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On Top of the World

Goats, bats, and a historic hotel in Rocksprings
Written by Giles Lambertson.

THM Rocksprings 3 finalIn the Hill Country northwest of Uvalde, rocky escarpments cut an irregular edge across the horizon. Texas 55 climbs north through shrub-covered canyons and across hills topped with juniper and oak trees, starkly silhouetted in the sun. The rising canyon floors and summits eventually merge as the highway tops out on the Edwards Plateau. As I drive into Rocksprings, I get the feeling of being “on top of the world.”

Bats and Caverns

Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area offers guided bat-watching tours May-Oct, Wed-Sun. Call 830/683-2287.

Kickapoo Cavern State Park opens daily March through May, Fri-Mon the rest of the year, with cavern tours at 1 p.m. Sat. Call 830/563-2342.

J.E. Grinstead used those same words to describe Rocksprings back in 1924. Grinstead, the publisher of Grinstead’s Graphic: Heart o’ the Hills Magazine, also remarked upon a prominent courthouse square hotel. In 2016, that hotel celebrated 100 years of welcoming guests, me included.

The Historic Rocksprings Hotel is my base for a weekend of exploring Rocksprings and its rugged surroundings. Just north of town, at nearby Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area, an immense bat colony puts on seasonal flying shows, while to the south, Kickapoo Cavern State Park is home to another substantial bat cave, along with hiking trails and spelunking tours. But before heading out, I make myself at home at the Historic Rocksprings Hotel.

Manager Debra Wolcott wants her guests to relax as if they were home. In 2009, when she and her lawyer-husband, Craig, left Houston to become hotel operators, they sought a home-like ambiance for the property. “And I believe my guests do feel at home,” she says.

Indeed, guests unwind in front of the hotel’s big-screen TV or on the library’s chaise lounge to read from hundreds of surrounding titles. They cook meals in a kitchen boasting two ovens and ample cooking tools. In the lobby, deer and antelope mounts, as well as a stuffed bobcat, look down on comfortable armchairs and a piano waiting to be played.

The hotel’s 11 rooms are eclectically furnished, while the hallway bookshelves are piled with assorted volumes. (Can’t finish a novel? Mail it back.) Wolcott family heirlooms, such as photos of the Wolcotts’ children, are displayed throughout, adding to the domestic feel.

Built in 1916 on the courthouse square, the wood-framed Rocksprings Hotel served the ebb and flow of local commercial traffic driven by the town’s status as the Edwards County seat and capital of the region’s wool and mohair industry. The hotel closed for a short time in the 1990s and went through a series of owners until the Wolcotts acquired the property in 2009 and renovated it, including the two-level veranda facing the courthouse.

The building’s veranda had been restored once before after a tornado demolished the structure, along with most of Rocksprings, in 1927. Former owners rebuilt the hotel in the 1930s in a Spanish Colonial Revival style with white stucco exteriors and archways for the lower veranda. Guests today can sip coffee in the shade of the patio in the morning, or stargaze pristine nighttime skies on the upper porch.

So who visits Rocksprings? Well, hunters create traffic jams during deer season. Many fly in, landing on the county airport’s milelong runway. The so-called “Angora Goat Capital of the World” is also a destination for wool and mohair lovers. (There’s an angora goat statue on a corner of the square, and the name of the weekly paper is The Rocksprings Record and Texas Mohair Weekly.) Visitors can run their fingers through sheared mohair at the Priour-Varga Wool & Mohair Warehouse south of the square, or visit the headquarters of the American Angora Goat Breeders Association—the nation’s only registry for the breed—and its display of historical photographs of the industry, a mohair carpet, and a stuffed, longhaired goat.

Other visitors come to look at stars: The two nearby state parks rank near the top of the Bortle Scale, which rates how well celestial objects can be seen. And, of course, many come to see bats. The little nocturnal fliers are not the cuddliest animals in the kingdom, yet they can deftly dart through the air at speeds of up to 60 mph and consume moths at a prodigious rate. At the Devil’s Sinkhole cavern, up to 6 million Mexican free-tailed bats rest during the day and fly away each night to gulp down 20 tons of insects.

The bats exit in formation at nightfall from the sinkhole’s mouth, erupting skyward in a counter-clockwise swarm. The flurry, which can last up to two hours, draws summertime visitors to the platform overlooking the sinkhole. In early morning, satiated bats congregate in the skies above the opening and dive back home in groups for another day’s slumber.

For my Rocksprings weekend, I arrived at the Historic Rocksprings Hotel on Friday in time for lunch at Lotus Thai Cafe due south of the courthouse. Orange chicken is the most popular dish (having tasted it, I can see why). The restaurant’s specialties include tom ka soup with coconut milk, curry dishes (including the popular pad prik king—meat with green beans and red peppers), pad thai, crab rangoon, and other Thai delicacies.

Two blocks away is Kingburger Drive Inn, a Rocksprings institution since 1954. Owner Vincente Maltos, who often greets diners from a front table, says the restaurant’s name is misleading. Top-sellers are chicken-fried steak and enchilada dishes. To confirm this, I asked a customer what he had ordered. “I always am going to try something different, but I can’t resist the chicken enchilada,” he said. Maltos smiled in vindication.

Near sundown on Friday, I joined other visitors at the Devil’s Sinkhole visitor center on the courthouse square, and we convoyed behind a volunteer guide for the five-mile drive to the park’s unmarked entrance. The 350-foot deep sinkhole is hidden in undeveloped savanna rife with deer, foxes, and jackrabbits. Wildlife shares the park with bat-watchers while the migratory bats are around from late spring to about the end of October.

Saturday morning, I crossed the street from the hotel to tour the Texas Miniature Museum, a former bank building bought by the Wolcotts as a repository for Debra’s collection of multistory dollhouses, representing each decade from 1900 to the 2000s. To-scale dolls inhabit the houses, along with household furnishings, ranging from toilets to sitting-room tabletop paraphernalia.

Next I drove south to Kickapoo Cavern State Park for the park’s Saturday cavern tour. This part of southwest Texas is characterized by karst topography, wherein groundwater erodes soluble limestone to create caves. Visitors come for both the Kickapoo Cavern spelunking tours and to watch bats emerge from the park’s Stuart Cave, which has a viewing platform to see the nightly exodus of roughly 1 million bats. Kickapoo Cavern is maintained in a primitive state, so don’t expect walkways and overhead lighting for cave tours. Park rangers recommend sensible walking shoes and two flashlights.

For the tour, a park bus carried us from the visitor center to the cavern, where a ranger issued us plastic helmets. We gingerly entered the cavern through a rusty iron gateway, switched on our flashlights, and began an exhilarating quarter-mile trek through collapsed limestone rubble topped by the largest stalactites and stalagmites in Texas. At the farthest point, the ranger asked us to switch off our flashlights, and we could not see our hands in front of our faces.

I felt like a genuine spelunker when I emerged into afternoon sunshine. It was time to time to return home. As I made my way back to Uvalde, I descended the Edwards Plateau on Texas 55 and the sights of the Hill Country enveloped me. That evening, still in a getaway state of mind, I relaxed at home with a borrowed book from the Historic Rocksprings Hotel. Alas, I lacked a veranda.

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