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 Chase Fountain / TPWD


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Rocksprings: Back Porch of the Hill Country

Bats, birds, caves and canyons make Rocksprings worth a visit.


In this remote part of the Hill Country, springs seep from limestone rock, bats make their homes in dark caves and rivers carve deep canyons through the hills. To get here, keep driving past the usual Hill Country havens of Kerrville, Bandera and Leakey until you come to the place where the songs of the golden-cheeked warbler and canyon wren fill the air and the skies turn just a shade darker at night.

Rocksprings is as rugged as its name.

“This is the back porch of the Hill Country,” says Debra Wolcott, owner of the Historic Rocksprings Hotel. “We’re rough and tough here.”

TripAdvisor lists only one attraction in Rocksprings: Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area. That’s a big draw, for sure, but there’s certainly more. Kickapoo Cavern State Park offers a unique combination of birds, bats and caves. The Three Sisters loop through winding Hill Country terrain attracts motorcyclists from all over the state. The Quince swimming hole and other spots on the Nueces River provide refreshing retreats in some of the clearest, cleanest water in the state.

And Rocksprings itself serves as a hospitable base of exploration.

My girlfriend Heather and I start by trying to make it to Kickapoo Cavern in time for the nightly bat flight from Stuart Bat Cave. We make it by 8:30, and it turns out we have time to spare. Tonight is one of those nights when the bats decide to leave late. The crowd gathered at the bat-viewing area is getting impatient.

“I’m not sure they’re coming out tonight,” one visitor grumbles.

The bats finally start to fly out — first a trickle, then a flood. Some of the largest colonies of bats anywhere in the world roost in the caves of the Edwards Plateau ecoregion. Millions of Mexican free-tailed bats use these caves as maternity roosts, creating some of the grandest wildlife-watching spectacles in Texas. The colony here at Kickapoo is mainly males, so it doesn’t have the huge numbers seen in the mom-and-pup roosts. Still, this is an impressive show, with multitudes of hungry bats streaming into the night in search of insects.

There’s a job I didn’t know existed in the state park system: bat guano sanitation engineer, or bat pooper scooper. When the bats fly out at night and return in the morning, they leave the viewing platform littered with poop. Park staff members have to clean it up before the next night’s crowd shows up.

“We do that two to three times a week,” says park ranger Matt Coffman, who usually uses a leaf blower to clean up the mess. “It’s a crappy job, but somebody has to do it.” Ba-dum-tss.

Pro tip: Wait till the afternoon so the poop has time to harden.

The next day at park headquarters, Coffman and park office manager Christina Landsborough-Bitter tell us about more pleasant things that make Kickapoo Cavern a unique place.

“Lots of people come for the solitude,” Landsborough-Bitter says. “You can come out here and get away from it all.”

Kickapoo Cavern opened to the public as a state park in 2010. It offers camping, cave exploration, bird-watching and hiking. Three ecosystems intersect here — the Edwards Plateau, Chihuahuan Desert and South Texas plains — providing varied plant life and wildlife.

“The biggest draw is the cavern,” Coffman says. “Lots of people want to tour the cave. We also have lots of birders.”

Up to 250 species of birds have been seen in the park, including the endangered black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler. There are elf owls, too.

Cavern tours are suspended during the pandemic’s partial closure of state parks, but Coffman and volunteer Ron Davis agree to give us a tour of Kickapoo Cavern, home to the biggest cave columns in Texas. (Tours are normally available on Saturdays.)

Coffman swings open the metal gate protecting the cave entrance.

“Anybody scared of daddy longlegs?” he asks as we scramble down the opening.

The temperature drops as we enter the cave, and we see daddy longlegs dancing on the ceiling. The main room of the cavern is huge. It’s been left in a primitive state, so there are no established walkways or lighting.

The cave represents 4 million years of nature’s handiwork, as slow-moving, acidic groundwater carved passageways through the Devils River limestone. At the back of the main room is the state’s largest speleothem, or cave column, rising as tall as an eight-story building. We shine our flashlights up and down the formation to take it all in.

The main part of the cavern is dry, but there’s a wet section as well, with formations still growing and developing. We descend into it to see the stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, soda straws, cave bacon and cave pools. Davis shines his flashlight on some calcite formations, which give off a beautiful amber glow when illuminated.

Afterward, we head into town to the Historic Rocksprings Hotel, a homey place filled with antiques, a piano, books and taxidermied animals. Wolcott, the hotel proprietor, says her guests come for a variety of reasons — to hunt, ride motorcycles, relax, see the sights and enjoy the dark skies, some of the darkest in the state.

“We’re unique here,” Wolcott says. “We’re at one of the highest places in the Hill Country, the top of the Edwards Plateau.”

