Free Tourist Fun: Congress Avenue Bridge Bats

Sometimes you find yourself living in a city for, oh, 16 years, and you look back and think to yourself “How is it that I made it this long without seeing or doing THAT?!” It happens.

In our case, THAT happened to be going downtown to see the Congress Avenue bats take flight. All three of my girls are bat crazy, so it was a must-do before school started for us. I’ll warn you right now, my bat photos are less than stellar. My iPhone camera just wasn’t quick enough to catch them very well, but trust me, the view was spectacular.

Austin is home to the largest urban colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in North America. Each night, from April to October, an estimated 1,500,000 bats emerge from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge at sundown on their nightly search for food. Some quick bat facts:

  • The bats made the Congress Avenue Bridge home after it was renovated in 1980. 15 crevices underneath the bridge make the perfect roosts for bats.
  • Each night the bats consume about 10,000 – 30,000 pounds of insects.
  • The Mexican free-tailed bat is the official “flying mammal” of the State of Texas. I never knew there was such a thing to be official!
  • Although the bats can be seen from April through October, the best time to see them is late August or early September, when the babies, or pups, come out with their mamas.

Lovely Austin sunset on the west side of the bridge.

You’ll want to arrive early to get a good spot for viewing. The bats generally come out right after the sun sets, but they could emerge up to 30 minutes before or after.

The most important thing to remember about Austin’s bats is that they are wild animals and should be treated as such. Bats are not to be handled or touched in any manner. That being said, some up close viewers may get a little too close of an encounter, but the bats in general are gentle creatures. Just don’t touch them on purpose, okay?

See those blurs? Those are bats.

Blurs = bats

The black cloud of bats is a sight to behold, and there are several places from which you can get a great view:

Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge – Arrive early to get a spot along the railing of the Congress Avenue Bridge, facing east, and watch the bats come out right underneath you. Most people start filling up the center of the bridge first, then those arriving fill in along the sides, but I’ll tell you a secret. The first bats start coming out on the south end of the bridge (the Austin-American Statesman end), but be patient! Their exits gradually move to the north end, so no matter where you are along the railing, you’re bound to get a good view of bats right under your feet. We were more towards the north end, so we saw the bats flying into the sky, and then a few minutes later, they were coming out right under our feet which the kids thought was super cool.

Just a reminder about Congress Avenue, it is a pretty busy street, so make sure young children and pets are within your reach so they don’t wander into traffic. Between the cars and the fact that my three-year-old could easily slip through the railing, I was a ball of nerves while we waited.

Austin-American Stateman Bat Observation Area – Spread out a blanket on the grass on the southeast end of the bridge and watch the bats emerge and head east in search of food. I’ve never watched from this vantage point, but the lawn provides an unobstructed view of the bats taking flight.

Radisson Hotel & Suites/TGI Fridays (111 E. Cesar Chavez) – For one of the best views of the bat flight, take a seat on the patio at TGI Fridays in the Radisson Hotel & Suites right on the shore of Lady Bird Lake. Reservations may be required to get a good seat. You can also park in the Radisson garage and head up to the top for a good view, for a small per-hour parking fee.

Lady Bird Lake – As sundown nears, boats, canoes, and kayaks start gathering in the waters along the east side of the bridge. If you’re looking for a fantastic photo op, this is where you’re going to get it. Unfortunately I wasn’t on a boat and didn’t get a fantastic photo, but you can find several examples on the good old Google. Boat options include:

  • Capital Cruises – Capital Cruises’ internationally famous bat watching excursion departs nightly approximately 30 minutes before sunset and are approximately one hour in length. Cost is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $5 for kids ages 3-12. Make reservations online or call 512-480-9264.
  • Lonestar Riverboat – One hour tours depart approximately 30 minutes prior to sunset. Cost is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $7 for kids age 3-12. Reservations are recommended at 512-327-1388.
  • Canoe/Kayak – Have your own canoe or kayak? Take it out on the lake for the best view of the bats. Capital Cruises also offers boat rentals. The people at Zilker Park Boat Rentals need all of their boats locked up by dark, so unfortunately that’s not a good option for bat viewing.

Where to park

We opted to park at City Hall because we felt we were running short on time, and didn’t want to have to search. We knew it was only a few blocks from the bridge and that parking was only $7. Parking is available at the Radisson Hotel & Suites for a small per-hour fee. Parking meters in the downtown area are NOT enforced after 6 p.m. Monday – Wednesday. For more information on parking meters, visit the City of Austin website. For a map of downtown garages, view this parking map.

For more information on Austin’s bats, visit Bat Conservation International. You can also call the Bat Hotline at 512-327-9721.

Have you visited the bats recently? What tips can you share?

Leigh Ann Torres is a freelance writer and blogger living in Austin with her husband and three girls. She’s a pretty good cook, a mediocre photographer, and a horrible housekeeper. She writes about the good, the bad, and the ridiculous of life with twins plus one at Genie in a Blog.

About the Author

Heidi Gollub
Heidi Gollub is the founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning website Free Fun in Austin.com. When not running around on adventures with her five children–ages three to 15–she volunteers for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau and shares content with the local news.  Recently, Heidi was a speaker at Mom 2.0 and the Texas Conference for Women.