National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Sofia Jaramillo is known for her work in outdoor and winter sports—it’s why you’ll often find her atop snow-capped mountains. But on a recent assignment, Jaramillo swapped dizzying heights for subterranean depths and discovered incredible, wild adventures both above and below the surface in San Antonio, Texas.
Discover ancient history underground
Passionate about exploration, Jaramillo headed straight to Natural Bridge Caverns, Texas’ largest known cave system located about 30 miles northeast of downtown San Antonio. Approximately 5,000 years ago, erosion caused part of its ceiling to collapse, leaving behind a 60-foot-long limestone bridge that is now the caverns’ namesake and the starting point for commercial tours.
The caverns are home to multiple chambers, each filled with artfully lit formations. Situated over 180 feet below ground, the chambers are extremely humid, which is worth keeping in mind when it comes to the dress code. Jaramillo first explored the Castle of the White Giants. As the room’s name suggests, it contains some of the caverns’ largest formations, which created a striking backdrop for Jaramillo's photography. They resemble a watchtower, chandelier, and bacon strips, among other distinctive shapes.
The next highlight of Jaramillo's tour was the Hall of the Mountain King, a chamber that's close to the length of a football field. Here, water flows in many directions, creating noticeable layers and markings within the rock. The hall once housed an ancient bat roost, but the colony departed after the ceiling collapsed 5,000 years ago.
Take a walk on the wild (caving) side
Jaramillo gravitates toward experiences that allow her to push herself and learn something new—and wild caving offered just that. The Natural Bridge Caverns hosts an array of Adventure Tours that allow visitors to get “down and dirty” by exploring parts of the cave that are not commercially lit or paved.
Wild caving can be physically demanding—it often involves crawling through small spaces on hands and knees—but completely exhilarating at the same time. Jaramillo described the experience as one of the “coolest things I’ve done in a long time.”
Experience nature in motion with a 10,000-year-old bat colony
To continue her Texas cave exploration, Jaramillo headed to the Bracken Cave Preserve, a short drive from the caverns. More than 15 million female Mexican free-tailed bats migrate here for the summer, making it the world's largest known maternal bat colony. Based on a sampling of bat guano by Bat Conservation International, the colony is estimated to be at least 10,000 years old.
Jaramillo visited the cave at sunset when the bats depart for their nightly insect hunt. It takes the bats around four hours to leave the cave, and the flapping of their wings creates a sound similar to rain falling. They fly out to the meadows each night in a riverlike fashion to feast on moths and other winged insects before returning in the early morning.
It’s a rare glimpse of undisturbed nature in action, which Bat Conservation International is keen to protect. While the preserve is open to members of the public, visitors must make advance reservations to visit the bats.
Go above ground in New Braunfels and beyond
Texas and the San Antonio area offer much below the surface, but there are equally incredible adventures and enchanting natural wonders above ground, too.
Drive north from Natural Bridge Caverns and the Bracken Cave Preserve area toward Guadalupe River State Park to soak up the beauty of the Texas Hill Country. With plenty of sweeping ranchland views and green rolling hills, the journey is as enjoyable as the destination. The park offers plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in nature, with four miles of river frontage and 13 miles of hiking and biking trails.
The Guadalupe River also has some of the best fly fishing in Texas. Peak fishing season occurs in the spring, though rainbow and brown trout can be found in the river year-round. There are plenty of local companies available for guides and trips if you’re in need of an expert.
For a taste of local culture, head to the nearby Gruene Historic District, which Jaramillo describes as a “hidden gem.” This picturesque, walkable area is steeped in German history and has plenty to do and see, including restaurants, shops, and easy access to the Guadalupe River. The town of Gruene also offers a packed event schedule, featuring live music, wine tasting, and swing dance lessons. Jaramillo names the Grapevine as a great place to stop and enjoy a glass of wine or a beer. Their outdoor patio seating is shaded by trees and makes for a relaxed afternoon hangout with friends.
New Braunfels is another noteworthy town to explore. Cypress Bend Park is a local swimming hole with plenty of riverside picnic spots, and Prince Solms Park offers a variety of water activities, including river tubing, kayaking, and snorkeling.
Take a scenic drive to Canyon Lake
One of Jaramillo’s favorite activities was the trip from Gruene to Canyon Lake along River Road. The 10.6-mile scenic route crosses the Guadalupe River four times and features an array of camping spots. Jaramillo suggests making the drive at sunset to catch the golden-hour light illuminating the trees and foliage along the river.
Upon reaching Canyon Lake, Jaramillo headed to Overlook Park, a day-use area with—as its name implies—plenty of scenic overlooks. From the parking lot, you can take a trail straight down to the beach.
On her return trip to Gruene, Jaramillo stopped at a Canyon Lake picnic area off Highway 306 to photograph a field of bluebonnets. These stunning flowers bloom from late March to mid-May and can be found on the side of highways and in open fields across Texas. They’re the state flower for a reason!
Jaramillo likes to travel with an open mind, allowing herself to be surprised by the adventures that unfold. Take her lead and explore beyond the beaten path—you never know what you might find.