- Associated Press - Monday, May 5, 2014

WIMBERLEY, Texas (AP) - It’s an unseasonably warm spring day, and visitors to Jacob’s Well are splashing in the park’s swimming hole and seeing how far they can dive into an underwater cave. The crystal clear waters of the popular springhead draw hundreds of visitors a day during the summer, but there are more than 81 acres in the park that are rarely explored.

Park staffers and volunteers have been hard at work since Hays County acquired the land in 2010 to transform a former condo development and nearby RV park into a Hill Country oasis, adding trails, bird-watching spots and a nature center. Though visitors have enjoyed the cool waters for years, the county will host a grand opening Saturday to showcase the rest of the park - a natural jewel officials wanted to preserve from the stampede of subdivisions arriving in Hays County.

“We wanted to show people what we’ve been doing with the natural area and what a precious natural resource it is,” Jeremy Gonzales, a park ranger, told the Austin American-Statesman (https://bit.ly/Rle0UT ). “We want to show them that we need to conserve and take care of our environment. We want to get people outdoors to enjoy nature, but also educate them about what’s going on.”

The park is free to visit.

County officials were eager to acquire Jacob’s Well because of its namesake artesian well, which is part of the second-deepest underwater cave system in Texas. The spring in this environmentally sensitive area feeds Cypress Creek and the Blanco River. The land around it is home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.

The county paid about $4 million for the land.

“It’s a very important asset to the citizens of Hays County and something that we’re glad to see in public ownership for all to enjoy,” said County Commissioner Will Conley, who represents the area.

The 81.4-acre park has undergone a dramatic change since the county purchased it four years ago. Gone are the condominiums that used to sit a few yards from the creek. The county also tore out a swimming pool, tennis courts and the concrete slabs from an old RV park to return the area to a natural state.

More than a mile of trails have been added in the upper area of the park above the swimming hole, as well as native plant displays, a nature center and a bird blind that includes a water feature to attract birds that is fed by a rainwater collection system.

The upper park is full of fossils (which should not be removed from the park), some of which are more than 100 million years old. The area teems with wildlife such as deer, gray foxes and lizards, including a spiky, spotted one that likes to greet park personnel by wagging its tail.

The upper park has gorgeous views of the Wimberley Valley. On warm days, the scent of cedar resin fills the air and the whole park smells like a cedar chest.

Below the newly improved upper park is Jacob’s Well, a yawning darkness in the bed of Cypress Creek.

Visitors lounge on the limestone cliffs above the swimming hole, picnicking and splashing in the shallows. Swimmers will try to plumb the depths of the well but usually make it only about 10 feet before the pressure hurts their ears. The bravest will leap from bluffs above the well and aim for the 12-foot cave opening, though it is against park rules.

As beautiful as Jacob’s Well is, it has a dark side. Beneath the picturesque swimming hole is a cave shaft that extends 137 feet down, with a branching cave system that extends thousands of feet. Back when the property was in private hands, cave divers with scuba gear would trespass to explore the caves, Gonzales said. Some never made it out. The cave system is full of silt, and when it is kicked up by a diver, it can blind them, causing disorientation and death in the twisting caves. Eight confirmed deaths have occurred in the darkness of the caves.

For this reason, it’s been named one of the scariest places on Earth by the website Buzzfeed.

The park works with two trained diving teams that explore the caves to study them for scientific purposes, Gonzales said.

Being able to put the caves behind locked gates at night to keep unauthorized divers out was a bonus in the acquisition of the land, officials said.

“I feel like we’ll do the best we can to make it safer,” said Clint Garza, development services director for Hays County.

The acquisition of Jacob’s Well fit with the county’s goal of protecting environmentally sensitive areas and preserving habitat for native species.

Garza couldn’t put a price tag on the improvements to Jacob’s Well because much of the work involved volunteer labor and donated materials.

Though recreation is the primary reason many visit Jacob’s Well, county officials hope it will become an educational facility as well.

“We really hope it becomes a place for families and the education of the youth on our history and importance of natural resources,” Conley said.

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com

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