The Hamilton Pool Preserve is one of Austin’s best satellite nature spots — although it’s all the way in Dripping Springs! It says a lot that Austinites are still willing to travel the 23 miles between the Hamilton Pool Preserve and Austin.
The Hamilton Pool Preserve is one of the most unique places in Texas for its jade green pool, nested in the basin of a limestone grotto. Thousands of years ago, the preserve was home to an underground river. It collapsed into its current shape due to erosion, leaving an upper shelf that forms the 50-foot waterfall present today.
There’s a pebble beach on the edge of the pool, and swimming in normal times. There are numerous species of flora and fauna living in the preserve, which is carefully monitored to keep the endemic species healthy.
(Note well — the Hamilton Pool Preserve website has a reservations system, used to limit foot traffic.)
The whole of the Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve encompasses 232 acres, purchased in 1985 from the rancher family that had owned it since the 1880s. Legend has it that their eight-year-old son discovered the pool.
The Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve has been cited by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as the most significant natural area in Travis County. The preserve is a part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which holds over 30,000 acres of endangered species habitat.
Why the Hamilton Pool Is a Great Spot to Cool Off
Let’s start with the temperature — the river-fed pool reaches 50˚F in some places.
It’s fed by Hamilton Creek about three-quarters of a mile upstream from where it meets the Pedernales River. In dry times the creek slows to a trickle, but the pool maintains a fairly consistent level.
Stalactites adorn the underside of the grotto, providing a cove to shield against the hot afternoon sun.
What to Do at the Hamilton Pool Preserve
The main attraction is in the name — but unfortunately, swimming isn’t allowed at the time of this writing.
There’s a silver lining to this cloud, as the pool can overshadow the preserve’s other natural gifts. These days, visitors wander through semi-arid hills before descending to the canyon wetlands. Juniper and oak trees fill the savannah of the upland section, surrounded by wildflowers. In the canyon, you’ll come across several rare plant species and stream-adjacent bald cypress trees.
The preserve is a paradise for birdwatchers, headlined by the endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler. Also known as the ‘goldfinch of Texas,’ this is the only bird species whose breeding range is confined within the state.
The semi-steep access fee and semi-complicated reservations system has its bright side — visitors are spaced out, and you will have plenty of room for enjoying the short, 1.8-mile out-and-back trail.
If you’re a film buff, you might recognize scenes from the Dennis Hopper-directed film The Hot Spot, the 2010 sci-fi thriller Predators and the Terrence Malick film The Tree of Life. All feature the pool’s clear waters as backdrop.
The pandemic’s swimming prohibition at Hamilton Pool isn’t unprecedented. The preserve’s stewards regularly disallow swimming at the pool, due to high levels of bacteria and excessive rainfall. The preserve’s mission is to safeguard this natural heritage, and it takes this duty very seriously.
So what can you do at the pool?
There are still the picturesque waters, whose crystal clarity frames many species of fish and turtles. The rocky shoreline and limestone overhang have framed countless photo ops. Delicate ferns grow in and around the waterfall.
If you’re set on swimming, you can travel a few miles from the preserve to check out the area’s prime spring-fed swimming holes.
Jacob’s Well Natural Area is the headwaters of Cypress Creek, and is fed by an artesian spring that releases thousands of gallons of water a day. The water stays a constant 68˚F… unless you dive down to the submerged cave system that lies 140 feet below. That’s where you’ll find the second-largest fully submerged cave in Texas.
Travel further down Cypress Creek to find Blue Hole Regional Park. Located in the center of the small town of Wimberley, the Blue Hole is surrounded by 126 acres of protected old-growth forests and native grasslands. The park is also home to 4.5 miles of trails, picnic areas, a community pavilion, a playground, basketball courts, a sand volleyball court and an amphitheater.
If you’re going for the swimming, you won’t be disappointed. Both Travel + Leisure and USA Today have rated the Blue Hole as a top swimming hole in the nation.
Jacob’s Well and Blue Hole both charge a fee for swimming — reservations required.
Although the two hikes within the Hamilton Pool Preserve are short, they’re heavy on variety.
The more popular hike is the Hamilton Pool Loop. From the parking lot, veer left when the trail forks to access this 0.6-mile out-and-back hike.
