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Balmorhea State Park

185 miles E of El Paso; 32 miles N of Fort Davis

One of the lesser-seen jewels of the Texas State Park system (and one of the smallest, at 45 acres), Balmorhea State Park, 9207 Tex. 17 S. (tel. 432/375-2370; www.tpwd.state.tx.us), is centered on a massive, 1 3/4-acre swimming pool that is fed by San Solomon Springs. It holds 3.5 million gallons of water at a fairly constant 74°F (23°C). Size aside, this is no ordinary pool: The water teems with fish, and the floor is covered in rocks. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the V-shaped pool in the 1930s, surrounding it with shady trees and a 200-foot circle of limestone and flagstone. Swimming is popular, as are snorkeling and scuba diving. You might see the occasional (nonpoisonous) water snake or turtle in it. A canal system crosscuts the park, leading from the pool to other areas, and providing a habitat for many native fish species, two of which -- the Comanche Springs pupfish and Pecos Gambusia -- are endangered. There are changing areas with showers and two diving boards at the pool, which is open daily from 8am to sunset. Next door, the Toyahvale Desert Oasis, 9225 Tex. 17 S. (tel. 432/375-2572), provides swimwear, snorkel rentals, and scuba equipment rentals and air fills from 10am to 6pm daily March through October and 10am to 6pm weekends (or by appointment) the rest of the year.

A reconstructed cienega (desert wetland) is another notable attraction in Balmorhea State Park. Located near the campground, the San Solomon Cienega is a good spot to look for native wildlife: You might see a Texas spiny soft-shelled turtle, a blotched water snake, or a green heron from the raised wooden platform, or spot a headwater catfish through the underwater viewing window. A path system allows viewing of the fish, reptiles, and amphibians in the canals.

The park has 34 campsites, most with water and electrical hookups, for $11 to $17 a night, in addition to the $7 entrance fee. Additionally, there is a small motel on the park's grounds, with standard double rooms for $60 to $75 and kitchenettes for $80 nightly. For groceries, you'll need to head into town, as the gift shop at the visitor center stocks mainly souvenirs and books. The park is located 4 miles south of the town of Balmorhea on Tex. 17.

A Side Trip to Candelaria

West of Presidio, FM 170 continues for 48 miles as a paved road to Candelaria. The drive is scenic, off the beaten path, and highly recommended. The commercial operations are few and far between, save Chinati Hot Springs, Box 67 Candelaria Route, Marfa, TX 79843 (tel. 432/229-4165; www.chinatihotsprings.com), a rustic resort centered on the 109°F (43°C) water of the eponymous springs. It costs $13 to soak ($6 for children 11 and under); camping and overnight lodging are also available. Regardless, you'll find many photo opportunities and get a sense of the border as a real place and not an imaginary line.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.