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Going to Ground: The western Edwards Plateau from underground

In Kickapoo Cavern, the state’s largest-known cave columns divide the upper chamber from the lower chamber. The mysterious light? The headlamps of hikers descending into the cave. (Photos by E. Dan Klepper)

When temperatures soar in the western Edwards Plateau, there’s only one thing to do—go deep

By E. Dan Klepper

You’ll find a trinity of odd and earthly things in the caverns beneath the Texas soil of the western Edwards Plateau: glass-clear water, a cool and unchanging temperature, and an implausible darkness. In fact, the darkness is so complete that the mind has difficulty comprehending it, a phenomenon I witnessed many times during my years in the region as a park ranger at Kickapoo Cavern State Park.

My duties included leading primitive cave tours into the park’s namesake cavern. Its rugged, undeveloped conditions, the enormous blocks of limestone breakdown that once clung to the ceiling, and the largest-known cave columns in the state never failed to impress visitors as they scrambled over boulders and scooted around ancient stalagmites, everything illuminated solely by the lights they held in their hands or strapped onto their heads.

'As I made my way to Brackettville and then on to Rocksprings, the trip became as much about half-forgotten memories as a road trip about caves and  bats and a spring-fed swimming pool.'

The tours always started out lively and noisy, but as we hiked farther into the cavern, the chatter would slowly diminish. Once we were deep inside the cave, I would ask the hikers to sit down and to turn off their flashlights and headlamps, and then all conversation would come to a complete halt. At a hundred feet underground, the cavern’s darkness was accompanied by a brooding silence as everyone attempted to puzzle out the unfamiliar territory brought on by a sudden loss of light. But the silence never lasted very long. A peep would soon sound, followed by a giggle. Then, someone would snap on a flashlight, breaking the spell, after which all the other hikers’ lights would come on as well.

With my charges freshly initiated, we would then ascend the steep incline alongside the cave’s giant columns, our lamps arising in the darkness like fireflies on their way to merge with some greater light.

Kickapoo Cavern, supposedly named for the region’s Kickapoo Indians, lies along the southwestern edge of the plateau just up the road from the historic town of Brackettville. It has long been a favorite destination for adventure-seekers, including soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Clark.

Established as a U.S. Cavalry post in 1852 beside Las Moras Creek, Fort Clark and its infantry dominated the region for almost a century. Soldiers, accompanied on occasion by their wives or girlfriends, would make their way to Kickapoo and explore it by torchlight, sometimes carving their names along the cave walls in the tidy, curling penmanship of late-19th-Century script. Their graffiti and the soot left from their torches comprise the earliest evidence we have to date of human visitation in the cavern. Although archeologists have established that a large mound of burned rock and stone chips just outside the cave entrance was left by prehistoric groups, nothing from corresponding periods has been found inside. 

Today, you can make a day of visiting Kickapoo Cavern and the state park by tackling a primitive cave tour, then hiking up the park’s three-quarter-mile-long Seargeant Memorial Trail, named in honor of the late rancher Tommy Seargeant, the former owner of the site. The vantage from the trail’s highest elevation gives hikers a bird’s-eye view of the lay of the land.

Las Moras Spring continually pumps cool, clear water into the Fort Clark Springs swimming pool, making it a refreshing oasis for road-weary travelers.Afterwards, you can relax among the modern conveniences of the Fort Clark Springs Motel, about 26 miles south of the park along RR 674, just across US 90 from Brackettville. The motel sits on the grounds of Fort Clark Springs, a 2,700-acre family-style resort and retirement community that occupies the former cavalry post. You’ll find comfortable accommodations in the renovated barracks, and the property features a swimming pool replenished constantly with fresh, underground spring water. Built in 1939, the concrete, boat-shaped pool measures 100 feet by 300 feet—the third-largest spring-fed pool in the state. Due to a perpetual flow from nearby Las Moras Spring, the water maintains a constant temperature of 68 degrees. Other amenities available for overnight guests include two golf courses, hiking and biking trails, and tennis courts, making Fort Clark Springs an ideal getaway for urban dwellers. Brackettville, just across the highway, offers restaurants and shops.

Fort Clark began its transformation into a residential resort after the closure of the cavalry post in 1946. The surviving structures of the original post—officer’s quarters (many of them private residences now), barracks (including the renovated motel), a hospital, mess halls, and a guardhouse (which now houses a museum)—combine with a number of ruins and sites scattered about the property (including the remains of the post headquarters, the officers’ bathhouse, and the horse-dipping vats) to make Fort Clark one of the most outstanding examples of historic military architecture in the state. The Old Guardhouse Museum offers a robust archive of artifacts, photographs, and documents chronicling the post’s history.

It’s inherent in the artist’s nature, at least in my own, to ponder darker, subterranean places, but I also harbor an interest in the inhabitants of the actual, physical darkness—prowlers and stealthy creatures who live in the night such as owls, crickets, ringtail cats, and, of course, bats. Up the road from Brackettville, north along RR 674 past Kickapoo to Rocksprings, and then just a few miles northeast along Texas 377, you will find the Devil’s Sinkhole, the largest-known single-room cave in the state and migratory home to more than three million Mexican free-tailed bats. During my time as a park ranger, I worked under the guidance of the late park manager David K. Stuart and helped him watch over the Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area as well as Kickapoo.

