Points of Interest

This month’s guide to notable American destinations and happenings

(Eric Jaffe)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Bats Out of Hell
ROCKSPRINGS, TEXAS—As evening falls, a massive whirlwind of four million bats rises from a cactus-studded limestone ridge, emerging in a flutter of beating wings from a 361-foot-deep cave called Devil's Sinkhole. These Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis mexicana), about the size of hummingbirds, will cover up to 150 miles and consume half their weight in flying insects, a total of some 20 tons, before they return at dawn.

"The bats eat the equivalent of ten elephants every night," says Ben Banahan, a volunteer guide to the attraction, which is protected by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Imagine if they didn't do that. There would be a lot more agricultural pests."

The roost, 140 miles west of San Antonio, is the state's third-deepest cave and gets its name from an 1870s pioneer who described it as "the outlet to hell, the devil's own sinkhole." Shaped like an inverted funnel with an opening just 50 feet wide, the underground cavern is larger than a football field, about 450 feet long and 250 feet across. Formed several thousand years ago when a cavern collapsed, it holds about 200 adult bats or 500 pups per square foot.

To protect the habitat, wildlife officials limit visitors to 40 at a time. If you want to view the mammals' spectacular takeoff, hurry: the colony skips out by the end of October, winging to its winter home in Mexico. It usually returns in April. —Melissa Gaskill

Haunted Big House
PHILADELPHIA—With its 30-foot-high stone walls and crenelated towers, Philadelphia's massive, medieval-looking Eastern State Penitentiary has a foreboding air even on a sunny afternoon. But on October nights, the place can be petrifying. That's when the ten-acre complex, first opened in 1829 and now a National Historic Landmark, gets taken over by "Terror Behind the Walls," a Halloween-season attraction that features 130 actors, high-tech effects and animatronic ghouls. Thrill seekers (as many as 6,000 a night) wear special 3-D glasses on one part of the tour and carry flashlights on another. But perhaps scariest of all is simply walking through Eastern State's cellblocks, whose crumbling walls and open cell doors exude a creepy menace.

Click here to view a timeline of the prison's history

With a price tag of $780,000, Eastern State was one of the most expensive buildings of its era. It had running water and central heat, innovations even the White House lacked. Its most notorious inmate? Al Capone. Finally shut down in 1971, the prison was eventually rescued from commercial redevelopment by a citizen-led preservation effort. It opened for tours in 1988 and attracts more than 140,000 visitors each year. "People come to be scared," says Jason Ohlsen, technical director of the terror effects, then "come back for the history." —Eils Lotozo

Wee Trees
ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA—This fall's biggest attraction at the state's 434-acre arboretum may be the smallest: tiny trees in seasonal red and gold. Using bonsai techniques on native Appalachian trees such as hawthorn, hornbeam and red maple, horticulturists have created scores of Lilliputian specimens, most under two feet tall. Many will be on display at the annual juried show of bonsai creations October 13 and 14.

The North Carolina Arboretum (www.ncarboretum.org) has the nation's largest number of miniaturized American plants, including flowering shrubs, wildflowers and tropical plants. "We use plants that other people won't use," says bonsai curator Arthur Joura, who began applying the ancient art of bonsai to local flora 15 years ago. "We're opening a new view of a really old thing."

Developed in China more than 1,000 years ago, and most often applied to evergreens, bonsai strives to create harmony and serenity through painstaking cultivation. An artist typically begins by potting young plants or seedlings in shallow containers, then repeatedly pruning the roots and tops to control growth.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus