Travel time from:
Austin – 2.5 hours
Brownsville – 5 hours
Dallas – 5.5 hours
Houston – 4 hours
San Antonio – 1.5 hours
Lubbock – 6 hours
El Paso – 7.25 hours
From bats to history to endangered fish, this town offers it all.
By Cynthia Walker Pickens
As I stare up at the twilight sky in amazement, watching thousands upon thousands of bats winging their way south in search of dinner, I realize this will be an adventurous weekend indeed.
My husband, daughter and I have driven southwest to Uvalde, enticed by the visitors bureau’s slogan, “Surround yourself with adventure.” Our first adventure: Witness the nightly emergence of one of the largest colonies of Mexican free-tailed bats in the world. How many bats, you ask? Oh, 10 million or so.
Our instructions are mysterious. We follow a two-lane rural road meandering through ranch country, scanning for the Frio Bat Flight sign; we see it as we whiz by. By the time we return to park by the locked gate, other cars are pulling up and families are piling out, talking excitedly and applying bug spray liberally.
In a few minutes, a woman arrives, unlocks the gate and deputizes someone to close it behind us. Back in our cars, we follow her down a winding, unpaved road through a beautiful ranch. After parking, we pay our entry fee and hike uphill to a small amphitheater beside the roped-off Frio Cave entrance.
Millions of bats take flight from Frio Cave.
While we await the bats’ emergence, tour guide LeAnn Sharp presents information about bats, and nature presents a spectacular sunset. This cave, situated on an 11,000-acre private ranch, is home to a large colony of bats. Every night, the bats head out to find insects to eat; Sharp tells us that in one night a bat can fly 50 to 60 miles. Mexican free-tailed bats migrate, she says, so they are here only for the summer months.
At about 8:20 p.m., bats begin pouring out of the cave in mind-boggling numbers; it is an astonishing sight. After 15 minutes, we hike to a higher vantage point, where we see streams of bats undulating south. Occasionally, a stream flows over us, and we can hear bats’ wings flapping and the rush of air as they pass.
Red-tailed hawks soar overhead, occasionally stooping through the streams. My husband sees one successful hawk eating his prize on the fly.
It takes this many bats a while to exit the three-mile-long cave. As darkness falls, the bats continue to emerge and we head downhill.
I had proposed rising early on Sunday to go bird watching at Cooks Slough Nature Park and Sanctuary, but my companions said no. Instead, we enjoy a leisurely Sunday breakfast at a local café and arrive at the park mid-morning. (The park’s address is on FM 117, but its entrance is on County Road 106.)
The interpretative kiosk at the wetland observation area near the parking lot informs us that the 25-acre park sits on a reclaimed landfill and helps filter the city’s wastewater. The park features wheelchair-accessible trails; however, runoff had washed out parts of them before our visit.
Due either to the time of day or our lack of stealth, we do not see many birds. We see lots of nature, though, and later make a list of everything we observed, including a black-bellied whistling duck, catfish caught by local fishermen and palo verde trees in bloom. Look for a map of the park tucked in a box on a post near the parking lot.
Fort Inge Historical Park is nearby, located off FM 140 (across FM 117 from CR 106). The fort was established in 1849 on the Leona River, one of a line of federal forts built to protect the frontier settlements from Indian raiders and bandits, among other duties. Federal troops transferred out in 1869; Texas Rangers used the site until 1884. It was designated a county historical park in 1961.
The volcanic plug of Mount Inge overlooks the remains of Fort Inge.
We drive through the park, which has seen better days, and then stop to explore the fort site. Little remains of the fort, but local historians have installed interpretive signage. A 140-foot extinct volcano overlooks the grounds. Local astronomers host stargazing parties here, but not while we were in town.
No trip to Uvalde is complete without visiting Garner State Park. We snag picnic supplies before heading north 28 miles. I have some vague idea that the park will empty on a Sunday afternoon, but the line at the entrance squelches that notion.
After nabbing a precious parking space, we carry our chairs and lunch down to the shady bank of the Frio River. We join other families with our swimming gear, food and smiles. From the bank, the river looks muddy, but when we step into the water we can clearly see the rocky bottom. The river is cool and refreshing, shallow and wide. Despite the crowds, we don’t feel crowded. Tubes bearing riders float along; occasionally, people power by on an overloaded pedal boat. We splash and wrestle. My daughter decides I must get wet top to bottom; I resist because the water is cold. She wins.
