Hamilton Pool was easily our favorite Texas waterfall. Even though the falls was modestly sized with a plunge of roughly 50ft into its namesake pool, we thought it was the stuff surrounding the pool and waterfall that made this place so scenic and memorable. For starters, the falls featured a deep cave-like grotto that allowed us to stay cool (i.e. sheltered from the hot sun) while also letting us view the waterfall from a variety of positions (including behind it). And under more benign conditions than during our visit, it was also possible to go for a swim, which seemed to be a popular activity in Texas as that probably underscored how hot it could get here. Indeed, this was the kind of attraction that we certainly didn't expect to see in a state with more of a reputation for being flat and hot, yet we could totally see why it was immensely popular despite there being controlled access into the preserve.
Speaking of controlled access, visiting this waterfall was actually a little tricky. First off, the Hamilton Pool Preserve didn't open until 9am, and on the day of our visit, it didn't open until 1pm due to flooding and some trail damage earlier that morning. There were employees at the entrance (see directions below) who would turn vehicles away if it was too early or if it was closed. So that created some chaos in that people were marauding back and forth (if they couldn't find pullout parking near the entrance), and when they finally let us drive up to the gate, we had to wait in another queue that quickly piled up (say within 10-15 minutes of opening) and got to the point that the employee managing the back of the queue had to turn cars away again in order to prevent vehicles from spilling out onto the Hamilton Pool Road.
Once we finally rolled up to the entrance kiosk, we paid the $15 in cash or check (a pretty steep price to pay in cash), then managed to find parking in their lot. Note that their vehicle entry fee as of our visit in March 2016 actually created a perverse incentive to carpool to the preserve instead of walking or biking here as they'd charge $8 per person! So if you came as a couple or a group, you'd already be paying more than if you had carpooled! Talk about economic incentive to do the opposite of being environmentally friendly! Anyways, after parking the car, we then started the roughly 1/2-mile hike (each way) to the Hamilton Pool and waterfall. There were some picnic tables and toilet facilities around the trailhead, but we wasted no time to get started.
Even though the signs said the trail was moderately strenuous, it really wasn't that bad. The trail started off by descending on a combination of dirt and rock slabs, and I guess it was the rocky sections that made the footing a bit on the slippery side since it was wet from all the rains that had taken place during the week we were in Austin. After a few minutes of this descent, we reached a junction where the trail on the left went to the Pedernales River though that one was closed. So we veered right and walked along the Hamilton Creek in the upstream direction as the trail now passed by some interesting rock formations as well as a small escarpment. Along the way, we noticed that there was the end of some road near the trail junction, but this was a maintenance road for park employees (though it seemed to confuse our GPS when we routed to this place). As we got closer to the waterfall, there was one stretch of trail that was right up against the creek, and I'd imagine it was probably this part that was flooded earlier in the morning.
Soon afterwards, we reached the wide Hamilton Pool, where the trail split off in two directions as it looped around the pool. There was a beach-like area past the small footbridge on the left side of this fork, and this was where most of the sun bathers chilled out at. Meanwhile, the established trail continued beyond the beach and into the deep cave-like grotto. Within the grotto, the trail more or less alternated between being an obvious trail and a rock scramble (especially in one section where it was hard to squeeze between the grotto wall and some huge rock slabs; it was best to climb the rocks to get around that section). Then, the trail went behind the main part of the falls, where it got a little bit on the misty side (causing the trail to get wet and slippery here). Beyond the misty part, there was some ladder-like steps climbing back up to more established trail again before descending back down to the junction to complete the loop.
Apparently, the early afternoon was a difficult time to take photos because the sun was almost right on top of the north-facing waterfall while also creating some pretty harsh contrast between the shadowy grotto area and the bright pool itself. I'd imagine that early morning or late afternoons would be the best time to take photos. (see directions below). Furthermore, it appeared that the views of the Hamilton Pool Falls was less obstructed by foliage the further to its left we went as it was more difficult to get a clean look at the falls towards its right side. In any case, we spent nearly 90 minutes at the falls, and most of that time was spent taking photos and just soaking in the festive atmosphere from all the people who descended upon this beautiful place. That said, we definitely worked up a little bit of a sweat given that the return hike was mostly uphill when it left Hamilton Creek.
