Exploring Colorado’s Underground Worlds
Before me lay the abyss. Placing my hands on the blue-gray limestone walls, I carefully leaned out to have a better look.
Although this was my first view of the shaft, I felt as if I knew it like a long lost friend. Since my first travels underground, I had heard remarkable stories about the Mystery Pit, an unexplored fissure deep within Coloradoâ€™s Hubbardâ€™s Cave……..
Discovered by William Henry Hubbard, his brother Charles and Griffith Jones during an 1893 hunting and prospecting expedition, Hubbardâ€™s is a splendid solutional cavern on the south rim of Glenwood Canyon. Overlooking the Shoshone Power Plant and Interstate Highway 70, Hubbardâ€™s Cave contains 1.2 miles of surveyed passageways.
In Glenwood Springs many years ago, I visited one of the Hubbards to find out more about his familyâ€™s namesake cave. Welcoming me into his home, he reported he knew the Mystery Pit from boyhood explorations five decades earlier. With friends, they tossed rocks into the shaft to hear them â€śbang and clunkâ€ť for several minutes. Curious as to the pitâ€™s depth, one brave boy offered to be lowered on a rope to see if he could reach the bottom. Lantern in hand, he dropped out of sight into the gloomy depths. Unfortunately, the rope soon played out and he was pulled back up without solving the mystery. Allegedly 1,400 feet deep, the Mystery Pit once was a popular attraction, and visitors took the opportunity to toss rocks into it. By 1951, when National Speleological Society cavers first visited Hubbardâ€™s Cave at the invitation of the city of Glenwood Springs, the pit had become hopelessly blocked with rocks and debris.
But here I was, leaning out over the fissure, hoping to catch a glimpse of its depth and better understand its mystery. About 15 feet down, I could see the dirt and rock plug appearing very much out of place. To my left, I noticed a steeply ascending tube â€“ the Devilâ€™s Slide â€“ that probably was the source for much of the rubble.
Could this pit be 1,400 feet deep? Almost certainly not â€“ 1,400 feet would put its base lower than the Colorado River! Quite possibly, however, the pit might extend to the base of the Leadville Limestone, which in this part of Glenwood Canyon was a hundred feet or more below the lip of the pit. Such depths are not unheard of in Colorado caves, which generally are horizontal in nature. Those caves with some depth, such as nearby Glenwood Caverns, do so by following a dipping rock stratum.
Glenwood Caverns is an exceptional choice for an initial visit underground in Colorado. Though it has 278 feet of known vertical development, improvements to the two commercially developed portions of the cave make it easy for underground enthusiasts to tour its corridors with only a little exertion.
Initially shown to the public by capitalist Charles W. Darrow in 1896, the cave was fully developed in 1999 by Steve and Jeanne Beckley. Incorporating the former Fairy Cave tour route shown from 1896 to the start of World War I, todayâ€™s tour also includes the spectacular lower cave, discovered in the late 1950s. Stairways descend through the spacious Barn to Kingâ€™s Row, one of the most exquisite of Coloradoâ€™s known cave passageways. Filled with colorful stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone, Kingâ€™s Row is a satisfying highlight of the tour. It also is the lowest point on the route, requiring visitors to ascend the stairways of the Barn back to the surface.
For the more energetic visitor, guided trips into an undeveloped region of the upper cave are available. Requiring visitors to squeeze and crawl through narrow and low tubes first explored in the early 1950s, several interesting and memorable chambers are visited, such as The Canyon, with its Bright Angel Trail and North Rim. Visitors also see the Pendant Room, the first big discovery of 1950s, and the Drum Room, where a false floor provides outstanding resonance for drumming. Visitors dirty and tired by their subterranean crawling will welcome the nearby Iron Mountain Station, where the Exclamation Point restaurant offers food and views of Glenwood Springs. The modern Iron Mountain Tramway provides all season access to the Station and to Glenwood Caverns.
In the shadow of Pikes Peak, the historic Cave of the Winds north of Manitou Springs offers several tours to fit all skill levels. Developed in 1881 as the regionâ€™s first attraction, the cave annually hosts over 180,000 visitors from all over the world. For many, the three-quarter mile Discovery Tour provides a satisfying excursion. With a paved trail and electric lights, visitors examine most of the caveâ€™s better-known chambers, including Canopy Hall, opened in 1881, the Temple of Silence, opened in 1929, and the Valley of Dreams, opened in 1935. The Adventure Room, opened in 1987, serves as the turn-around point for Discovery Tour groups. It is the starting point for the Lantern Tour, which follows corridors deeper into Temple Mountain.
