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Dripping calcite candle wax in Kickapoo Cavern

Kickapoo Cavern State Park

The things to look for at Kickapoo Caverns State Park hide just out of sight. Dip beneath the park’s scrubby hills to see a colony of hundreds of thousands of bats or towering calcite crystals dripping like candle wax down the back of a pitch black cavern.

The park’s Stewart Cave is among many in Central Texas that draw the migratory Mexican Free-Tailed Bat, which arrives en masse in late spring and early summer. It’s colony is not as large as that of the Devil’s Sinkhole up the road, but its bats arrive earlier, and it’s much less crowded. At Kickapoo, you walk up a short hill to the cave; visitors to the Sinkhole arrive by bus.

On a recent visit, a small swarm of cave swallows flew out the entrance just before dusk, and the bats followed about 15 minutes later, pouring steadily and chaotically from the mouth of the cave for more than a half hour, creating a noisy black swarm that stretched into the distance in the darkening sky. The bats spend the night feeding on moths and other insects as far as 40 miles away before returning to the cave throughout the next morning.

The other significant cave in the park is reachable only by a weekly tour offered on Saturdays at 1 p.m. It’s at the end of a short, steep trail and lies behind an iron grate in the ground that resembles the entrance to a dungeon.

The cave is undeveloped. Its floor is uneven and covered in loose, sharp rocks and boulders. There’s quite a bit of climbing up and down involved and, except for the shine of your flashlight, it’s pitch black. The mandatory hard hats are a good idea.

Not far into the cave, massive towers of stalactites and stalagmites begin rising around you, dripping down the walls and ceilings in colors from white to yellow to a deep rust. It’s a bit warmer and wetter than other caves you may have visited – something that makes them more attractive to the bats, though you’re not likely to see bats in this one.

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-breasted Chat

The cave is not that extensive, only about a half-mile roundtrip, but you have to work for what you get. In the deepest part of the cavern, you can see water laden with calcite dripping from the ceilings and walls – the same process that over thousands of years built the massive towers in the other rooms of the cave.

The park’s 6,368 acres include 14 miles of mountain biking trails and 18 miles of hiking and birding trails through an eclectic landscape of live oak, juniper, Texas persimmon, mountain laurel and pinyon pines. The landscape hosts a diversity of warblers, desert birds and other wildlife, including one of the largest populations of the rare Black-capped Vireo.

In particular, there seems to be an abundance of rabbits. The explanation lies just up the road, where several ranchers had recently hung coyote carcasses along their outside fences. Eliminate the predators and the prey thrive.

Kickapoo is among the least visited of the state’s parks, but its caves, diversity of wildlife and off-the-beaten-trail feel make it a welcome respite from some of its more popular neighbors.


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