Just a mile south of where Twain's childhood homes stands in downtown Hannibal is a picturesque park known for something not found easily in Twain's tales: bats.
For most people, the Mississippi River hamlet of Hannibal conjures up images of Mark Twain, a wooden raft, and a certain sense of Americana. After all, the town’s nickname is, aptly, America’s Hometown.
One of the oldest towns in Missouri, Hannibal is closely linked to Twain’s stories, often set in Hannibal or based on his childhood in Hannibal, as popular overseas as they are in America. But beyond Hannibal’s association with the prolific author, the town has other, lesser-known claims to fame.
Just a mile south of where Twain’s childhood homes stands in downtown Hannibal is a picturesque park known for something not found easily in Twain’s tales: bats. Purchased, created, and dedicated less than five years ago, Sodalis Nature Preserve on the south side of Hannibal is one of the most interesting parks in the state because of its association with the nighttime flyers.
Sodalis – part of the Indiana bat’s scientific name – claims a population of bats more than 10 times the human population of the town, about 200,000 in total. In October, the swarms of bats are clearly visible at dusk at the park’s amphitheater at the end of a paved trail.
The hilly Hannibal, not a commonly imagined scenery for otherwise flat northeast Missouri, has several caves boasting thousands of bats each. Once a quarry, the Conservation Fund purchased the land from Canadian company Enbridge for the creation of the park. The fund purchased the land in part to protect the bats, the population of which has suffered greatly from White Nose Syndrome, a debilitating disease brought to the U.S. in the mid-2000s presumably by outdoorsmen from Europe. Now instead of quarry, the Indiana bats living in Hannibal – approximately a third of the global population – have a safe space to call home.
Humans are no longer permitted in the caves. Thirty-three cave entries are barricaded by steel beams with slate wide enough for bats to go in and out freely.
Approaching the caves from a paved trail, hikers will notice a temperature drop, as the cave maintain a cool environment year-round. The trail is paved but still has some strenuous uphill sections, providing interesting views of the historic town to the north.
The Hannibal Parks and Recreation Department regularly plans guided walks, scavenger hunts, and night hikes in the park, Hannibal’s second-largest.
A more rustic trail, Pirate Ridge, offers a retreat further into the hillside and off the beaten path. Once a popular spot for all terrain vehicles, only non-motorized vehicles are permitted in the park. The park also serves as a living laboratory for scientists performing research on White Nose Syndrome and possible prevention or treatment techniques. Volunteers and scientist regularly take bat censuses in the cave to determine the population of bats residing within. Bats have become a secondary mascot for the city.
If bats aren’t your thing, they are easy to avoid in the daytime. Enjoy a flat trail next to Bear Creek that doesn’t climb up to the caves.