One of the most incredible sights in the world is seeing the nightly routine of a colony of bats leaving their roost to find their dinner. Some colonies can be in the millions. Seeing the bats in Austin is an awe inspiring moment.
The Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin Texas at times plays host to over a million Mexican Free Tail bats. I’ve been blessed myself to see them multiple times, always wanting to go watch when I visited family in the area.
About the Bats
The Mexican Free Tail bats are a medium sized bat native to the Americas. They are one of the most abundant bats in the world and one of the most plentiful in the Americas.
People have a tendency to have a lot of fear of bats. But you shouldn’t! These bats provide an incredible service to the world (and in particular humans) by controlling the insect population, thus protecting crops and other plants in their feeding areas.
The bats have very long tails that are nearly half their body (which gives them their name). They have large wide ears, they use for their echolocation. The bats are not blind, although they utilize their echolocation mostly since they operate so much in the dark.
Mother’s will actually catch their young when they are born and then latch them onto the roost wall. Bats claw natural position is in a clamped position which allows them to hang on so easily.
The bats can fly up to 100 miles per hour. They can move from their roost sometimes even a mile from the surface in merely a few minutes!
The bats migrate between areas in the United states and further south depending on the weather.
One interesting note. The Mexican free-tail and Brazilian free-tail bats are actually the same species. They were named based on where they migrated to, and it was later discovered they are the same species.
About the Bats in Austin
The colony of free-tail can swell upwards of 1 million members during the high points in the season. They tend to spend late March through late October in Austin and migrate and live in Mexico outside of those times.
The bats have not always been in Austin. It was in the 1980s that the Congress Street Bridge underwent renovations that turned out to provide a perfect breeding ground for Free Tail bats. Actually it’s considered a maternity spot as bats come here and breed as well as live/migrate.
The bridge plays host to a regular colony as well as a migrating one. During periods of time, bats that are further away may stop and use bridge before heading further south or north. You’ll see this situation in other areas such as Carlsbad Caverns NP.
When is the Best Time to See Bats in Austin
Generally speaking the bats are in Austin from spring until fall. So from about Late March through Late October you’ll be able to see bats within Austin. I was recently there on Halloween and still saw lots of bats.
However, early or late in the season, the number of bats will be fewer. You’ll often find your best bet during the summer when the numbers tend to be at their highest.
The bats tend to come out starting from about 1 hour before sunset. However, they don’t always come out this early and sometimes will even wait until after sunset before leaving. The bats tend to return very early in the morning. Think 3-4 am, usually before dawn.
You should arrive to see the bats about 1 hour before sunset. Be patient. You’ll definitely hear the bats in the bridge when they are in town. You can’t predict exactly when they’ll leave, but when they do, they tend to make an entrance.
Do the Bats in Austin Come Out Every Night?
The short answer is no.
So generally speaking the bats will come out. However, if the weather is bad, too windy, etc, they may not actually come out. You’ll often see a couple “scout bats” come out and check the weather before the greater colony exists.
Also, if the weather is bad, the bats may delay coming out until later in the evening. So if the weather isn’t good, it may not be worth waiting “hoping” the bats come out.
But if the weather is clear, warm, you’ll likely see the bats.
Best Ways to See the Congress Street Bridge Bats
There are actually quite a few great ways to see the bats. Below are suggestions on how to best see the bats during your visit.
From the Bridge
People line up along the walkway on the bridge to see the bats. You can generally see people lining up on the bridge when the bats are in the city.
The bats can fly out in either direction, however, you’ll see them more regularly fly out east from the bridge. So we recommend staying on that end of the bridge if you can. Also more bats tend to be on the south side.
They also tend to fly out at all areas of the bridge. However, early/late season they may congregate to one side. During my most recent visit they tended to be more concentrated on the south side of the bridge.
From the banks of the River
There are two different trails (Ann and Roy Butler Hike Trail and Roberta Crenshaw Pedestrian Walkway) on either end of the bridge that you can walk along and under the bridges. Both provide great viewing opportunities for the bats as they exit.
On the north-east side of the bridge, along the Roberta Crenshaw Pedestrian Walkway there is even a small metal viewing platform that juts out into the water. This is a very popular place to see the bats as well, so be sure to come early if you want to get a good place to stand. You can get a good view from anywhere on the platform. But if you want to get good photos with the bridge and bats, get close to the water.
From the Water
There are multiple options for viewing from the water. You’ll often get a better view from the water and less obstruction from other people.
First, take a bat boat tour. But that’s a popular way to see the bats. Even if you don’t see the bats, they are a pretty fun ride out on the water. You can get some great views from the water and bats with Lone Star Cruises or Capital Cruises.
You can kayak or stand up paddleboard. Austin Kayak Tours or Live Love Paddle are two great options to check out. Having your own control lets you get closer and further from the bridge. Something you can’t do with a tour.
Austin Bat Fest
Held Annually in Late August (since 2005), the Austin Bat Fest is the premier time to visit and experience the bats. August is the height of bat season in Austin and the Million+ bats in Austin take center stage.
There are various activities slated for bat fest, from costume contests, to concerts, programs, and more. There are a ton of food, arts and crafts, and local drinks to experience during the festival as well.
There are also quite a few children’s programs too! It’s certainly fun for the entire family.
Hotels in the Area
There are a lot of great hotels in the area that are worth staying. And the following also provide good opportunities to view the bats.
Hyatt Regency Austin: Located on the South Bank of the River close to the Congress Street Bridge. It provides quite good opportunity to view the bats even from your room. Just be sure your room has river view.
The LINE Austin: Located along the river on the north side of the Colorado River. Not as great as the Hyatt Regency, but can be pretty good still.
Four Seasons Austin: My least favorite of the options. Well except for the fact that the four season is a great hotel. It still has good views of the water, but I further away from the bridge than others. You can still see the bats, but I still think the Hyatt is the best option (for value too).
Where to Park for the Bats
There are several lots in the area that allow for paid parking for viewing the Bats. The Austin American-Statesman is one of the popular places to get a spot.
If you are like me, and want to save money. You could try to find street parking on the north side of the bridge. There’s lots of street parking generally available. Just check the times for when you need to pay the meter and otherwise. Sundays are great in that they are free to park.