'Our descent into the Sinkhole required rappelling down 150 feet, using a rope that hung over the edge of the opening, in order to reach the top of the breakdown pile.'

As part of my ranger duties, I would assist Stuart in accommodating botanists, bat specialists, cave hydrologists, and, on one occasion, the National Geographic Explorer team, with descents into the Sinkhole. It was a responsibility I anticipated with both exhilaration and dread. The Sinkhole cavern, more than 300 feet deep, has an abrupt opening as if someone had punched a hole in the surface of the earth. It drops in a long, chimney-like neck, then ends in a broad bowl formed like the bottom half of an hourglass. The bats reside along the high ramparts of this bowl.

The bowl also holds a mountainous cone of limestone breakdown, the result of the neck collapsing layer upon layer all the way to the surface as the rock fell away. Our descent into the Sinkhole required rappelling down 150 feet, using a rope that hung over the edge of the opening, in order to reach the top of this breakdown pile. Although the descent always ignited an adrenaline surge that lasted hours, my return up the rope was nerve-wracking as I dangled, sweating, higher and higher above the cone. Yet the combination of adrenaline and terror never failed to turn to marvel once I was back on the surface watching the millions of bats leave the Sinkhole in their nightly exodus. The bat column, resembling a tornado of violet smoke, rises counterclockwise out of the Sinkhole, then takes to the prevailing wind currents to feed on insects flying thousands of feet in the air. In the predawn hours, the bats return, singly and in groups, circling high above the opening before performing a steep dive at high speeds, shooting like bullets back into the Sinkhole.

Today, would-be bat-watchers can make arrangements to observe the exodus (from the safety of the above-ground observation platform) with the nonprofit Devil’s Sinkhole Society, an organization formed in 2001 as a partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The group’s visitor center is located on the corner of Rocksprings’ town square, just a block from the Historic Rocksprings Hotel, a comfortable overnight option for bat-flight observers. The renovated hotel, a creative endeavor by businesswoman Debra Wolcott, combines the creature comforts of an upscale boutique hotel with West Texas safari decor. Eclectic and elegant, “HRH” (as it’s known affectionately by returning guests) offers a dozen bedrooms, verandas, a parlor, a kitchen, a dining room, and the relaxing “Hunt Room,” where guests can enjoy a drink and watch sports live via satellite on the hotel’s large-screen television.

As I made my way to Brackettville and then on to Rocksprings, the trip became as much about half-forgotten memories as a road trip about caves and bats and spring-fed swimming pools. However, there was one adventure that I had always wanted to tackle but had never had the chance. So I turned south, toward the southern edge of Real County, where the town of Camp Wood lies near the headwaters of the Nueces River. I was determined to finally explore the subsurface environs of the glassy Nueces.

The Edwards Plateau is one of the most cave-riddled regions in the state and, thanks to this underground geology, it is also one of the wettest. Real County and its southern neighbor Uvalde County, down the road from Rocksprings and south along Texas 55, may have more miles of spring water running beneath and across their terrains than any other counties in Texas. The Frio, the Dry Frio, the Leona, the Nueces, and the Sabinal riverbeds all run through this area, making it the ideal location for exploring the region’s waters. And Camp Wood, with plenty of rental cabins and Nueces River access, provides a first-rate base for a weekend doing just that.

Located on the south end of Camp Wood, Wes Cooksey Park offers low-cost permits to Lake Nueces, a stretch of the Nueces River held back by a concrete dam just before the Nueces River Bridge along Texas 55. Cooksey also offers tent- and RV-camping. Or, you can enjoy free access, as many of the townsfolk do, and claim a spot directly below the bridge where a lively mix of kids, paddlers, and barbecuers converge every summer weekend.

New to the Nueces experience, I scouted the town for options and got lucky. I caught brothers Ace and Tony Sanchez with snorkels in hand on their way to the river. The Camp Wood teens spend their summer afternoons diving the deeper environs of the Nueces and scouting for sunfish and tilapia. We ended up snorkeling a section of the river alongside River Road, just west of town, courtesy of Chug McCameron of Rockin River Camp. Chug, along with his business partner Bob Foster, run Two Fat Boys BBQ on the edge of town, where the brisket is some of Texas’ finest and the buttermilk pie puts the rest of the world’s desserts to shame.

The water along the Camp Wood stretch of the Nueces seems to be at its most translucent here, before it continues on its way to the Gulf. Whether fully submerged in the water or just relaxing along a vantage point high above the surface, you can watch creatures in the Nueces River navigate the depths like thoughts populating the mind. Fat catfish draw near, pause in curiosity, then slowly turn and disappear. Minnow schools flash like bright ideas and the occasional diamondback water snake settles on the bottom to lie in wait for a meal. Curtains of aquatic plant life open onto sun-scattered flats stretching across the river-bottom horizon. But the lucidity dims with the onset of dusk, when the Nueces becomes a mirror for any embering cloud before pooling, opaque and restless, in the fading light. Then, quite suddenly, the clarity is gone and the surface is cast in shadow, dormant and unknowing, a mere reflection of the darkness in the night sky above.


From the June 2011 issue.

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