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San Marcos River defines college town

Houston Chronicle (06/20/2003)

By Dee Jacques Moynihan

SAN MARCOS exudes a college persona of tubing, snorkeling, hiking, biking, car rallies, paint-ball battles and live music on the downtown square.

That’s because it’s home to Southwest Texas State University.

But there’s more than collegiate flavor to this town of 40,000, midway between Austin and San Antonio. Shoppers know it for a nearby outlet mall with name-brand stores. Admirers of old architecture know its walking tour of magnificent old houses in one of several historical districts. And everyone who spends any time here knows about its river.

The San Marcos River -- crystalline clear and placid, with a constant temperature of 72 degrees — bisects the city and the university. It’s popular for swimming, relaxing, studying or just people-watching. A trail of canoes, kayaks and tubes often can be seen making its way down the river between shores of overhanging trees.

The beauty of the river, the underwater habitat of dozens of fish species, is best seen while scuba diving or snorkeling, but many prefer inner tubes. All boating and floating gear is rentable, and for a fee, you can take a water taxi back to your point of entry.

The headwaters of the San Marcos, a 50-mile-long tributary of the Guadalupe River, is Aquarena Springs, on the northern edge of the campus. The springs were the heart of a commercial theme park until the park was purchased by the University in 1994. The park was converted into an educational site, where marine biology majors can study the endangered species of plant and marine life found only in the San Marcos River.

Glass-bottom boats, once a tourist attraction, are still afloat but now are devoted to educational lectures about the springs, the aquifer and fish seen through the boat bottoms.

As befits a Hill Country town, San Marcos is hilly. The university itself -- where Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th president of the United States, graduated in 1930 -- is perched on a hillside and can be seen from miles away. Some of Johnson’s personal papers and mementos will be displayed in a new LBJ Museum scheduled to open in 2004.

Some of San Marcos’ other offerings vary with the seasons. In March, Daffodil Days feature 2,000 blooming flowers in the Historic District Gardens. April brings the Bluebonnet Kite Flying Festival. For May there’s a Cinco de Mayo Festival and the official State Menudo Cook-off.

Next month, there’s a Fourth of July Festival, and riverside concerts in the park fill out the rest of the summer. Winter includes the Sights and Sounds of Christmas Festival on the San Marcos River, with a Christmas carousel and the Sugar Plum Theater.

Other San Marcos attractions include Wonder World, billed as the largest example of an earthquake-forced cavern in the United States. Tour guides lead groups into cool caves, and onto a topsy-turvy house called the Gravity House. The tour ends aboard a slow, open-air train from which riders can pet animals in a huge petting zoo.

An 8,000-piece doll and dollhouse collection covers three floors and a garage of the Millie Seaton Victorian home at 1104 Hopkins St.

If you visit San Marcos on a Friday, the Cottage Kitchen, part of the Charles S. Cock Museum, serves an excellent lunch. The intriguing little Texas limestone house, only a few blocks from downtown, is owned by the Heritage Association of San Marcos, which also arranges tours to the historical sections of the city.

On the first Saturday of each month, the San Marcos Living History Trolley Trip takes visitors past heritage houses and historical buildings as well as the courthouse, the river and Aquarena Springs. Tours cost $5 and begin at 2 p.m. from the Tanger Outlet Mall’s Visitors’ Center.

HOW TO GET THERE: San Marcos is about 170 miles west of Houston on Interstate 35 between Austin and San Antonio.

Tube rentals for the river range from $6 to $14, which includes shuttle fees, for all-day use with a $15 deposit ($30 for double tubes) at the Lions Club in City Park; open 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Wonder World is open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. in summer; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. in winter. Admission: $15.95 for adults; $11.95 for ages 4 to 11.

The Aquarena Springs Center is open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free. Glass-bottom boats operate on the hour: weekends 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; weekdays 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Boat fees are $6; $5 for seniors; $4 for children ages 4 to 16.

The Millie Seaton Doll Collection at 1104 Hopkins is free.

For information on the trolley tours, call 512-396-3739.