Cavernous: Must-see subterranean destination well off the beaten path

Published on Saturday, 17 May 2014 21:57 - Written by Brian Pearson bpearson@tylerpaper.com

The Caverns of Sonora look much like any other cave at the beginning of the tour, but it doesn’t take long for this geological gem to show why it consistently ranks among the world’s must-see subterranean destinations.

The delicate, intricate crystalline formations within give the caverns the appearance of an elaborate Christmas store that specializes in white ornaments.

The Caverns of Sonora are about as out in the middle of nowhere as it gets in Texas but well worth the time and effort to get there. It makes for a no-brainer stop for those making their way to Big Bend National Park.

Sonora is on Interstate 10 about 140 miles west of San Antonio, and the caverns are about 15 miles southwest of town.

The Mayfield family began ranching on the land where the caverns are around the turn of the 20th century, according to a Caverns of Sonora tour guide.

Years later, the cave was discovered when a dog chased a raccoon into what was then a 20-inch opening to the caverns. Locals began exploring the cave in the early 1920s but could only get about 500 feet before encountering a forbidding 50-foot pit.

Serious cave exploration didn’t come until 1955, when three speleologists from Abilene took a look and, like the amateur explorers before them, got no further than the room with the pit.

They told their story to other cavers, and two weeks later, on Labor Day weekend, four other spelunkers got past the pit, using a narrow, sloping ledge.

They entered passages on the other side and encountered the dazzling and strange formations that make the caverns special.

To protect the cave and make it safe for tourists, development began in 1959, and the caverns opened to the public the next year.

The main tour is almost two miles and takes about 105 minutes to complete. Many caves are cool on the inside, but at Sonora, the cave is 71 degrees with 98 percent humidity, making it feel like it’s in the 80s inside.

A tour guide noted that unlike most caves open for touring, Sonora has 95 percent of its formations still growing. Compared to caves such as Carlsbad and Mammoth, this cave feels so much more alive.

Pools that look inches deep run 4 to 5 feet, thanks to the water being so pure and still. Years ago on a tour, a guide noted a watery passage way that divers explored, emerging in a room with formations so delicate that the gently disturbed air caused them to move.

More adventurous cavers can take on the Discovery Challenge, which involves undeveloped passageways and a 50-foot rappel into the aforementioned pit, named Devil’s Pit. This tour takes about four hours.

The caverns offer an array of formations, the most famous of which is The Butterfly, known in speleology as a bladed helictite.

It was a rare and famous formation, but, sadly, some knucklehead on tour Nov. 21, 2006, decided to break off part of The Butterfly for a souvenir. The hunt for the perpetrator and missing piece remains underway, with a $20,000 reward offered for information leading to its return.

The attraction’s visitor center, built in 1961, has the usual array of merchandise one would find at a cave: jewelry, rocks, fossils, toys and keepsakes.

The U.S. Department of the Interior in 1966 designated the Caverns of Sonora as a National Natural Landmark.

According to the attraction’s website, National Speleological Society co-founder Bill Stephenson said, after seeing the cave for the first time, “Its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by Texans.”

The above-ground terrain is beautiful as well and marks the ragged western edge of the Hill Country, a dividing line between it and the flat, scrubby West Texas.

The park has a campsite with water and electrical hookups, making Caverns of Sonora a great place to stop and spend the night for those en route to Big Bend National Park.

No reservations are needed, but if you camp here, be prepared for the noisy guinea fowl and peacocks that roam the grounds. They sure make a racket.

 

Brian Pearson is managing editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. In his next travel piece, Pearson will write about Garner State Park.