Reeves County, Texas — Travelers crossing the long stretch of arid desert spanning West Texas might stumble across an extraordinarily improbable sight — a tiny teeming wetlands, a sliver of marsh that seems like it should sit by the ocean but actually lays over 450 miles from the nearest coast.
This cienega, or desert-wetlands (an ecosystem so unusual that its name sounds like a contradiction), lies instead near a massive swimming pool and lake, all fed by clusters of freshwater springs that include the deepest underwater cave ever discovered in the U.S., stretching far under the desert’s dry sands.
Famous as “the oasis of West Texas,” Balmorhea State Park now hosts over 150,000 visitors a year, drawn by the chance to swim in the cool waters of the park’s crystal-blue pool, which is fed by up to 28 million gallons of water a day flowing from the San Solomon springs. The pool’s steady 72 to 76 degree Fahrenheit temperatures make the waters temptingly cool in the hot Texas summer and surprisingly warm in the winter, locals say — part of the reason it’s been called “the crown jewel of the desert.”
This remote locale also boasts some of America’s darkest night skies, allowing scientists and tourists alike to peer at far-off galaxies and to closely examine distant parts of the universe through the powerful telescopes at the nearby McDonald Observatory.
Iconic Texas wildlife — diamondback rattlesnakes, road-runners, and javelina — stir in the underbrush. And they’re not alone. Unique animals, including multiple endangered species, have adapted specifically to live in or near these springs’ desert waters, which in recent years have not only kept tourism thriving but also irrigated fields of crops and provided drinking water for the roughly 500 residents of Balmorhea, Reeves County, Texas.