 Chase Fountain / TPWD

The Historic Rocksprings Hotel (above) has provided Hill Country accommodations for more than 100 years.


Tourism and hunting are a growing part of the economy, but the town’s real business is mohair. Rocksprings is recognized as the Angora sheep capital of the world.

“At one point there were more Angora goats here than anywhere in the world,” Wolcott says. “That’s what this country is known for — mohair.”

Wolcott also operates the Texas Miniature Museum across the street from the hotel, and we go for a visit. She and her husband bought an old bank building to house her growing collection of dollhouses and miniatures.

“It’s a hobby that got out of control,” she says.

Wolcott explains that her master’s degree in architecture and her childhood interest in playing with dolls spurred her interest. Her collection spans the decades from 1900 to the 2000s and includes themed dollhouses (Christmas and Halloween) and different architectural styles.

 Chase Fountain / TPWD

Rocksprings Ranch Supply contains an arrowhead collection along with ranch provisions.


 Chase Fountain / TPWD

An Angora goat statue at the courthouse shows mohair’s importance to the area.


 Kuhlken Photography

Swimmers cool off at the Quince swimming hole on the Nueces.


Later, we travel down the courthouse square to the Devil’s Sinkhole Society office for another evening of bat viewing. Rocksprings was founded at this particular site because of the natural springs bubbling from the rocks, an indication of the region’s karst geology, a water-pocked limestone that has riddled the area with caves. In addition to Kickapoo Cavern, Rocksprings is also home to the Devil’s Sinkhole, an enormous underground chamber with some 3 million bats swirling out on summer nights.

After getting a bat briefing, we follow a car caravan to Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area a few miles out of town. Once there, we take turns on the platform overlooking the cave. A 50-foot-wide shaft drops 150 feet into the cavern. At some point in time, the cavern’s ceiling collapsed, revealing this portal into a deep, dark subterranean world. It’s Texas’ largest single-chambered (and fifth-deepest) cave.

Our guide Andrew Barnebey divides the summer bat population into phases — kilo-bat (smallest), mega-bat (medium) and giga-bat (biggest) — and says we’re still in the kilo-bat phase. As the sunset turns pink and orange on the horizon, we watch hundreds of bats emerge, a slow night at the sinkhole.

Back at Kickapoo the next morning, we decide to check out the park’s bird blind. We missed the elf owls both nights we searched for them, and we’re hoping to catch a glimpse of a golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered bird that nests in the area.

“You just missed them,” says Mike Williams, who is set up in the blind with his camera. “There were two golden-cheeked warblers here about five minutes ago.”

We stick around to see a yellow-breasted chat, a Bell’s vireo, a Scott’s oriole and an olive sparrow and are then rewarded with more. A black-capped vireo, another endangered bird that nests in the Hill Country, makes an appearance, as does a varied bunting, a beautiful songbird with a limited U.S. range and a colorful plumage of plum, crimson, cherry and violet.

“Kickapoo is the best place for varied buntings,” Williams says. “They’re a star bird here.”

We decide to head home, but not without a couple more attractions on the way back. The Hill Country’s Three Sisters loop rates as one of the top motorcycle rides in the state. The route, also known as the Twisted Sisters, takes riders up and down hills and around twists and turns for a Hill Country roller-coaster ride like no other. We’ll get to visit two of the sisters — Ranch Roads 335 to Barksdale and 337 to Leakey. We pass two dozen motorcyclists by the side of the road as we make the turn onto RR 335. The road winds through the very upper stretches of the Nueces River, over hills and around curves, following the river’s course. RR 337 switchbacks its way over one of the Hill Country’s big hills, offering sweeping views.

 Kuhlken Photography

Kickapoo Cavern features large cave column formations.


Halfway through the drive, we stop at the Quince, a Nueces River hangout near Camp Wood that’s one of the hidden gems of Texas swimming holes. The first thing we notice is the amazingly clear water. This is some of the clearest water I’ve seen in the state, comparable to the pristine Devil’s River. People are swimming, jumping, floating and hanging out.

We leap off the short cliff for a refreshing dip. After swimming for a while, we don goggles and dive down, checking out fish and some underwater cave-like areas. We swim and walk upstream to find a series of springs feeding the swimming hole.

The family parked next to us say they’ve been swimming here for years.

“Once we discovered it, we’ve been coming back every year,” the dad says. “We love it.”

Once you discover this hidden pocket of the Hill Country, you may love it, too. And maybe you’ll come back every year to this unique place of birds and bats, rivers and roads, and caves and canyons.


MORE INFO:

 Check for closures, limited hours or new procedures before visiting.


kickapoo cavern state park

tpwd.texas.gov/kickapoocavern

Historic Rocksprings Hotel

historicrockspringshotel.com

Devil's Sinkhole State Natural Area

tpwd.texas.gov/devilssinkhole


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