Lantern Tour visitors use hand held lanterns to light their way, providing an opportunity to experience the cave as did 19 th century visitors. Winding through the mountain, the tour follows pathways in the long-closed Manitou Grand Cavern, a former competitor to the Cave of the Winds. Publicly exhibited from 1885 to1906, the Grand Caverns was the more popular of the two commercial attractions in the 1890s. It fame attracted such notables as General William Tecumseh Sherman. From the caveâ€™s former entrance room, visitors pass towering stone monuments erected in the late 1880s to Presidents Ulysses Grant, Abraham Lincoln and General Robert E. Lee. The tour visits the Opera House, Loverâ€™s Lane and the airy Grand Concert Hall, one of Coloradoâ€™s largest underground chambers.
The Cave of the Winds offers a third tour by reservation to another former commercial cave, Manitou Cave. Opened in 1912, Manitou Cave lasted only two seasons before being bought out and closed by its better-known rival. Tour groups today follow a portion of the original tour route (part of which is believed to be buried from a 1921 flood) before climbing and squeezing through a tight crawlway into the Deepwater Section, discovered in 1991. More spacious than the former commercial section, Deepwater occasionally has a trickle of water that fills a small pool. Another option is to squeeze through a low crawl into the Centipede Section, a part of the cave known by local schoolboys in the late 1890s. It was closed by order of the Manitou City Council in 1909 after a Kansas visitor caught her hair on fire with a candle she was holding. In the rush to put out the flames, the groupâ€™s candles were extinguished, leaving them to crawl blindly in the dark until they discovered the caveâ€™s entrance.
Todayâ€™s underground visitors usually donâ€™t use candles, preferring instead electric headlamps, hardhats and other suitable cave exploring gear. While such gear is readily available from outdoor stores, some visitors instead use handheld flashlights, which invariably are dropped and broken or run out of battery power, leaving its users in the dark.
Exploring on Your Own
South of Eagle, the White River National Forestâ€™s Fulford Cave is a favorite destination of underground explorers of all abilities. Invariably each summer, visitors are lost or injured in the cave, though it is not particularly difficult or complex. It is challenging, however, to the untrained visitor, who may become disoriented and lose their way either on the way in or out. The caveâ€™s underground stream is the big attraction, reached by following a well-established route over the Devilâ€™s Washboard, a low passage linking two larger corridors. A splendid waterfall near the head of the stream is the destination of most visitors.
Near Buford, another White River National Forest cave offers a larger, more impressive underground stream. Spring Cave, located along the South Fork of the White River, contains Coloradoâ€™s largest cave stream. It regularly floods in the spring, often completely filling the cave with water. By late summer, however, the stream volume lowers considerably. Visitors can then follow a series of corridors along the stream to an emerald-green lake and the noisy Thunder Road cascades.
Unfortunately, Spring Cave, like many other well-known Colorado caves, is tarnished by the thoughtless vandalism of past visitors. Graffiti covers the cave walls and many stalactites are long removed. Recognizing that vandalism to caves lasts forever, the Colorado State Legislature in March 2004 passed a Cave Protection Act, which provides for penalties for cave vandalism. This new law protects both public and private caves.
At Hubbardâ€™s Cave, the plugging of the Mystery Pit with rocks and debris is one of the many examples of thoughtless vandalism the cave has suffered in the 111 years it has been known. For many years, a historic outdoor Coca-Cola thermometer graced the caveâ€™s entrance room (always reading 31 degrees). Sadly, it has been missing since the late 1970s.
Despite the vandalism, Hubbardâ€™s Cave visitors enjoy its level walking passages and sparkling white gypsum deposits. Access to the cave is by a steep and winding four-wheel drive road leading to the rim of Glenwood Canyon.
As to the Mystery Pit, its mystery remains: is this the same pit that a teenaged boy was lowered into during the 1920s but failed to reach the bottom? To resolve the mystery, a group of cavers attempted to excavate the debris and unclog the fissure, hoping to find lost passage. Though air could be felt drifting through the debris, the group also heard voices from the other side â€“ another group of cavers who walked around to another passage and found a tight squeeze blocked with rock.
Was this a simple connection between the Mystery Pit and the caveâ€™s eastern-most corridor? Or, was this another passage connecting to the Mystery Pit, which to this day is choked with rocks and dirt?
Colorado cavers donâ€™t know â€“ thatâ€™s the excitement and adventure of Colorado underground.
Cave exploration and study in Colorado in the latter 20 th century grew remarkably, in part due to the influence of the Colorado Grotto. The stateâ€™s oldest chapter of the 11,000-member National Speleological Society, the Denver-based caving club helped bring order and direction to cave exploration, survey and scientific study in Coloradoâ€™s caves. Chartered in November 1951, the Colorado Grotto is the stateâ€™s largest club, with over 150 active members. Through the decades, the Colorado Grotto has been involved with nearly every major discovery in the state, as well as exploration and science in caves from Montana to New Mexico to old Mexico and overseas. Other active Society-chartered chapters can be found in Glenwood Springs, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and Northglenn.
