Hot Summer Nights @ Hambrick Bat Cave

Hot Summer Nights @ Hambrick Bat Cave

davybackDavy Canupp

Davy is a founding editor of Huntsville Outdoors.  He hikes, he paddles, he bikes, he imbibes. He's been four feet from a grizzly bear and he's held an alligator. He's probably the coolest guy you don't know.

So, you've read our makeout spots article and noticed we only listed 9 spots.  Of course, you are thinking what the crap, Huntsville Outdoors, where is the 10th???  Calm down, we saved the best for last.  If you ever wanted to make out on the water -- which we don't exactly recommend -- there is absolutely no where like Hambrick Bat Cave.  Not only will you get one of the best sunset views in the great State of Alabama, but your girlfriend will be sure to literally jump in your boat when she sees 60,000 gray bats headed straight for her head.  And if she's too scared of kayaks to paddle over to the cave, hop in a motor boat, because this cave is on the big water, my friends.

OK fine, the truth is making out at Hambrick Cave is a totally unworkable idea, even though the long, windy road that leads to the Guntersville Dam put-in is awful quiet at night.  This cave is built for another nighttime activity: bat watching.  Stay with me, I'm serious.  This is fun.

You may or may not be aware that Alabama is one of the nation's richest cave environments, with over 4,700 caves recorded as of 2007.  The area referred to as "TAG" -- where the States of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia meet -- has the largest concetration of caves in the United States.  Madison County itself has at least 240 caves, and between Madison County and Jackson County, there are over 2,000 caves.  Heck, they used to call Huntsville Cave City, a moniker that lives on only in a local beer.  Anyway -- what lives in caves?  Bats.  And in Alabama caves, LOTS of gray bats in particular. 

Indeed, northern Alabama contains perhaps the most ecologically important bat caves east of the Mississippi River.  Saunta Cave near Scottsboro serves as the summer home for as many as 400,000 gray bats; nearby Fern Cave is the winter home for upwards of 1,000,000 gray bats.  And Hambrick Cave on Lake Guntersville (near the Dam) houses about 60,000 in the warm summer months.  You can read more about each of these caves in USA Today, which saw fit to do a piece on north Alabama's unique bat caves.  But rather than reading about all of these bats, why not get out and actually see some?

That's what Huntsville Outdoors did on a recent August evening.  Thanks to Phil Walton of Unphiltered Kayaking, LLC, Eric and I met up at the Guntersville Dam, boarded a couple 16 foot ocean-going 'yaks and set out on a roughly 1.5 mile paddle to Hambrick Cave.  Getting both to the put-in and to the cave was super-easy.  The Guntersville Dam, which is a popular site for viewing Bald Eagles, is just about 30 minutes from Hampton Cove.  Plan to arrive around 6:30 p.m. anytime from April to October (you won't see any bats in the winter months).  Head toward Guntersville and take a right on Guntersville Dam Road.  Provided your significant other doesn't stop you along the way and ask to do a little smoochy-smoochy, you will want to continue to the put-in on the Lake-side of the Dam.

Once you are in the water, do keep in mind the current that could be caused by hydroelectric production at the Dam.  In case you forget, this (photo taken at night in the eerie glow of red headlamps) may remind you:


From the put-in, you need only paddle East, past Hambrick Hollow until you reach a cliff referred to as Honey Bluff.  This leg of the trip really only takes about 15 to 25 minutes, and when the water is flat, it is a pleasure.  Follow the shoreline, and when you get near the Cave, it will be difficult to miss:


The fencing was installed years ago as a part of an initiative by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect fragile cave ecosystems from human intrusion (in addition to protecting us from the dangers of the watery cave).  That gating is especially important now with the emergence of White Nose Syndrome, which is decimating the nation's bat population.  WNS has reached Alabama, and is currently killing bats in Saunta and Fern Caves.  Right now, Hambrick Cave appears to be free of WNS, but human activity inside the cave could quickly change that.  So please, STAY OUT OF THE CAVE.

Instead, once you've arrived at the cave, get yourself a good position near the cave entrance and just enjoy the sunset.  Don't worry about it getting dark.  The bats will emerge starting around 7:30 and the emergence will pretty much be over by 8:15.  It will just be getting dark around that time and, on a clear night, there will be plenty of ambient light to guide you back to the put-in.  If you feel you must bring a flashlight, remember to never shine it in the cave -- it will frighten the bats and disrupt the emergence.  Phil Walton highly recommends carrying a red headlamp -- the bats can't see it, but other boaters can.  We certainly endorse that idea.

As you begin to see bats, you will notice that unlike with the emergence at Saunta Cave, these bats are not afraid to surround you.  Even sitting just a few inches out of the water on a kayak, you will see bats above, beside, and underneath your head, speeding in every direction to gather up insects.  It is one of the coolest things I've personally experienced.

While you are sitting there taking this in, you might cast your eyes toward the sky as well.  Hambrick Cave has a healthy population of Horned Owls, who will perch above the cave and occasionally swoop down and grab a bat mid-flight.  They look pretty majestic sitting atop the Cave canopy:


If you are lucky, you may also see several other types of wildlife.  Who knows, you might even see one of these guys perched on the shoreline:


If you are planning to do this trip for the first time, we strongly recommend using Unphiltered Kayaking.  Phil is an excellent guide, he emphasizes water safety, and best of all, he has some phenomenal kayaks for this sort of paddle.  If you want a slightly longer paddling trip, you might want to consider putting in at Honeycomb Campground.  It's located a little closer to Guntersville than the Dam, and probably 5 miles upriver from the Cave.  I suspect the trip would take closer to an hour, but you might ask Phil. 

Finally, if you are so inclined, this Cave actually is accessible by motor boat.  I found this highly disappointing at first, but the night we were there, the boaters were pretty respectful of the kayakers and the Cave itself.  I suppose if you really DID want to use Hambrick Bat Cave as a makeout spot, that would be the way to go.  But be careful with your more handsome dates -- this is a maternal colony.  There will be plenty of competition from the female bats, who don't get to mate until they arrive at their winter hibernation colonies.

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