How do you get kids to put down their electronics? How do you motivate them to get outdoors more to be active and appreciate nature?
Those are the million dollar questions facing parents these days. One answer is to take them on a trip to a place that stirs the imagination, provides some thrills, and has just the right “ick” factor.
Alabama has just the place—the amazing Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge in Scottsboro. Every evening from June to August, 200,000 to 400,000 endangered gray and Indiana Bats emerge from the cave, putting on an aerial show that kids of all ages will never forget.
The Bat Story
The major player in the show—the gray bat—weighs less than half an ounce but has an impressive wingspan measuring 11 to 13 inches. Gray bats find the warm, cozy confines of Sauta Cave much to their liking from winter through summer, so much so that scientists estimate that there could be 400,000 that call the cave home.
For gray bats, Sauta is a “major maternity cave.” After the bats mate in the fall, their pups are born in the cave in late May and early June. About 20 to 25 days later, the bats can fly on their own.
The other inhabitants of the cave, Indiana bats, are winter residents. They generally weigh about the same as gray bats and have a slightly smaller wingspan measuring between 9 and 11 inches. While the offspring of gray bats are born and raised in the cave, Indiana bat babies are born in June and raised under the loose bark of trees near streams.
You may have read about white-nosed syndrome (WSN), a deadly disease that is decimating the gray bat population. Described by scientists as one of the worst wildlife diseases in modern times, this fungus is spreading rapidly across the country, infecting thousands of caves. So far, WSN has killed more than 6 million gray bats in North America. The good news is that Sauta Cave is WNS free.
The History of Sauta Cave
Because gray and Indiana bats are endangered species, people aren’t allowed to enter Sauta Cave, but many decades ago it saw plenty of human activity. During the Civil War, it was a saltpeter mine, and during Prohibition in the 1920s it housed a speakeasy. In the 1960s the cave served as a fallout shelter.
For years the cave was actually known as Blowing Wind Cave. In 1978, the Blowing Wind Cave National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect the endangered population of bats that lived there. In 1999, the refuge was renamed the Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge to reflect the name of the finger of water on Lake Guntersville where the 264-acre refuge is located.
To the Bat Cave!
While people aren’t allowed to enter the cave, it’s still thrilling to gather outside its mouth on a summer evening and await the thrilling moment when the creatures explode from the entrance. One of the great things about this event is that it happens nightly throughout the summer, so families with busy schedules have several opportunities to fit it into their schedule. Each evening between July and August, the show begins about 30 minutes before true dark. Just as the last light of day begins to wane, the bats emerge and harmlessly swoop around—sometimes only inches from your head—for about an hour.
If you’re looking for a great outing for kids, this is also a good choice because the cave is easily accessible. Sauta Cave is located along U.S. 72 as it crosses an embankment of Lake Guntersville. From the cave parking area, you only have to walk about 100 yards to reach an observation platform near the cave entrance. When you arrive at the platform, be sure to stay on it and don’t attempt to enter the cave (which is gated) for the safety of the bats.
The refuge reminds visitors to wear a poncho with a hood or carry an umbrella (this is where the “ick” factor comes in). This is to protect you from incoming bat droppings. Also, bring along a flashlight to help you navigate your way back to the parking lot when the show ends, but keep in mind that you shouldn’t shine the light at the cave or the bats as they emerge.
To make your outing more interesting, plan to join the Land Trust of North Alabama on one of their “Tuesdays on the Trail” hikes to the cave. LTNA hikes feature a biologist, usually from the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, who set the scene for what you’re about to experience by discussing the bats and their home.
The refuge, which does not charge for admission, also has additional trails away from the cave so you can enjoy further hiking around the hardwood forest that is studded with limestone rock outcroppings.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.