Renowned for her contributions to outdoor and winter sports imagery, National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Sofia Jaramillo is commonly associated with the grandeur of snow-clad peaks. However, a recent expedition saw her trade in lofty altitudes for the depth of underground caves, revealing a host of remarkable experiences in the land above and beneath San Antonio, Texas.
Acclaimed photographer Sofia Jaramillo delves into the subterranean wonders at Texas’ Natural Bridge Caverns.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SARAH WILSON/GETTY IMAGES
Unearth the Subterranean Past
Driven by her enthusiasm for discovery, Jaramillo ventured into Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest known cave system in Texas, located approximately 30 miles northeast of downtown San Antonio. Erosion about 5,000 years ago led to a partial ceiling collapse in the cave, forming a 60-foot-long limestone bridge – the caverns’ namesake and the starting point for guided tours.
“Being in the cave almost feels like you’re on another planet. It’s exhilarating, and there’s a surprise around every corner.”
Housing numerous chambers adorned with illuminated formations, the caverns boast a unique beauty 180 feet beneath the surface. Humidity levels within the chambers are quite high, an important point to consider when planning your attire. Jaramillo embarked on her exploration with the Castle of the White Giants, a chamber characterized by large formations that contributed a dramatic backdrop to her photography. These formations evoke images of a watchtower, chandelier, and bacon strips, among other distinctive shapes.
Following the Castle of the White Giants, Jaramillo visited the Hall of the Mountain King, a chamber roughly the size of a football field. In this space, water weaves its way in various directions, resulting in unique layering and patterns within the rock. This hall was once home to an ancient bat roost, which abandoned the area after the ceiling collapse 5,000 years ago.
“When you’re in the cave, you’re so hyper-focused because there’s no distractions. It’s almost meditative.”
Embrace the Thrill of Wild Caving
Jaramillo enjoys experiences that push her boundaries and stimulate learning, and wild caving was precisely the adventure she was seeking. The Natural Bridge Caverns offers Adventure Tours that let visitors delve deep into unlit and unpaved sections of the cave, providing an intense and enriching experience.
Wild caving can be physically challenging due to the crawling through small spaces it requires, but the thrill it offers is incomparable. According to Jaramillo, it was one of the most unforgettable experiences she’s had in quite some time.
“When you go into these caves—which are millions and millions of years old—and you see a little piece of rock that took hundreds of years to build, you remember that we’re just a little blip in time.”
Witness 10,000-Year-Old Bat Colony’s Aerial Ballet
To continue her subterranean exploration in Texas, Jaramillo visited the Bracken Cave Preserve. This location witnesses the migration of over 15 million female Mexican free-tailed bats during the summer, forming the world’s largest known maternal bat colony. Bat Conservation International estimates the colony to be at least 10,000 years old based on a study of bat droppings.
“Watching and hearing a symphony of millions of bats leave this cave as the sun set and the colors of the sky turned purple and pink was magical.”
Jaramillo arrived at the cave during sunset, a time when the bats leave for their nocturnal insect hunt. Their flight from the cave to the meadows, lasting approximately four hours, is like a river in the sky. This daily spectacle, reminiscent of undisturbed nature in action, is a priority for Bat Conservation International’s preservation efforts. While the preserve is open to the public, advance booking is required to witness this natural wonder.
Embark on a Topside Adventure in New Braunfels and Beyond
Though Texas, especially the San Antonio region, is renowned for its underground marvels, it equally entices explorers with above-ground natural treasures.
Head north from the Natural Bridge Caverns and Bracken Cave Preserve area towards Guadalupe River State Park to enjoy the beauty of Texas Hill Country. The park offers ample opportunities for nature immersion, with river frontage and miles of hiking and biking trails.
The Guadalupe River, known for its exceptional fly fishing, is another draw. Local companies offer expert-guided tours and trips, particularly useful if you’re new to the sport.
Immerse yourself in local culture by visiting the Gruene Historic District, a charming, walkable town with rich German history. Jaramillo describes the town as a “hidden gem,” offering restaurants, shops, live music, wine tasting, and swing dance lessons.
For more exploration, check out New Braunfels. The town is home to Cypress Bend Park, a popular swimming spot with riverside picnic areas, and Prince Solms Park, offering a variety of water activities.
Experience the Scenic Journey to Canyon Lake
Jaramillo cherished the drive from Gruene to Canyon Lake via River Road. She recommends making the trip at sunset when the golden-hour light bathes the trees and foliage along the river. At Canyon Lake, she visited Overlook Park, offering beautiful vistas and easy access to the beach.
During her return trip to Gruene, she stopped by a picnic area off Highway 306 to photograph a field of bluebonnets. These state flowers bloom from late March to mid-May and can be seen along highways and open fields across Texas.
Jaramillo encourages keeping an open mind while traveling, ready to embrace the unexpected adventures that await. So, follow her lead, step off the well-trodden path, and discover the surprises that Texas holds for you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Texas Adventure
Who is Sofia Jaramillo?
Sofia Jaramillo is a National Geographic Photographer and Explorer known for her work in outdoor and winter sports.
What is the main focus of Sofia Jaramillo’s Texas adventure?
In her Texas adventure, Sofia Jaramillo focused on exploring the Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest known cave system in Texas, as well as other natural and cultural attractions in the San Antonio area.
What unique experiences does Natural Bridge Caverns offer?
Natural Bridge Caverns offers guided tours of multiple chambers with lit formations, wild caving tours that delve into unlit and unpaved sections of the cave, and unique experiences such as exploring the Castle of the White Giants and the Hall of the Mountain King.
What is wild caving?
Wild caving is a physically demanding activity involving exploration of unlit and unpaved parts of a cave. It often requires crawling through small spaces but is described as an exhilarating experience.
What is special about the Bracken Cave Preserve?
The Bracken Cave Preserve is home to more than 15 million female Mexican free-tailed bats during the summer, making it the world’s largest known maternal bat colony.
What other places did Sofia Jaramillo visit in Texas?
Apart from the Natural Bridge Caverns and the Bracken Cave Preserve, Sofia Jaramillo visited Guadalupe River State Park, the Gruene Historic District, and Canyon Lake. She also explored the towns of New Braunfels and Gruene.