Recently, I managed to sneak in an expedition that included swimming at a landmark pool and dining at a four-star resort. The price wasn't bad, and the best part is that I was able to do it all in a day.
The pool was Hancock Springs Pool, a mere 69 miles from Austin. It's in Lampasas, which is also convenient to San Antonio (121 miles), Fort Worth (146 miles), and Dallas (180 miles).
Hancock Springs Pool is centuries old, and is rare in that it is fed by a large spring. I discovered it by accident a couple of years ago during a drive to San Antonio. I was trying to avoid I-35, what feels like the most torturous highway in the country, and took U.S. 281, which goes straight through Lampasas.
Swimming at the pool
According to the Texas State Historical Association, Hancock Springs was discovered in 1721 and was a destination for Indian tribes who made yearly pilgrimages to bathe because the water was believed to have healing properties.
I brought my sons: Conner, who is in college and is working at a garden this summer; Finley, who's 14; and Finley's girlfriend. The plan was to go down and swim for a few hours, then find a place to eat.
Entry costs $2.50 for kids and $3.50 for adults and they're open limited hours, 12-7 pm, Thursday-Sunday. It's a short window, but when I was planning, I knew I wanted to go on a Thursday; I am not going to a public pool on a weekend.
You bring your own towels, and you can also bring in food, coolers, and blankets. When we pulled up, there was a family getting pizzas delivered.
Hancock Springs is one of the few free-flowing pools in the state; there's also one in southwest Texas at Balmorhea State Park, which claims to be the largest in the world. With a free-flowing pool, water from a spring flows through the pool and exits to a creek or lake.
At Hancock Springs, the water exits into Sulphur Creek, and on to the Lampasas River. The water is always 69 degrees. It's also laced with sodium chloride. It has a strong sulphur smell. That was a little surprising. The boys were like, "Oof, it's strong." But a lifeguard came by and said, "In an hour, you won't notice it at all."
Sulphur is good for your skin; they use it in acne medicine. I think the presence of sulphur in the water keeps it free of algae. Barton Springs is more popular, but it has all that algae and slime. Hancock Springs had no algae or slipperiness at all.
Dinner at the lodge
We swam for a couple of hours and hung out on one of the picnic tables. There's also a playground, grills, and grassy areas. By then, it was time for dinner.
If you want to eat close by, locals recommend Storm's Hamburgers, a colorful drive-in burger joint opened in 1950 by namesake J.B. and IraDell Storm. Their son, Robbis, took over in 1971. Fans love their old-fashioned burgers cooked on the grill, as well as the Cordon Bleu, a double beef patty stuffed with ham and cheese on a bun.
We went to Rough Creek Lodge, which is about 85 miles north of the pool on U.S. 281, on the way to Dallas. Rough Creek Lodge is the well known five-star facility with a restaurant run by chef Gerard Thompson. He's received national press by magazines like Bon Appétit and Food & Wine. Rough Creek has always emphasized local, long before it was a trend.
For Finley and his girlfriend, they made a three-course prix fixe meal, with a Caesar salad, choice of entree like steak or pasta with chicken, and a dessert, and it was only $20. I had a crab appetizer as my entree. Conner had quail. And the chef sent out a fantastic pizza loaded with vegetables and fresh mozzarella they make in house.
We hung out on the patio overlooking the lake while sun went down. To be at Rough Creek while the sun is going down is the perfect time. It will take about two-and-a-half hours to get back to Austin after dinner; you can be home by midnight.