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San Marcos Springs Eternal

With a new focus on education and conservation, Aquarena Center turns a page
Written by Joe Nick Patoski.

The high temperature had just peaked at 103. A historic drought gripped the entire state. But conditions couldn’t have been more perfect as I followed four other kayakers tooling around Spring Lake in San Marcos one summer evening last year. Seventy-degree spring-fed water provided all the natural air-conditioning we could want. A full moon rising above the trees illuminated the setting. As daylight faded, we paddled around a hidden bend where the limbs of trees hugging the shoreline sagged with dozens of white egrets.

Visitors to Aquarena Center can now explore Spring Lake via guided glass-bottom kayak tours. Highlights include views of the some 200 artesian springs that flow into the lake and an introduction to the site’s native birds, mammals, turtles, fish, and plant life. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

As dusk turned into dark, we gazed through the clear glass at the bottom of our kayaks and followed the lights held by several scuba divers who glided around some of the 200 springs bubbling up from the Edwards Aquifer that comprise San Marcos Springs, the second largest artesian springs complex in the western United States.

Topher Sipes, the environmental interpreter guiding us around crystal-clear Spring Lake, led us to the headwaters, then back toward our put-in point, following the divers’ lights at the lake bottom, before pausing over two gray metal structures submerged below.

“That’s the original Submarine Theatre,” he said, pointing underwater.

Our voices, previously hushed and soft-spoken, turned loud and animated.

“That’s it!”

“Glurpo the Clown!”

“The mermaids drinking soda!”

“Ralph the Swimming Pig!”

Down below, the ruins of the amusement park attraction—the arena of Aquarena Springs—rusted in peace.

In a single glance, modern ecotourists gazed upon one of the touchstones of Texas’ very first ecotourist attraction.

From its beginnings in 1928, when San Marcos settler Arthur Rogers first built an inn on the banks of the San Marcos River, Aquarena grew to become one of the most popular amusement parks in Texas. By the early 1970s, Aquarena’s delights had expanded to include glass-bottom boat rides, a show in the Submarine Underwater Theatre starring a diving pig and mermaids called Aquamaids, a Swiss Sky Ride gondola lift, the 220-foot-tall Sky Spiral observation tower, and an Old West town called Texana Village with resident dancing chickens and a hoops-shooting rabbit. The attractions were built on, under, and around the main attraction, San Marcos Springs, renamed Aquarena Springs.

Glass-bottom kayaks are available for guided tours of Spring Lake. Because Aquarena is environmentally sensitive, no outside boats are allowed. As a youngster, I came for the swimming pig and the mermaids. But I never forgot the water. Its clarity was unlike any water I’d seen before. I wanted to jump in. That encounter inspired a lifelong fascination with springs, aquifers, and Texas rivers and streams, especially those in the Hill Country, where I now live.

In 1994, Texas State University purchased the park, surrounding land, and springs, and within a few years, Aquarena Springs ceased operations as a theme park.  Swimming pigs were no match for bigger attractions at giant theme parks such as Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Sea World, 
and the university planned to refocus the park’s mission on environmental education. But the water continued to bubble up from the bottom of Spring Lake, of course, and glass-bottom boat tours still enthralled visitors.

Eighteen years after Texas State assumed ownership, Aquarena is a whole new experience.  

The buildings that contained the entrance, gift shop, restaurant, and Texana Village have been leveled, and nonnative and invasive plants such as Chinese tallow, elephant ears, hydrilla, and water hyacinths are being removed. Hiking trails have been added around the lake to complement the existing wetlands boardwalk. Glass-bottom kayaks have joined the five vintage glass-bottom boats, two of which are now solar-powered, for viewing of the springs in the lake. In addition to the new hiking trails and the existing wetlands trail, several miles of hiking trails crisscross 251 acres of a joint city/county park on the hillside directly above the lake. Views of the topography here vividly illustrate the Balcones Fault, the rise above the coastal prairie where the Hill Country begins.

Aquarena Center

Aquarena Center is part of Texas State University, at 951 Aquarena Springs Dr. in San Marcos. Call 512/245-7570.

Fans of the old Aquarena Springs theme park can revisit the park’s glory days with the DVD Aquarena Springs and Ralph the Swimming Pig: The Docu-
mentary of a Texas Treasure
,
 which was produced by Bob Phillips, the son of Gene Phillips, Aquarena Springs’ longtime manager. The documentary features footage of Ralph doing his swine dive, Glurpo the Clown, the famous Aquamaids, and other attractions, interspersed with interviews of former Aquarena employees. See www.aquarenaandralph.com.

In 2009, author Doni Weber, a granddaughter of Aquarena Springs pioneer Paul Rogers, published the book Aquarena Springs as part of Arcadia Press’ Images of America series. See www.arcadiapublishing.com.

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