The Frio River flows through Garner State Park, one of the most popular state parks in Texas.
Garner offers campsites, cabins, screened shelters and day-use facilities, along with an extensive trail system. As we depart, my daughter and I agree we should return for our annual Thanksgiving campout.
On Monday, we tour the in-town attractions. Reading W. Black founded Uvalde (originally called Encina) a few years after Fort Inge was established. His surveyor designed the town with four central plazas, at the intersection of two of the longest highways in the United States: U.S. Highways 83 and 90. Situated on the plazas are the county courthouse, city hall, post office and a park.
The visitors bureau yields informative brochures and friendly staff. We chat about the drought (Uvalde was under Stage 5 water restrictions at the time of our visit) and the town’s trees, protected zealously by residents, who route streets and plan construction around them.
Our first stop is the First State Bank of Uvalde, which houses the Briscoe Art and Antique Collection in its lobby and offices. We feel awkward wandering through the bank while people conduct business, but they pay us no mind. This is the most beautiful bank lobby you will ever see, filled with paintings, antiques and Western art from the collection of former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe (a Uvalde native) and his wife, Janey.
History buffs will enjoy the Briscoe-Garner Museum, which was unfortunately undergoing renovations when we visited. The museum is located in the former home of John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, another Uvalde resident. Garner served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1941, and mentored Briscoe. The museum features a Garner exhibit downstairs and a Briscoe exhibit upstairs.
We visit the El Progreso Memorial Library next, where the town’s reverence for its old trees is evident. The parking lot, driveways and the building are sited around the beautiful oaks. The building honors the school originally situated here, with bricks from the school used in pillars and walls in the rotunda, which resembles the dome of the old schoolhouse.
The library is home to the Weisman Museum. Volunteer archivist Virginia Davis is preparing a new exhibit on farming in Southwest Texas planned for early next year. She gives us a short tour of her domain, the history room and archives.
We eat lunch at Oasis Outback, a combination of outdoor outfitter and restaurant. Mounted deer hang on the walls, and taxidermied native animals pose throughout the store. The restaurant features barbecue and a stellar salad bar; we opt for the salad.
Refueled, we venture off to the Uvalde National Fish Hatchery, deserted on this hot afternoon. Fish biologist Rick Echols finds us in the lobby, and offers to give us a tour.
He tells us the hatchery’s mission is to preserve endangered species. To that end, it holds in refugium populations of fountain darters (native to the San Marcos and Comal rivers) and San Marcos salamanders (from the San Marcos River). The hatchery also grows Texas wild rice, found only in the San Marcos River.
“Overuse of water from the Edwards Aquifer for agricultural, industrial and home by a growing population is the primary threat to all Edwards Aquifer species,” Echols tells us.
In addition to these species, the hatchery protects Comanche Springs pupfish (native to Balmorhea State Park) and razorback suckers (from New Mexico).
Echols leads us to a tank in which an astonishing 30,000 catfish fry are swimming, and hands my daughter food to sprinkle in. The catfish will be harvested at the hatchery’s annual fishing derby.
He sends us off to explore the walking path surrounding a two-acre wildlife pond. My daughter loves this path, though after a yellow jacket stings my husband at one of the viewing stations, we beat a hasty retreat.
While you can visit the hatchery at any time, we recommend calling ahead for a guided tour.
Uvalde’s historic Grand Opera House dresses up downtown.
We stop by the Uvalde Rexall Drug Store to visit its soda fountain before leaving town. According to the visitors bureau, this is the town’s oldest retail establishment, in operation since 1883. My daughter enviously eyes my chocolate soda, served in a tall glass with whipped cream and a cherry on top — yum.
It’s time to head home. From watching bats stream overhead at twilight to feeding tiny catfish, it has been a great weekend spent exploring Southwest Texas’ outdoor attractions and its history. It has been . . . an adventure!
• Uvalde Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.visituvalde.com
• Frio Bat Flight: www.friobatflight.com
• Garner State Park: www.tpwd.texas.gov/garner
• Briscoe-Garner Museum: www.cah.utexas.edu/museums/ garner_intro.php
• Uvalde National Fish Hatchery: www.fws.gov/southwest/fisheries/uvalde
See more travel stories on TP&W magazine's Travel page