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Rocksprings Goes Batty

“Highest, driest” location in the Texas Hill Country taps into nature tourism market.

By Rob McCorkle

Doff your cap to the tenacious folks of Rocksprings, Texas, population 1,285.

The Edwards County seat has seen its share of tragedies, starting with the 1927 tornado that killed 74 and leveled most of the town’s buildings. Then came the Great Depression. The county’s ranching economy picked up steam later in the 20th century with the growing production of mohair, produced from Angora goats that thrived amid the rocky rangeland at the extreme western edge of the Edwards Plateau.

By the end of the century, the mohair market had collapsed. The end of federal subsidies, a dwindling domestic market and the carving up of many of the county’s larger ranches took a serious toll on the area economy. Civic leaders knew something had to be done lest Rocksprings become a ghost town.

“Project 2000” was launched to take inventory of where the town was going, its assets and what might be done to stimulate the local economy. Public meetings led to the conclusion that the townspeople should pour their energies and resources into a hole in the ground — the Devil’s Sinkhole, a natural geologic wonder just beyond the city limits. Tourism linked to the Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area and its large Brazilian free-tailed bat population seemed the obvious answer, though not everyone agreed.

“There were some nonbelievers in our community who didn’t think it was going to work,” recalls County Judge Nick Gallegos. “But down the road, volunteers and the volunteer spirit proved them wrong.”

Citizens voted for a half-cent sales tax to fund the Edwards County Economic Development Board, which went to work with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to increase controlled access to the tourist draw. The rest, as they say, is history.

Almost 1,700 people a year now travel to the remote town to take a guided tour of Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area conducted by the Devil’s Sinkhole Society. The nonprofit organization staffs the Rocksprings Visitor Center on the town square, where sinkhole tours originate. Volunteers lead the tours and staff the visitor center.

Tourists from throughout the state pay $10 (admission for children 4 to 11 is $6) Wednesday through Sunday evenings to take the 20-minute trip on a new, air-conditioned bus to Devil’s Sinkhole to watch the spectacular emergence of several million bats. Bat flights begin in April and last through October. August and September offer some of the best viewing, when the bats emerge earlier in the evening and in larger numbers, says the Devil’s Sinkhole Society’s Ben Banahan, a retired Mississippi doctor who’s an outspoken ambassador for the town and the sinkhole.

Since the visitor center opened in 2001, the state natural area has seen a number of improvements. In 2002, TPWD installed a wheelchair-accessible viewing platform that extends just beyond the edge of the 45- to 55-foot opening of the collapsed limestone pit. Peering into the gaping hole, visitors can see 140 feet to the top of a breakdown mountain and beyond into an amazing subterranean world of trees and shrubs, scoured limestone walls, boulders and a black void, below which lie several deep, clear-water lakes.

“It used to be that the only way to peer into the sinkhole was to get on your belly and crawl to the edge of the overhang,” says Randy Rosales, manager of the state natural area. “That was dangerous, so we built a more accessible metal platform.”

Reservations for bat flight observations can be made through the Devil’s Sinkhole Society by calling (830) 683-BATS or by visiting the Rocksprings Visitors Center, on the southwest corner of the town square.

For more information on Devil’s Sinkhole, visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/ park/sinkhole/> or <www.devilssinkholetx.com>

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