Finding Soul and Spirit in Austin’s Barton Springs Pool

One writer dives into the rich history of the beloved pool.

An overhead view of Barton Creek in Austin, Texas

Barton Springs was formed millions of years ago and includes Barton Creek (shown).

Trong Nguyen / Shutterstock

For Texans and visitors alike, Barton Springs Pool demonstrates the best of Austin. A natural oasis within the 358-acre Zilker Park, the three-acre pool is open year-round, has depths up to 18 feet, and a water temperature that hovers around 70 degrees. More than 800,000 people per year swim in the brisk waters, which provide a welcome respite during summer days with temperatures that can surpass 100 degrees. (Visitors can swim for free at their own risk from 5-8 a.m. and swim for less than $10 during guarded swim hours; veterans, military members, those over 80, and city of Austin employees are always able to swim for free.) Known for its purity, the pool is surrounded by sun-soaked trees and soft green slopes. At just about any point, groups of friends and families, plus children learning how to swim, are at the pool, as onlookers cool down in the shade. High school and college students can most certainly recall memories made at the springs. For Texans in and outside of Austin, visiting the pool is part of what makes a Texas summer a true Texas summer.

“There’s a strong sense of community among the people who go to Barton Springs regularly,” says former competitive swimmer Bill Bunch, a leader in the city’s environmental advocacy movements and the executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance, which aims to protect Austin’s springs and natural and cultural heritage. (Bunch himself swims in Barton Springs Pool daily, if not twice a day.) “And the newcomers—they always love it.”

But Barton Springs isn’t a new destination designed to cater to Austin’s population, which has jumped in recent years thanks to the city’s tech industry boom. Fed by four natural springs via the Main Barton Spring—the fourth largest spring in Texas—the natural preserve was formed between 5 million and 20 million years ago. Human activity at Barton Springs began about 10,000 years ago, and for centuries, the pool was a spiritual oasis for Indigenous communities. Although much of Barton Springs’s history is anecdotal, University of Texas at Austin professor and documentary filmmaker Karen Kocher notes that there is archaeological evidence that demonstrates that the Springs have been used by people going back for many thousands of years, and other research shows that the springs were used by Indigenous groups, such as the Tonkawa tribe; her documentary series, Living Springs, explores the history, science, culture, and spiritual practices at Barton Springs.

For a time, the springs were under the authority of the Mexican government, which had procured the area from the Spanish in 1821. In 1837, settler William “Uncle Billy” Barton—bought the land around the springs and informally named it after his daughters, Parthenia and Eliza. (The surname, clearly, caught on.) Political and philanthropic Austinite Andrew Jackson Zilker later acquired the area and in 1918, made a deal with the Austin city government: He would sell the springs (and 50 acres of his own land) for $100,000, provided the land became a public park. The springs would later become a meeting place “for intellectuals and common folk alike,” per Living Springs, and hold swim-ins that helped reintegrate the pool (and recreational facilities in Austin as a whole) during the period of racial segregation. Still, Indigenous people were the first to truly recognize the springs’ soul and spirit.

Today, the springs have become central to Austin tourism. Actor Robert Redford—who learned to swim in the pool when he was a child—is a noted visitor, and celebrity sightings are frequent. But more importantly, Barton Springs Pool is an official nature preserve. Though it faced extended closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the deadly winter storm that ripped through Texas, the pool serves humans and wildlife alike. Two endangered salamanders call Barton Springs Pool home: the endangered Barton Springs Salamander and the Austin Blind Salamander. Bunch and his team have spent years working to protect the land from pollution, development, and over-pumping in the area.

“We are absolutely still pushing to get as much public money and as much cooperation from private landowners to add to the land that’s protected so far and preserve it and minimize more development,” Bunch says.

Kocher, meanwhile, says the ongoing activism among local organizations and activists is essential work that’s helped to maintain the integrity of the springs. “The fact that Austin has grown so much, and yet we can still swim in the springs is really a testament to the activism that has gone into protecting the area,” she says.

In summer 2022, a decades-long, $8 million renovation of the Barton Springs bathhouse—originally built in 1947—will see completion. And while the area is otherwise covered under federal, state, and city historic designations, Kocher says that visitors to the pool can honor it in their own way: by considering its history.

“I would hope that [visitors] would see it as more than just a recreational facility,” she says. “Respecting the uniqueness and singularity of this resource is something that I would hope people understand.”

>> Next: AFAR’s Guide to Austin

Kayla Stewart is an award-winning food and travel writer. She is a columnist at The Bittman Project, and her work has been featured in The New York Times, Southern Foodways Alliance, the Wall Street Journal, and others.
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