location had grown to become Central Texas’ first amusement park, Aquarena Springs. Purchased by Texas State University in 1994, the area went through many changes. It wasn’t until 2009 that work began to slowly restore the area to its natural state.
Today, many of the Aquarena Springs remnants have been removed and the ecosystem is recovering to its once magnificent splendor. Rides were taken down, parking lots returned to their prairie-like state, and an aquarium now resides inside the once regal hotel.
Not only is this extraordinarily diverse ecosystem home to one of the most dense turtle populations, it’s also home to 8 endangered and threatened species, such as the Texas blind salamander and Texas Wild Rice.
The resort may be gone, but you can experience this pristine environment with family and friends in a very special way.
Glass Bottom Kayak Adventure
Like most, I viewed San Marcos as the tubing destination spot for Austinites looking to beat the heat. So when I heard there was glass bottom kayaking, I was immediately intrigued.
I tried to picture what it would be like, but the murky waters of Lady Bird Lake didn’t leave much to my imagination. So I wasn’t expecting much.
I was wrong. Very wrong.
The instant we climbed into the glass bottom kayaks, amazing shades of blue and green danced below us and I felt like I was hovering mid-air over the water. As we peered down to the depths below, our guide Josiah gave tips on how to best use the glass bottom kayak.
I was surprised when he asked what we wanted him to focus on during the tour. The tour can focus on topics such as birding, geology and geography, history and archaeology, hydrology, photography, wildlife and ecology and even astronomy during evening tours. For example, if you’re interested in archaeology, you can view the underwater archaeological dig site from your kayak!
I opted for the “tell me everything you know” topic because I’m a glutton for facts.
During the tour, Josiah rattled off “did you knows” while we ooed and awed at the magic below and around us. Did you know that the lake replaces itself three times a day?
Over the course of two hours, we saw hundreds of springs bubbling up from below, tons of birds, fish and turtles, and I even saw an elusive (and huge) snapping turtle! I kind of felt like I was eavesdropping on an excerpt from Finding Nemo. We even saw two nutria along the riverbank, which are basically large river rats the size of beavers.
Spring Lake, though not large, offers so much to see and explore. We covered every portion from the headwaters, down to the dam and over through the wetlands. I cannot say enough about the experience and the wealth of knowledge that comes along with the tour. Just as glass bottom boats played an important role at Aquarena Springs, the more intimate glass bottom kayaks play an integral role in bringing people closer to the natural beauty of the area.
With only 6 glass bottom kayaks in total, you’ll want to make reservations at least 72 hours in advance. Once the word gets out about these tours, you’ll probably have to plan even further ahead than that.
I recommend going early morning or late in the evening to avoid traffic conflicts from the glass bottom boats tours which are still going on today.
Luckily, The Meadows Center has plans to utilize the kayaks more and is regularly adding tours. Soon, you’ll be able to reserve kayaks for a special Fourth of July Fireworks Tour, as well as Evening and Night Sky tours.
To think that Nestle almost bought the springs to bottle the water and sell it back to us! We owe a special thank you to Texas State University for preserving this beautiful ecosystem and keeping it local.
Which topic would you want to hear about during the tour?