When we learned at 9am that Hamilton Pool was closed until 1pm, we killed time by waiting in line to try one of Austin's famous Texas BBQ food trucks for briskets and ribs at La Barbecue
Here's another look at the Hamilton Pool Waterfall from near its backside in full flow thanks to nearly a week's worth of a combination of storms then persistent rains
Even though I didn't get to see the mass feeding by the South Congress Avenue Bridge Bats (the bridge is shown here), the river walk was a great way to appreciate Austin's skyline across the Colorado
Although it was a bit of a long walk from downtown Austin, I found a lot of peace and relaxation in the extensive greenspace of Zilker Park
The car park and trailhead
This was the very start of the trail
At first, the trail was pretty straightforward as it followed an obvious dirt trail with some shade provided by the trees
Then the trail became a bit rocky and uneven, which made the footing a bit slippery where the rocks were still wet
Here was another part where Julie and I kept a close watch on Tahia to make sure she didn't slip and fall on the sloping wet slabs of rock
We saw a handful of numbered signposts like this one, which indicated that this trail was an interpretive trail. But we noticed that they were mostly ignored as people headed straight for the Hamilton Pool
Tahia and Julie continuing the descent on the trail
This was the trail junction where the Hamilton Pool Trail and Pedernales River Trail intersected, but the Pedernales River Trail was closed
Now the trail passed besides these interesting rock formations
Then the trail passed by this impressive little escarpment
This was where the trail was right up against Hamilton Creek, and I suspected that it was this stretch that might have been flooded earlier this morning thereby keeping the preserve closed until afternoon
This footbridge over Hamilton Creek looked new
At the beach area by the Hamilton Pool
Our first clean look at the Hamilton Pool Waterfall
This person was checking out the percolating water that caused some moss and algae to grow on this combination of stalactite and stalagmite from within the grotto
Inside the deep and well-shaded grotto by the Hamilton Pool
Within the grotto looking beneath some stalactites towards the waterfall
The presence of these large slabs of rock was evidence that every now and then, chunks of rock would fall from the ceiling of the grotto at the Hamilton Pool
Looking out towards the pool and beach
The trail now started to go behind the waterfall
Looking back at the trail going around the pool from within the grotto
The trail was a bit misty and wet behind the waterfall, but as you can see from all the people here, it was a popular spot to be
Looking out from behind the waterfall
People going up the stepladder after getting past the wet area behind the waterfall
This was the view back at the waterfall after climbing the stepladder within the grotto
Looking back at the profile of the waterfall
The view of the waterfall was a bit obstructed on the right side
I seized the moment to take this long exposure shot of the Hamilton Pool Waterfall when clouds momentarily blocked the sun
Lots of people enjoying themselves at the falls
When I finally had my fill of the falls, I noticed this interesting look at some cypress trees along Hamilton Creek on my way back to the car
Since we based ourselves in Austin, we'll describe the driving directions from there. We'll first describe the route sticking to the main highways even though the GPS had us take a more direct route on a slower road, which we'll describe later.
From downtown Austin, we found our way to the Hwy 290 (either south along the I-35 or south along the 1-Loop). We then headed west on the Hwy 290 until reaching the Route 71 at the next light shortly after the freeway ended (roughly 3.3 miles west of the 1-Loop junction with the Hwy 290). We then turned right onto Route 71 and followed this surface road for nearly 9 miles to the Hamilton Pool Road, where there was a signposted traffic light. We then turned left onto the Hamilton Pool Road and followed this two-lane paved rural road for a little over 12 miles to the signposted Hamilton Pool Preserve entrance on the right. Overall, this drive took us around 45 minutes though probably a large chunk of that time was spent waiting for traffic lights.
Alternatively, at the junction of the 1-Loop and the Hwy 290, instead of staying on the 290 to the 71, the GPS had us take the Southwest Parkway for almost 7 miles to the Route 71. Then, we turned right to go north onto the Route 71 for the next 4.5 miles to the Hamilton Pool Road, where we turned left and followed that road like the directions above to get to the entrance of the preserve.
Finally, as mentioned before in the introduction above, we were turned away from the entrance by the employees there for showing up too early. So we (and many others) were busy driving back-and-forth along Hamilton Pool Road killing time (and gas) before they'd finally let us in the entrance. The nearest pullouts that we could find was actually near the Stage Coach Ranch Road, which was a short distance west of the entrance to the Hamilton Pool Preserve. They eventually let us in less than five minutes before the official opening.
Just to give you a sense of geographical context, Austin was about 195 miles (3 hours drive) south of Dallas and 169 miles (2.5 hours drive) west of Houston.
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