Nature

Texas’ Smallest and Spookiest State Park

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Thirteen miles south of Fredericksburg down the Old San Antonio Road, nestled in the cedar covered hills, kind of in the middle of nowhere, you will find a couple of parking lots. At first glance, you’ll think, what? Then you’ll see a sign announcing the Old Tunnel State Park.

Recent improvements brought this from a Wildlife Management Area to a State Park — a Ranger on staff, a set of composting toilets, an expanded viewing deck. People will be milling around, some having a picnic in a pavilion at the edge of a cliff, others reading information on bulletin boards, and a few gazing up into the sky. Some will have been at the adjacent Alamo Springs Cafe and are full of famous hamburgers.

This is the upper viewing area, for which there is no fee.

Old Tunnel Upper Viewing Area

Photo: Robert C. Deming

The license plates in the parking lots are evidence that people come from all over the country to this tiny park. Everyone knows why they are here, but there are lots of questions. Fortunately, this state park has lots of volunteer interpreters, and answers abound.  The biggest question is answered on a white-board: what time the emergence is expected that evening.

The Old Tunnel, Fredericksburg & Northern Railroad

Old Railroad Tunnel

Photo: Robert C. Deming

The tunnel is 920 feet long, and if you look closely, you can see the light at the other end of the tunnel. What you can’t see in this photo is that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bats flying inside the tunnel. The railroad operated from 1913 to 1942; the bats didn’t move in until the railroad track was removed and trains no longer traveled this route.

Bats take to flight by the millions.

Old Tunnel Bats

Photo: Facebook/Old Tunnel State Park, Texas Parks and Wildlife

Each night from about May to October millions of bats emerge from the tunnel to fly far and wide and as high as 10,000 feet to eat bugs. Their favorites bugs are headed for agricultural areas, where they will lay eggs which produce crop-destroying worms. Because bats operate on a different calendar and time clock as we humans, it is best to check the park’s website before your visit to see what is happening that day. The Texas Hill Country is home to many, many bat colonies; you might decide to visit all of them, and this TPWD Brochure will help.

Lower bat emergence viewing area

Old Tunnel Lower Viewing Area

Photo: Robert C. Deming

The park trail is open daily from sunrise to 5 p.m. daily without charge. The lower area is closed after 5 p.m. from Monday through Wednesday evenings, but it is open after 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday with a $5 cash donation. During emergence, this lower viewing area is as close as one can get to the tunnel entrance. There is an upper viewing area for which there is no fee charged.

The trail continues to a bridge where you can see the tunnel entrance. Don’t be tempted to climb down into the creek and go into the tunnel; you will find yourself waist deep in bat guano. The Loop Trail continues down the canyon on the old railroad bed and through the Ashe juniper and oak forest.

This bat is tiny, weighing only as much as two nickels.

Mexican Free-Tailed Bat

Photo: Ron Groves/EOL Learning and Education Group on Flickr (Public Domain)

Bats aren’t going to get caught in your hair, and while they can bite if handled, you aren’t going to have that happen on your visit. Bats are also a very important part of the ecology of the planet; among other things, they pollinate avocado trees and eat crop-destroying insects by the billions ever night, just in Texas! Come learn about these completely amazing creatures, in Texas’ smallest state park.