If you’re one of those people who grew up in silence and wide-open spaces, accustomed to solitude, and uncomfortable in the presence of crowds, you’ll be as happy as mountain water among boulders at Kickapoo State Park! Concealed in the extreme western reaches of the Texas Hill Country, this park is not for everyone—you must want to visit. Only open on weekends, it’s like an outlaw hideout turned wilderness retreat for those sworn to secrecy. At the entrance, an unassuming barbed wire gate and a little sign present a long and tortured journey to seemingly nowhere. As roadrunners and jackrabbits scurry for cover under a hard-mineral blue sky, you will eventually find the prize: a forlorn headquarters building languishing at the other end. Only the sunbaked American and Texas flags lazing in the asthmatic afternoon breeze hint at anything approximating civilization.
Okay, here’s the truth: I unwittingly booked Super-Bowl weekend at Kickapoo Caverns! There was no cell service, no Internet, and no television reception. There were maybe five families camping the weekend and only a handful of day-trippers on Saturday. So, there I was, confined on an oasis of desolation so complete that the silence made my ears ring. The mood was almost holy. On any other weekend, visitors would clamor to consume the ranger-led cave tours, hike the trails, picnic in the Texas outback, or savor a relaxing weekend. A happy accident: escaping the din of mankind, even for a weekend, in still backwoods among the birds and critters always lifts me out of myself. It’s better to be lucky than smart.
The 6,300-acre park is secreted away about 22 miles north of the little berg of Bracketville, Texas, straddling the line between Kinney and Edwards counties on the southern edge of the Edwards Plateau. It is important to remember three things: 1.) make reservations if staying overnight, 2.) set your GPS in advance, and 3.) you must be gone by 2:00 pm on Monday.
This name implies territory both wild and historic. Kickapoo Caverns State Park was once occupied by Kickapoo Indians and it conceals caverns that chronicle 4 million years of nature’s handiwork. The migration of the Kickapoo people to the borderlands of Texas and Mexico is one of the most remarkable odysseys in North American history. This tribe, originally from the eastern reaches of the United States, was fiercely independent. Many Kickapoo people fled all the way to Mexico rather than surrender to the encroaching white man. Still, the Kickapoo left behind a singular gift to all Texans who, to this day, remain oppressed by their puritanical politicians. The only gambling casino permitted in the state today is a Kickapoo-owned facility on tribal land. The Lucky Eagle is a modern gaming facility, well-run, and situated outside Eagle Pass, Texas. It’s only a few hours’ drive from the park. Try your luck and simultaneously help a noble tribe in the bargain!
As for the caverns, formation began when slow-moving, acidic groundwater carved passageways through the millions-years-old Devils River limestone. A distant cousin of Carlsbad, within the park today are some twenty known caves. The two largest are Kickapoo Cavern and Stuart Bat Cave. Open spelunking is not permitted (to protect both the caves and the critters who live there); however, park staff lead cave tours to Kickapoo Cavern every Saturday at 1 pm on a reservation only basis. This cavern contains the tallest rock column in the entire state, spanning some 80 feet from floor to ceiling. While the undeveloped cave runs only 1,400 feet under the surface of the surrounding hills, the tour is a formal event, meaning it requires a signed liability waiver, two sources of light per hiker, no children under the age of five, and a ten-dollar fee. I passed this one by for dew-pearled morning walks and lingering desert sunsets.
From mid-March through the end of October, Stuart Bat Cave provides sleeping quarters for 500,000 Mexican free-tailed bats during the day, and a launch pad for a most formidable insect hunting party at night. Unlike the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, this seasonal spectacle can be viewed from a wheelchair-accessible viewing platform located point blank at the entrance of the cave. I’m told it takes about 1 ½ hours for the colony to completely clear the cave at dusk. The observation deck is so close to the action that if you believe in the Curse of Dracula, you might want to watch from the safety of your car. Although slightly shorter in length than Kickapoo Cavern, Stuart Bat Cave is also home to cave swallows who raise their young in mud nests visible from the cave entrance. Given the time of year I chose to visit, the cave was lifeless and deserted. Timing is everything!
There’s no question bats are the major attraction for the park but there’s a menagerie of other wildlife here too. Interestingly, most of the unusual ones are eclipsed by the ubiquitous armadillo, the Texas state mammal. Most people who’ve never seen an armadillo up close consider it to be highly unusual, but here they’re as common as cactus. In fact, some people contend that all armadillos are born at Kickapoo Caverns, and then they migrate to the other parts of Texas! These gentle creatures bumble along—noses down, oblivious—virtually everywhere in the park near dusk. Great entertainment if you bring your family dog! Oh sure, there are more common animals here as well (white-tails, coyotes, porcupines, ringtails, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, etc.) and there are also some truly unusual ones like the barking frog, mottled rock rattlesnake and the Texas alligator lizard. My advice: take your camera and settle for the armadillos.
Not being a birder, I didn’t realize this is one of the most popular destinations for people looking to complete their lifetime lists. Golden cheeked warblers and black capped vireos are reliable sightings, I’m told. People also come here to spot gray vireos, varied bunting, and Montezuma quail. With over 240 species of birds (that’s about half of all the species in Texas), there’s a lot to choose from here, and they’re everywhere. There is a wonderfully comfortable bird blind constructed in one of the most natural settings imaginable. It’s not hard to find, as there is only one road in the park. Nestled within an amphitheater of native trees cooled by rippling water, early mornings and dusk are busy times inside the viewing enclosure.
The countryside is a mixed recipe from three different regions of Texas: the Edwards Plateau, the Chihuahuan Desert and the South Texas Plains. Rolling hills contain plants and animals from all three regions. Trees are a patchwork of sprawling live oaks, various cacti and a mix of thorny shrubs. One of the more unusual plants is the papershell pinion pine tree. These rare but scrappy pine trees were common in west Texas thousands of years ago when the climate was cooler. Today, they hunker down in isolated patches in the low areas of the park where water tends to collect. Another shrinking species is the Tobusch fishhook cactus. Native to the Edwards Plateau, this scraggly survivor is armed with 20 or so hook-shaped tubercles that grow about 2 ½ inches long. It’s a threatened species.
Like so many Texas parks, the land was a former ranch. Tommy Seargeant was an avid naturalist who wanted his ranch to become a state park. He sold the land to TPWD in 1986 and it opened on a limited basis in 1991. Full access didn’t come until 2010. The old windmill and other remnants of the ranch are still visible, providing a nostalgic backdrop for each morning’s sunrise. You can follow a ¾ mile trail starting near the campground which crosses creek beds and ridges before coming to an overlook. At the overlook you will find a plaque honoring Mr. Seargeant, as you take in a panoramic view of the park.
You don’t have to be Jesse James to cherish quietude and sanctuary. Come here and try it out! Envision yourself savoring the purple evening skies, watching the upper edge of the sun falling down off the hill—providing the shadow of a greater silence, a deeper thought. If you hang around long enough—perhaps with a favorite beverage—the reward is a late-rising moon laying chubby and cheese colored just above the horizon. I’m telling you; it doesn’t get much better than this! Kickapoo Caverns is different. It has unique features and yet shares a common purpose with all Texas state parks: to present a vignette of primitive Texas. This is important because, taken together, they collectively define our people, interpret our history, and inspire our future. This is the very core of the enterprise—to instill a sense of identification, of appreciation, of caring for our wild spaces. That’s why we need to visit as many of our state parks as we are able—even if it is at the expense of an occasional Super-Bowl weekend!
By Larry Gfeller