Hamilton Pool Reserve - Austin, Texas

View Gallery of Images from Hamilton Pool Reserve

Located 30 miles west of Austin near the communities of Dripping Springs and Bee Cave, Hamilton Pool Reserve is a 232 acre preserve owned and operated by Travis County. The dominant feature of the park is the swimming hole and waterfall located in a collapsed grotto. However the canyon and surrounding areas are equally as beautiful and offer many outstanding photographic opportunities. Hamilton Pool is part of the Balcones Cayonlands Preserve and is a protected environment. Pets, glass, fishing, and biking are prohibited, and visitors are asked to not leave the well marked trails. During the summer the pool is extremely popular as a swimming hole while the crowds dwindle to a handful during the winter (great for taking photos!). Admission is $8 per car and gates are open from 9am-6pm.

Directions: Take Highway 71 west of Austin through Bee Cave and turn left onto FM 3238 (Hamilton Pool Road). Travel 13 miles to the reserve entrance on the right.

My trip to Hamilton Pool Reserve started badly when I misread the directions and took US 290 instead of Highway 71. After what turned out to be a pleasant drive through the Texas Hill Country I discovered my mistake and finally ended up at my destination. When I arrived I noticed the admission had increased from $5/car to $8/car in October 2003. After paying for my day pass I was given a small map of the preserve and a set of instructions: no pets, no glass, stay on the path, don't leave trash, don't damage the rocks, animals, or plants, and have a nice day!

To my pleasant surprise I was only the 2nd car in the parking lot and I was looking forward to taking some people-free landscapes. I had just received my Sigma 15-30mm and this was to be a test run of the new lens. Assuming I wouldn't be using any other lenses, I mounted my camera with wide angle lens on my tripod and left the rest of the gear in the car. Next up - visiting the collapsed grotto.

On the hike down the canyon (1/4 of a mile and 80 vertical feet) I thought about the history of this land. The brosure said that cultural remains date back over 8000 years, but during the past 50 years the land's popularity as a swimming hole soared and the ecosystem suffered. In 1985 Travis county purchased the swimming hole and the canyon on either side of Hamilton Creek leading down to the Pedernales River. Now the land is making a comeback under a land management program and remains open for public use.

Arriving at the grotto I was immediately impressed by the pool of clear water under the lip of the collapsed grotto. I set up my tripod and started taking photos and quickly realized that there was a huge range of light in the scenes ranging from the bright sky to the dark undersides of the rock ledge. To compensate I bracketed every shot and later combined the images in photoshop. Based on the exposure range required I estimated that the range of light was double the exposure latitude of my camera - a challenging scene, but one easily solved with a tripod and Photoshop. I shot nearly everything at ISO 100, f/11, exposure bracketed, mirror lock-up with a 2-second delay.

I was able to photograph several angles while traveling along the back side of the pool. One interesting shot was of the ceiling of the grotto with its wild mixture of colors and patterns (see right).

Note: Use caution at the metal steps and watch out for dripping water! The path also has a tight squeeze which can be challenge when carrying a tripod with camera attached, but the view is worth it!

Just as I finished photographing the pool, several other visitors arrived to enjoy the site. Wanting to get my full $8 worth, I decided to head down the canyon to visit Pedernales River.

The 4/5 of a mile down Hamilton Creek actually takes a while to hike as the path meanders along the creek as well as up and down the canyon wall. As I hiked the trail I wondered how much, if any, of the canyon was actually an old collapsed cave. There were huge boulders and rock formations that looked like they were part of a larger natural structure at some point.

Finally I arrived at the river and found a perfect spot to take a picture of Hamilton creek with its canopy of Cypress trees emptying into the river. Unfortunately I needed a longer lens than 30mm - and I had elected to leave my extra gear in the car. Oh well. After enjoying the sun and the sound of trickling water I headed back up the creek and returned to my car.

Summary: Located in Austin's back yard, Hamilton Pool Reserve offers outstanding photographic opportunities. The park is nearly empty during the winter, though the vegetation is dormant. Unfortunately the warmer months means large crowds for swimming, though a visit early in the morning on an cool spring day may provide the prime time for photography. Admission is $8/car and is the park is open year-round. For more information see the Hamilton Pool Reserve website.

All images and web content © Christopher Rake 2004-5