Sometimes things are not what they seem. An illusion. A trick of the mind. Driving from Fredericksburg to Old Tunnel State Park requires that you impose on the privacy of gentle country folk—people who seek solitude and are uncomfortable in crowds. The winding road is lonesome as it ribbons through scattered roadside farms offering up glimpses of humble rural life—a swing set in the front yard, a sprawling vegetable garden, the family dog staring quizzically as you pass by. Because the road is narrow and twisting, it seems to take forever to get there. Then, once you arrive at the park there’s a feeling of disappointment and loss. There’s not a soul in sight. Inside a rusty old chain link gate, there’s a tiny building, locked restrooms, a platform, some railing, and some seats looking down over a nondescript hillside to the south.
Are you sure this is a state park?
Is this all there is?
If you read the plentiful signs, you soon learn that you’re standing on the upper viewing deck—a recommended vantage point for the disabled, infirm, or frail. Indeed, the path does lead off to the right and disappears down the hillside. What, exactly, are we supposed to be viewing up here? Bats, bats, and more bats! Each year from May to October millions of bats live in an old man-made tunnel carved in the hillside below, and their exodus at dusk draws people from all over to watch. That’s also when the park rangers come out and the restrooms are opened. But on this dreary winter afternoon, there are no bats, and no people either—the place is deserted.
So, despite my decrepitness and diminishing faculties, I forsake the safety of the upper viewing deck, and begin my descent into the depths of Hades. With the help of concrete steps and steel hand railings, I pass an intermediate viewing area set aside, I presume, for those poor souls who realized they should have stayed on the top level after all (not me; just saying). I continue hiking. As the live oaks become larger and overhead foliage becomes denser, the route becomes steeper. Warning signs are everywhere. Any minute I expect to see one announcing the river Styx!
At the bottom, the Old Tunnel Nature Trail is open year-round (till 5:00 pm) and is dotted with strategically placed picnic tables. You are now peering into a lush—almost fairytale—landscape. The path widens into a rolling granite walkway that disappears a half-mile into the forest ahead. Then I spot it. Behind me, there it is! Hidden below layers of heavy stacked limestone blocks and set in an old, excavated roadbed, the tunnel beckons, all damp and black. From just the right angle, you can faintly see daylight on the other side. You are not allowed down here at dusk when the bats are present, and you are not allowed to approach the tunnel at any time (ogres and trolls?). Whatever would we do without warning signs?
In truth, there are only the two viewing areas mentioned, and both are officially considered ADA accessible (if you’re a paralympic athlete!). You see, the crowds that come here to watch the bats are so large that 60-day advanced reservations are recommended. After 5:00 pm in bat season. . . no have ticky, you no stay! Tickets can be bought online or by calling the customer service center (park’s website link). Upper deck tickets sell for $2 per person while seats in Purgatory go for $5 each—it’s a matter of whether you want the “panoramic” view or prefer to experience the chaos of 3 million bats breathing on you as they spiral upward and outward!
I’m told the event is pure pandemonium, not unlike the Gold Rush of the 1840’s. Understand that, if you’re a bat, the challenge is to squeeze the whole adult community out the entrance without crushing each other, join the ascending vortex to an altitude of 10,000 feet or more, all while running a gauntlet of hungry owls and red-tailed hawks strafing the column for a cheap meal! Raccoons and other predators clean up any injured bats who fall to the ground (“how was your commute today, honey?”). Once free, it’s a feeding frenzy to put any buffet line to shame. A foraging bat can easily eat its weight in insects each night and cover up to 60 miles in the process. All told, this bat colony is estimated to be capable of ingesting some 25 tons of insects in a single night. The bats are mostly Mexican free tails (with one other species mixed in), the same kind who draw crowds in Austin from under the Congress Avenue Bridge.
Old Tunnel State Park really started off as a Wildlife Management Area designed specifically for the preservation and protection of the bat colony. In 2011, the WMA was transferred to TPWD and designated a state park to better handle the high tourism, manage the crowds, and deliver ranger-led interpretation programs. The area still retains its status as a WMA to meet U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant stipulations but at only 16.1 acres it is the smallest state park in Texas.
The history of the old tunnel is one of local folks pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. Residents of the thriving town of Fredericksburg in the early 1800’s needed rail access to San Antonio but there was this huge ridge, known as the Old Hill, that stood in the way. This ridge was a real problem for the trains of that era because they weren’t powerful enough to make it up the incline. Cutting a tunnel through the Old Hill was not only a massive task but it was also an expensive proposition—too expensive at first. Finally, by 1913, enough money was raised to do the job.
Somewhere around 100 local workers hacked and bored their way through 920 feet of solid limestone, by hand, and their dream became reality. After the tunnel was completed, the San Antonio, Fredericksburg, and Northern Railway used it all the way up till 1941. Even though the rail line was popular with residents and merchants, it was never profitable. It was eventually scrapped for the value of steel and railroad ties to support the war effort of World War II. It remained a testament to hard work but little else—until the bats discovered it.
Each spring, the female bats migrate from Mexico to claim the tunnel but soon leave to give birth somewhere else in the Edwards Plateau. After the pregnant females leave, the male population shows up to take over the tunnel. In August, the ladies return with their babies and the population of the tunnel balloons to over three million. It is, in the bat world, known as a pseudo-maternal colony. Where I come from, it would be called a time share.
Next time you’re on a shopping trip to Fredericksburg or touring the wineries, why not plan ahead and come armed with tickets to watch the bats obscure the setting sun? Heck, pack a picnic and enjoy the late afternoon among the live oaks as a lead-up to the grand show. From Highway 290 (between Johnson City and Fredericksburg), look for the brown TXDOT sign that reads “Old Tunnel State Park.” The turnoff is just east of Fredericksburg and heads south on Old San Antonio Road. After 10 ½ miles of pastoral country landscape, the park will be on the left, easily spotted from the road. You won’t find a CCC-constructed driveway winding to a pristine headquarters building and a flagpole with Old Glory flapping in the breeze. It’s little more than a pull-off on the side of the road. Nothing exciting could possibly happen here, you think. But you would be wrong! One of life’s recurring truths is reinforced here: sometimes things are not what they seem.
By Larry Gfeller