Like most caving groups nationwide, cavers in Colorado can be very close mouthed and secretive about their discoveries and the caves they explore and study. While new members are always welcomed, cavers generally do not advertise their interest in the underground nor do they actively seek publicity in the popular media. This is simply a reflection of the delicate nature of caves and the potential for overuse and abuse by unknowing or uncaring visitors.
Unlike cave-rich states like West Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee, Colorado caves are relatively few in number. There are only 12 caves with over a mile of surveyed passage â€“ the great majority of the stateâ€™s known caves have less than 1000 feet of passage. Hundreds have less than 100 feet.
In bringing attention to the caves of Colorado, the publicâ€™s interest naturally is greater regarding the stateâ€™s longer and more complex caves. While the Cave of the Winds and Glenwood Caverns are commercially operated as visitor attractions and receive additional protection, the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management manage the majority of the others. In the publicâ€™s interest, these government agencies must manage resources on their lands to the best of their abilities. Public-owned caves deemed to be â€śsignificantâ€ť are provided special protection from abuse through the 1988 National Cave Protection Act. Violations of this federal law are punishable through fines and jail terms.
Most Colorado caves are considered by cave scientists to be low-impact. That is, it takes only a small amount of intentional or unintentional impact to bring lasting damage to the resource. Damage can range from breaking of delicate speleothems â€“ stalactites, stalagmites, columns, helictites, etc. â€“ to tracking mud onto pristine floors to impacting or destroying underground life.
A Sad Relict
Near the city of Glenwood Springs, along the northern wall of scenic Glenwood Canyon, is a sad example of a once beautiful cave. Following a century of abuse and neglect, cavers seldom visit the Cave of the Clouds overlooking Interstate Highway 70.
A commercial attraction in the 1890s, Clouds is a shadow of its former self today. Visitors to this once wondrous cave have chipped and smashed nearly every stalactite and stalagmite that earlier delighted paying visitors. Spray-painted names cover the walls. Dust kicked up from countless visitors covers the remaining formations with a uniform gray color. Even if the private owners decided to build a gate on the entrance and restrict access to a selected few, the cave will never again regain its former glory. It stands alone and abandoned, a reminder to all who venture underground about how man can soil some of this planetâ€™s most beautiful areas.
Surprisingly, few caves in Colorado contain streams or lakes. Most are dusty or filled with boot-sucking mud. The sound of water flowing underground is melodic, a pleasing change from the exceptional quiet of most caves. More than once I have been surprised to hear the beating of my own heart when waiting alone for the return of companions exploring side passageways.
The complete and total darkness of caves can be intoxicating. Although some commercial cave tour guides claim the darkness is a certain percentage darker than the darkest night, it is technically much more than that. Caves are darker than any overcast night or even deepest outer space, for there are no distant stars or planets to bring forth light. The darkness underground is utterly black without the tiniest amount of light, no matter how long you wait for your eyes to adjust.
Caves at altitude are also cold. They remain a constant temperature throughout the year â€“ an average of the highest and lowest temperatures of the outside world. The air is the same temperature as the rock, meaning that a cave at 38 degrees, like many Colorado caves, can bring about hypothermia and even death if the visitor is not properly dressed. Just like one would not consider spending a night outside in the mountains without warm clothing, a visitor to a cave inadequately dressed will become very cold in a short amount of time.
One reason for the coldness is the constant humidity in caves. In many caves, the humidity is usually near 100 percent. This is much moister than the outside world where Coloradoans enjoy days with 20 percent or lower humidity. With such high humidity underground, the cold feels even more so. Yet, it is the constant humidity that allows the continued growth of stalactites, stalagmites and other speleothems.
As stewards for the natural features of this state both above and below ground, we must make the effort to see that there are no more Cave of the Clouds in Coloradoâ€™s future. Each cave, no matter how unimportant or insignificant it appears, must be fiercely protected. For unlike the forests of trees that cover the Rockies, or the air and water that flow freely across the surface, the underground world cannot be replenished, restored or rebuilt within the lifetime of all mankind. Our actions and decisions in caves like Hubbardâ€™s Cave, Cave of the Clouds and countless lesser-known caves will be felt for generations.
Adapted in part from ColoradoCaves (Westcliffe Publishers, 2001) by Richard Rhinehart with photography by David Harris. Copyright 2001 by Richard Rhinehart; used with permission of the author. Portions of this feature previously appeared as â€śExploring the Mysteries Below the Surface,â€ť by Richard Rhinehart in Colorado Country Life Magazine, July 2004. Copyright 2004 by Richard Rhinehart; used with permission of the author.