TOYAHVALE, Texas — It's certainly not the first place you think of when you want to go diving. In fact, it may be the last.
Way out in arid West Texas, surrounded by the tumbleweeds and cactus you expect to find in this part of the country, Balmorhea State Park offers the unusual opportunity to do a little scuba diving in the Chihuahuan Desert.
"It's rare; there are not this many places around this little oasis out in the desert," said scuba diving instructor Bill Murrill, who regularly brings his class on the 2.5-hour drive from Carlsbad, N.M.
The oasis is located just south of Pecos, about 200 miles from El Paso near the foothills of the Davis Mountains. In addition to the huge 3.5-million gallon L-shaped pool that takes up nearly 2 acres, there's a concession building, bath houses and a hotel built during the New Deal public works projects of the Great Depression.
The limestone and adobe buildings, with red tile roofs and wooden portals, were built by Company 1856 of the Civilian Conservation Corps in a Spanish colonial style of architecture.
But the big draw is the water.
The limestone-ringed pool is filled by a continual flow from the San Solomon Spring, named by Mexican farmers who dug the first irrigation canals for their crops. Native American artifacts surround the watering hole.
The pool is good for swimming as well as diving, offering a 3-foot shallow end for the kids and a 25-foot deep end with a high-dive for adults and divers.
The crystal clear water is a constant low- to mid-70s, a mild relief in an area where summertime highs typically top 100 degrees.
An estimated 24 million gallons flow through the pool each day, supporting a varied aquatic ecosystem, ranging from tiny tetra fish to foot-long catfish.
"Getting to see the fish up close and personal is the best," said scuba diver Anne Strait of Carlsbad.
The fish are used to hand-feeding. When it's time to eat, the two-inch tetras create a shimmering cloud as they swarm around swimmers and divers.
Timid hubcap-sized water turtles slink at the grassy bottom, occasionally swimming to the surface. Dozens of black catfish swim lazily, their dark silhouettes almost resembling circling sharks.
A rare site is the multicolored endangered pupfish that keeps to the grasses and mossy rocks. Crawfish and water snails are found throughout the bottom.
"Wonderful, way wonderful," said Derrick Bendixsen, 19, also of Carlsbad. "You look around, there are fish everywhere and you're in this huge pool."
They're all easy to see in the clear, unclouded water. Looking up from the bottom, sunshine light sparkles into the deep blue color, making it look like aqua Caribbean waters. Looking through the pool from underwater, you can see 100 feet across.
Strait said the clarity is better than other diving hotspots.
"We were in the (Florida) Keys last week, and the visibility was nonexistent," she said.
Another big selling point for visitors is the remote location.
While park superintendent Tom Johnson said about 200,000 people visit each year, the park — and especially the surrounding landscape — never seem crowded.
"The solitude, man, the solitude," Bendixsen said.
If You Go…
Balmorhea State Park: Toyahvale, Texas; http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/balmorhea/ or 432-375-2370. Open daily, year-round. Fee: $5 daily per person 13 and older.
Getting there: Toyahvale is 308 miles southwest of Lubbock, Texas, and 155 miles south of Carlsbad, N.M. The park is four miles east of Balmorhea on state Highway 17.
The pool: Swimmers may use the pool from 8 a.m. until 30 minutes before sunset. Certified scuba divers or students with instructors may dive from 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Accommodations: Campsites in the park range from $11-17 nightly depending on hookups. Motel rooms at San Solomon Spring Courts are $55-70