I’ve said it over and over: Alabama is a beautiful state. Its landscapes — the canyons, waterfalls, overlooks — are stunning. The state’s biodiversity is unmatched, ranking it number one in terms of the number of species of flora and fauna found along the banks of its thousands of miles of rivers, creeks, and streams.
When it comes to the state’s wildlife, there is one amazing spectacle that you just have to see for yourself. It takes place in northern Alabama along one of the fingers of Lake Guntersville. As the sun slowly sets over the lake, you stand in the gathering dusk with a group of like-minded individuals on an observation platform near the wide opening of a cave waiting patiently for what’s to come.
And then it happens. Over 400,000 bats burst from the cave, swarming and fluttering seemingly aimlessly overhead, searching for their next meal.
This incredible aerial show occurs nightly from late spring through summer at Alabama’s Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge in Scottsboro.
It is truly a unique and wondrous sight. If you are frightened of the mere thought of these flying rodents swarming only a few feet above your head, don’t be. The bats won’t bother you. They’re just hunting insects for dinner.
Before we visit the cave and tell you how you can experience this miracle of nature yourself, let’s talk a little bit about our performers – the bats themselves.
A Bat Primer
The two species of bats that make up this frantic swarm are the endangered gray bat and the Indiana bat.
The gray bat is exceedingly small, weighing in somewhere between a quarter and a half ounce. What they lack in weight is made up for with an impressive wingspan of 11 to 13 inches.
The warm and cozy confines of Sauta Cave are much to their liking, so much so that scientists studying them – known as chiropterologists – believe that there are over 400,000 of them living within. That’s 40 percent of all of the species in North America.
Sauta Cave is known as a “major maternity cave.” The bats mate in the fall, and their offspring (known as “pups”) are born in late May and early June. Only 20 to 25 days later, the newborn pups can fly on their own.
Sadly, the gray bat population is being decimated by a disease known as white-nose syndrome. Described as “one of the worst wildlife diseases in modern times,” the fungus is infecting thousands of caves across the country killing over 6 million gray bats so far. Fortunately, Sauta Cave is free of the disease, allowing the bats to thrive there.
Sharing the cave with the gray bats are Indiana bats, but they only move in for the winter. With a similar weight as the gray bat but a smaller wingspan of between 9 and 11 inches, the Indiana bat leaves the cave in spring to mate and give birth to its bat babies in June under the loose bark of trees that grow near streams.
A Bit Of Cave History
The cave that plays host to the bats has had quite a history dating back hundreds of years ago when the Cherokee once owned the land. During the Civil War, the cave was mined for saltpeter, a key ingredient of gunpowder that is made from bat dung or guano.
In the 1920s, the cave was a Prohibition-era speakeasy, and in the 1960s, it was designated as a fallout shelter during the Cold War.
In 1978, the federal government established the Blowing Wind Cave National Wildlife Refuge to help protect the endangered bat population. The refuge was later renamed the Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge in 1999 after the finger of Lake Guntersville where the 264-acre refuge resides.
Viewing the emergence of the bats is truly an unforgettable spectacle. The best months for viewing are between June and August when the most bats emerge.
The show begins about 30 minutes after sunset, just as the last light of day begins to wane. At first, you will see only a handful swoop out of the cave, like scouts paving the way for what is to follow. Then suddenly, the main population explodes from the cave, filling the evening sky, fluttering and swooping around you, sometimes only inches from your head. But as I said before, they are harmless. Just enjoy the show.
The entire display lasts about an hour before true dark sets in and the bats are difficult to see. It is a truly breathtaking experience that both adults and children will enjoy.
Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge is located on the north side of Lake Guntersville on U.S. 72 in Scottsboro. Admission to the refuge is free.
The cave itself is gated so that people cannot enter and disturb the bat population or possibly contaminate it. Even with the gate, do not go near the entrance for the safety of the bats.
Viewing The Bats
To view the bats, park off to the side of the refuge’s gate on U.S. 72 being sure not to block it. From there, walk around the gate for a quarter-mile hike down to the observation platform that is located close to the cave entrance.
You will need to bring a few things with you to make the experience more enjoyable. You will have a little wait before the bats emerge so bring along water to drink, but please carry bottles and wrappers out with you when you leave.
You will need to bring a flashlight. It will be dark when you leave and you will need it to navigate your way back to your vehicle. Please do not shine the light at the cave or the bats.
And be sure to bring an umbrella, raincoat, or poncho. This isn’t for the weather, but to protect you from incoming bat droppings. It’s what we call the “ick factor.”
The refuge is open daily and there is no admission fee. While you can visit Sauta Cave anytime, I suggest that you take advantage of the refuge’s Discovering Bats at Sauta Cave program where on select evenings, a Federal Wildlife Service naturalist teaches you about the cave and its inhabitants.
Exploring Lake Guntersville
Be sure to set aside some time during your visit to Sauta Cave to explore and experience the charming towns and natural beauty found around Lake Guntersville.
The town of Scottsboro is best known for being the home of the Unclaimed Baggage Store.
Within the massive store, you will find incredible bargains on items that were left unclaimed by airline passengers and shipping companies. Everything from clothes and electronics to books and toys – even a complete line of snow skiing gear.
And it’s not just everyday household items you will find there. There is quite the collection of unique and unusual items as well. You just never know what you will find from day to day.
Only 30 minutes south of the refuge on the north side of the lake is one of the state’s best-kept secrets – Honeycomb Natural Bridge and Ghost Creek Falls.
While this 32-acre property on County Road 19 in Grant, Alabama, is privately owned, visitors are encouraged to stop and visit, and you won’t regret it.
The property is dotted with colorful flowers, limestone bluffs, and its centerpiece – a 250-foot-long natural rock bridge, the remains of a limestone sinkhole that collapsed years ago.
Strolling through the grounds you will also come to a beautiful ribbon waterfall that tumbles down into a sinkhole, the scene framed with brilliant seasonal foliage.
Crossing the lake we come to the town of Guntersville. This quaint lakeside town is a nature lover’s dream come true.
There is hiking and mountain biking along the 36 miles of trail at Lake Guntersville State Park, watching bald eagles during the town’s Eagle Awareness Weekends, and kayaking and fishing in the lake and its many inlets.
The streets are lined with marvelously preserved historic homes while downtown is ringed with excellent dining, shopping, and entertainment venues.
End your day in Guntersville with a walk along the banks of the lake on the aptly-named Sunset Walking Trail for a view over the shimmering water as the setting sun puts on a dazzling color show.