If you’ve ever seen one of Texas’s public campgrounds on Memorial Day Weekend, then you’ve got a sense of the phrase, “Black Hole of Calcutta.” But not everyone is cut out for the madness of jam-packed public recreation facilities during the summer months. If it’s some authentic one-on-one time with Mother Nature you’re craving, instead try hitting up your favorite park during the off-season, between November and April, when cooler temperatures keep the crowds at bay and the sweat off your back.
I know the joys of winter adventuring first-hand; this past November, my boyfriend, Jeremy, and I took a weekend excursion to Kerrville-Schreiner Park, located along Texas Highway 173, about 115 miles from Austin. Formerly run by the state, Kerrville-Schreiner Park is a 517-acre recreational area with rolling, juniper-studded hills and an abundance of wildlife (including jackrabbits, armadillos, and wild turkeys) that is now maintained and operated by the City of Kerrville.
We loaded the SUV on Friday morning and made the scenic drive from Austin to Kerrville. Upon arrival at the park around noon, we checked in at the ranger station to secure a campsite. The office is actually located in the half of the park situated on the Guadalupe River east of Texas Highway 173. If you’ll be camping with canine friends in tow, as we were, the west side of the park is preferable to the east, since dogs are not allowed in the river and keeping them and your campsite dry can be a hassle.
After setting up camp, we relaxed and enjoyed the peacefulness of separation from the outside world. It wasn’t long before darkness fell across the landscape, and we were left with the sounds of crunching leaves as they passed beneath the delicate hooves of a white-tailed deer, or the shuffling noises from an armadillo rummaging for food. By the light of our lantern, we sat under the stars and appreciated the sounds of nature, the cool crisp air, the vast open sky above us, and the fact that we had it all to ourselves.
If you’re an avid outdoor adventurer, then you know that the sunrise waits for no one. The morning is filled with birds chatting over the subtle crackle of last night’s fire. We started our day off early with an exploratory drive around the west side of the park, taking in the beautiful sights and sounds of the Hill Country in the early morning.
Returning to our site, we took in a quick breakfast of coffee and cereal as we watched the deer congregate in the empty camp spots around us. They didn’t seem to mind our intrusion; in fact, these deer are so accustomed to the close proximity of campers and dogs, they seemed to welcome our presence.
That afternoon, Jeremy and I packed a lunch and planned to hike the entirety of the eight-mile trail system. Back in 1998, the first year we hiked at Kerrville-Schreiner, the trail system was poorly marked, and we consistently got lost. The old signs were haphazardly fastened to the posts, making them easy targets for pranksters looking to mislead unsuspecting hikers. Today, trails of varying difficulty levels are clearly marked with signs planted firmly in the ground and organized into a color-coded system, but I wouldn’t neglect to carry a map and a cell phone at all times. Jeremy and I started out on the moderately rocky blue trail and then took the orange trail, a more difficult path because it is very steep and rocky. The orange trail leads to a stunning viewpoint overlooking the Hill Country, where hikers can take in a panoramic vista of the winter landscape, populated by juniper trees and Spanish and live oaks, plus native plants like sumac, redbud, and buckeye. It is a great spot to stop and take in the expansive view and enjoy a sandwich before heading back to the trailhead. To hike the entirety of the system took us around two hours.
We headed back to camp to prepare for the next activity in our winter weekend lineup, a visit to the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, where wildlife enthusiasts can catch a glimpse of migratory bats as they emerge from their haven at sundown. This wildlife area, about 35 miles east of Kerrville, is sixteen acres and consists of an abandoned railroad tunnel cut out of limestone that houses up to 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats and up to 3,000 cave myotis bats during peak season. When we pulled into the parking area, we were surprised at the small, uncongested lot and lack of other tourists. We strolled over to the observation deck, which is situated directly over the south side of the tunnel. (We were told that the north side of the tunnel is on private property.) Visitors may stand on this main observation deck free of charge, but admission to a close-up viewing area and informational lecture is available for a minimal fee, or free for Texas Parks and Wildlife Conservation pass-holders. (Note: Admission is not free for Texas State Parks pass-holders.)
Jeremy and I descended into the close-up viewing area, which is situated next to the tunnel. We wandered farther down the trail that led to the place where the tracks used to lay. The railroad ran up until the forties and was originally built to run cars between Fredericksburg and San Antonio. We could feel the grandness of this man-made cavity in front of us. We were able to spot the bats, which appeared to be black specks, as they danced around the arc of the weathered, jagged tunnel. We began to hear voices and footsteps stirring up in the viewing area. Much like the bats had begun to rustle and flutter in preparation for their flight, the people were mulling about in anticipation of the show. We scurried to the top to grab a seat.
The bats are scheduled to pour from the cave at sundown, and until that time, on Thursdays through Sundays, park staff members and volunteers give presentations about the different major bat colonies in Texas and how Doppler radar can pick up the emergence of the bats from the tunnel. The speaker also showed us specimens of bats and detailed the specifics of how the bats would emerge from the tunnel that night. We were interested to learn that the bats do not typically inhabit the tunnel after October, though some still remained even though we were visiting on November 1. As darkness crept in, the bats began to swirl and spring forth from the mouth of the tunnel, just ten feet from where we sat. The bats spiraled in a counterclockwise motion, lifting themselves over the treetops to travel southeast toward the Guadalupe River. As Austinites, Jeremy and I are fascinated by the seasonal flights of the Congress Avenue Bridge bats, but the close range and the natural setting we experienced at the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area was a more intimate way to observe the bats. A closing caveat to snapshot junkies: Leave your camera at home; flash photography is prohibited in order to maintain the natural habitat of the bats and to ensure the enjoyment of other visitors.
We remained in the viewing area until the last bat had fled the tunnel for its nightly hunt, and then strolled back to our truck for the return trip to Austin, promising ourselves the whole way home that we’d return to the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area to visit the wildlife preserve again in August, during the peak of bat season.