Posted by: Juniper Road | April 1, 2013

Squeezing in a Wild Cave

As a kid car camping and doing day trips with my folks, we visited a few different show caves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. After first moving to Virginia over 14 years ago, I spent some time as a tour guide in Luray Caverns and still retain most of the tour information in my memory banks. I feel that visiting a subterranean environment in any capacity is truly like stepping into another world that compels thought and wonder. I also believe something about the air quality adds life to your span. Rolling up to Carlsbad National Park, we quickly discovered many un-guided options in the big cave, as well as a few smaller group tours inside and outside the main cave.

Show caves are both good and bad because the cave environment is extremely delicate. One single square inch of deposited mineral, called a formation, requires one hundred years. The way different methods of mineral deposit themselves create a variety of different formations, and the specific mineral content contributes the various color that you see. Water is the main ingredient for all the construction, as well as the life support for any living creatures. Show caves create a situation where there is typically a paved trail, hand rails, benches, light systems, and result in a large number of people moving through. This activity disturbs the cave environment, which can take millions of years to establish. It’s undeniable. But the public awareness enhances sensitivity, followed by research, to help us know more about what we don’t completely understand, as well as protect these subterranean worlds from exploitation.

While driving, hiking, or biking I’m always checking out exposed rock areas along ridges and river ways trying to asses possibilities. More than once I’ve dropped my pack, scampered up some cliffside, and found nothing but a depression in the rock. Like Juniper is ever hopeful of table scraps, I’m ever hopeful of finding a cavern. Usually, cave topography will produce more than one cave. In other words, where there is one, there is more! There is a ton of cave potential around. Sometimes it’s simply a case of not having the guts to squeeze through a crack in the rocks, with barely enough room to breath, for an undetermined amount of time, until a passage opens enough to crawl, or better yet– stand! Other times, a cave might be near but has not yet revealed itself to the surface with the feature of an entrance. Needless to say this is a deep subject.

Around Carlsbad there are miles and miles of caves. Most all of them are not open to the public with the mindset of preservation, but Carlsbad National Park Rangers offer a couple of wild cave tours. The expert staff, professional equipment loan, cheap tour fee, and small groups make this quite a way to spend your afternoon. Caving options usually sell out months in advance. We did not reserve our tickets in advance, almost missing the opportunity, but lucked into the last two spots for a Spider Cave tour.

The entrance squeeze, no joke, is not much bigger than a case of beer. It’s tight. The first 15 minutes of meeting our rangers and six others in our group was all about wanting to be on the tour under your own will and not coerced in any way shape or form to do something that you might be the least bit afraid of. After being sworn in, we are issued gear (helmets, light, gloves, knee pads), instructions, and set out for the trail head. We float with excitement down the half mile trail to the cave entrance, which is difficult to see, even with its gate, until you’re standing very near. Spider Cave is located in a wash, and years ago the entrance was buried with flood debris and hidden for 17 years. Today, there is a little wall built up around the entrance to keep that from happening again.

We have a last minute safety briefing, one by one head down a small ladder, and immediately drop to bellies for a wiggle of sorts. Honestly, this would be very difficult to do not knowing if you find a dead end or not. But “knowing” created a fearless atmosphere of fun! Ranger Tish took the lead, and Ranger Bob brought up the rear. Rigorous conditions and contortions of travel displayed potential hazards with every move, including Twister-like moves over large pits and drop-offs. Part of the sport in caving is keeping yourself safe as well as keeping the cave safe. The cave takes priority and often you must climb or traverse a risky situation simply to protect the cave. As progress is made through the maze, we become a string of cavers where the front cannot communicate with the back. As delicate features or hazards are encountered, the message is passed back from person to person as close to the area of interest as possible.

On our tour we received regular cave back ground, mixed with specific history to Spider Cave. We were underground for the better part of three hours! All the while seeing things that not so many people see. Ranger Bob made a good point of mentioning that caving gives you the ability to go where no one has ever, ever, gone before. You can still do that in space, as long as your budget and time allows. Or for a relatively low cost investment, you can go underground to achieve that same sense of adventure, and most likely you won’t burn up on reentry.

Lucky for us we were guided. There is potential pathways tenfold out of every room. Consider it like exploring a sponge. In fact, a research team goes in to the cave for days at a time and we could’ve “bumped” into them down there as they moved from an off limit “wild” portion to our “tour” portion for the exit path. No railings or walkway. We mostly stayed on our hands and knees. This is not a luxury tour, but with the right enthusiasm it’s a luxury to have the opportunity to be in the cave at all. Cave pools, various formations, tons of history, and some customary total darkness captivated our attention. The time on the tour seems to fly by, which totally indicates a certain level of fun. Before we knew it, our tour was over and we were hiking back out of the ravine that conceals the entrance. Experiences like this, that are last minute and unplanned, are usually the best. In this case, incredible.



  1. WOW! And cool!!

  2. Simply Amazing! I have spent the entire day reading your blog. As others have said, better than any book! Not only impressed with the whole thing but the writing skill as well.

    • Hi Phil! Thanks for looking us up- you were there at the beginning for us! It’s been an amazing trip, that’s for sure. Thanks for reading, and for the compliment! Hope all is well with you and the rest of the team in PA.

  3. I so enjoy your story. I read through a bunch of old posts last night and returned today for some more. We are looking at purchasing an RV and I stumbled across your blog doing an “RV” search.. So glad I did. I had never heard of boondocking either. Learned something new! Sending well wishes your way as you continue your journey.

    • Wow, it makes me feel so good to hear you’re enjoying our story. Blogs are very one sided most of the time, so I really appreciate your taking the time to comment. Good luck with your RV search – we’re not experts, but are happy to try and answer any questions you might have, so don’t be shy. Thanks again!

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