This section is easy hiking, although it isn’t accessible to strollers and wheelchairs. Once at the pool, you walk a lollipop loop that takes you under the limestone overhang and behind the waterfall. As you emerge from the grotto, ferns and moss accompany you on the transition to more reliable sunlight. From there, the pebble beach awaits you, perfect for picnicking and enjoying the view.
A word of warning — watch out for snakes where the pool drains into Hamilton Creek!
If you head right from the parking lot, you’ll be on the River Trail. This 0.7-mile point-to-point path follows the Hamilton Creek as it flows toward the Pedernales River.
The trail surface is packed dirt and rock, besides the few points where it puddles. The vegetation and wildlife have recovered since the preserve was established, and now creek access is strictly limited. You’ll still find several white-stringed sections leading hikers to the creek.
The waypoint ‘Window Rock’ refers to a gap in a pile of boulders, framing a small waterfall on the opposite side.
The stream bed is sheltered by canyon walls, providing for cool temperatures. It’s also far less trafficked than the Pool Loop. A shaded bench awaits intrepid hikers at the hike’s end.
The surrounding area is home to several other top-rated hikes. Across the Pedernales River is the 0.7-mile out-and-back Westcave Preserve Trail, with similar upland views to the Hamilton Pool Reserve. There’s a grotto here too.
Reimers Ranch Park, part of the same land parcel as the Hamilton Pool Preserve, has a number of riverside trails.
In normal times, free guided hikes are given on Saturdays at 10 a.m., March through October. They’re included in the park entrance fee and limited to 20 people, on a first-come basis.
At the time of this writing, they’ve been suspended until further notice due to COVID concerns.
What to Know Before You Go
- Make sure you have a reservation before heading to the preserve. Due to conservation concerns, people who show up without reservations will be turned away.
- Fewer reservations are being issued at the time of writing due to COVID concerns. In addition, the reservation system is only taking bookings for the current month, as the preserve navigates changing pandemic restrictions.
- You can pay online or when you show up, but bring cash for the latter. Credit and debit cards are not accepted.
- Check-in may take up to 45 minutes, so come early.
- At the time of this writing, swimming isn’t allowed in the pool due to COVID-related precautions. Swimming may also be restricted after heavy rains and when bacteria levels in the pool are high. Check before you go by calling (512) 264-2740.
- Currently, access to the trail through the grotto is also off-limits.
- Even when swimming is allowed, it’s at your own risk. There are no lifeguards at Hamilton Pool, and the water might be shockingly cold after a hot day’s hike. Life vests are provided.
- Bringing water shoes is helpful.
- Pack plenty of drinking water. There’s no water source or concessions on-site.
- Pets are not allowed in the preserve.
- Glass bottles and alcohol are prohibited. Drones and loud music are also prohibited.
- It’s a preservation area, so stay on marked trails and leave your fishing rods at home.
How to Make Reservations
Only one vehicle with up to eight people is allowed per reservation — cycling and pedestrian groups can also reserve up to eight people for their reservations.
There are two reservation slots per day: a morning slot from 9 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., and an afternoon slot from 2 to 5.30 p.m. Those with morning reservations must exit the preserve by 1 p.m.; evening visitors must leave by 6 p.m.
The fees are $12 per car, plus an $8 fee for adults (age 13–61) and $3 for seniors (age 62+). Admission is free for children age 12 and under. You can pay online or pay with cash upon arrival.
Your reservation will be held if you arrive late, but it can’t be extended. If you know you won’t be able to keep your reservation, you may reschedule it with 24 hours’ notice.
For more info, visit the Hamilton Pool Preserve website or call (512) 264-2740.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Go to Hamilton Pool Without a Reservation?
If you don’t reserve before you go to Hamilton Pool Preserve, you won’t be allowed in. The reservation system allows attendants to regulate the flow of visitors, which is a big part of conservation efforts.
Is Hamilton Pool Open Year Round?
Swimming is permitted in Hamilton Pool all year round during normal times. The pool is closed after heavy rainfall, when the bacteria levels are too high, and currently due to COVID concerns. Also keep in mind that the 50˚F temperatures aren’t ideal come winter!
Go Enjoy the Natural Texas Beauty!
The Hamilton Pool Preserve is one of the more unique spots in all of Texas, as well as an Austin outdoors tradition. Even with its main attraction offline, it holds enough natural beauty to make a visit a worthwhile excursion — and the rare sight of an empty pool may be even better for pictures!