Day Trips

The glass-bottomed boats at Aquarena Center in San Marcos allow a glimpse into the underwater world

Day Trips
Photo by Gerald E. McLeod

The kayaks at Aquarena Center in San Marcos glide silently over the dark green waters of Spring Lake. Between your legs, a window on the bottom of the bright orange watercraft gives a peek into the underwater world where fish and turtles play around the springs that bubble through the fine sand.

The site of the former Aquarena Springs resort is believed to be the oldest continuously occupied site in North America. The history of the San Marcos River's headwaters goes back at least 12,000 years, to when wandering bands of humans came to gather raw materials. "It was probably more of a grocery store than a settlement," says Lennie Archer, a program director at the center.

When Spanish explorers discovered the springs in the early 1700s, they said the main spring shot 30 feet into the air. Later in the century, padres built a short-lived mission on the hill overlooking the springs. Europeans began settling the area before the Texas Revolution, but the dam that formed Spring Lake wasn't built until 1849.

In 1951, Aquarena Springs opened as a theme park with sky rides, glass-bottomed boats, and an underwater theatre featuring Ralph the swimming pig. For more than two decades, it was one of the state's most popular tourist attractions. Southwest Texas State University, now Texas State, acquired the property in 1994 as a research and educational resource.

One of the most unique ecosystems in the state, Spring Lake hosts plants and animals found nowhere else. Because of this, it is protected by state and federal regulations that ban swimming, fishing, and the removal of archaeological artifacts.

Aquarena Center is still very much open to the public. In fact, this may be one of the best and little-known tourism values in Texas. The mermaids and swimming pig are gone, but the glass-bottomed boats still cruise over the springs. The resort's ice cream shop and arcade have been replaced by an aquarium of native fish and an archaeological museum. A floating sidewalk goes over the wetlands, where fish, turtles, and birds hunt for their meals. Only the glass-bottomed boat or kayak tours require a fee.

The kayak tours are done by reservation and are limited to a maximum of four adults and five children. The Peekaboo kayaks are very stable and agile but require some prior paddling experience. "The best times are morning or late afternoon," Archer says. The kayak tours last from an hour to three hours and visit much more of the lake than the boat tours.

Aquarena Center is at 921 Aquarena Springs Dr., west of I-35 in San Marcos. The center is open from 9:30am to 6pm June through August and until 5pm most of the rest of the year. For general information on the center, call 512 / 245-7570 or go to For information or reservations on the kayak tours, call 512 / 245-7560 or send an e-mail to

945th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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Aquarena Center, San Marcos, Aquarena Springs, Spring Lake

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