Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico is more than 120 miles long and at least 1600 feet deep. Those are minimum measurements- the full extent of the cave hasn’t been found get and there is probably still a lot more to explore. Intrepid adventurers head down and stay down for days, searching out new chambers and wriggling on the bellies through unexplored passageways. Around the next bend could be a sudden chasm or a squeeze too tight to get through. There are dangers but the rewards are stunning- fields of strange crystal flowers and pools with beautiful ‘cave pearls’ at the bottom. Sights that nobody else has ever seen...
In complete darkness the slow drip of water through limestone builds magnificent pillars and columns and strange, ghostly formations over hundreds or thousands of years. Evaporation leaves crystal lacework around the edges of perfectly still blue pools and long, fragile drinking straws of calcite hang from ceilings. Deep caves are a different world, far removed from the bustle of the surface.
However, not all caving is a serious expedition. There are hundreds of places around the world where complete beginners can either follow a walkway through a magnificent cave on their own or have a guided tour through the twists and turns of a wild cave. Anyone can go caving.
And I do mean anyone. There are a handful of cave resorts that have been made some tours wheelchair accessible. Carlsbad Caverns, not far from Lechugilla, is one of these and so are Yarrangobilly Caves in Australia and Languedoc-Roussillon in France. All you need is a sense of adventure and a willingness to treat the fragile formations with care.
Most tourist cavers fall into one of two categories: those who’d like to walk along a level floor or up and down cut steps and have a handrail on standby, and those who want to go further and are willing to splash through streams, slither up rocky sections, inch their way through tight squeezes, and get very, very muddy. Almost all cave resorts cater to both types with self-guided walks, gentle tours, and group adventure outings.
Show caves (those modified for the benefit of visitors) are discreetly lit to highlight the best formations. While most of the cave is in darkness, you’ll see translucent shawls of rock backlit to show off the color and graceful curves and ornate wedding-cakes glittering in the light. Water is a common feature- it’s what shapes the caves in the first place, and a dry cave is one that has stopped growing new formations.
These days cave resorts are generally very good with safety precautions. That means handrails and grippy pathway surfaces in show caves, and a whole host of forms to sign before you go adventure caving. Heavy duty headtorches are usually provided to tour guests and the paths in self-guided tours should be appropriately lit, but if you’re going on a more serious trip, old clothes and shoes are recommended. You’ll probably get wet and you’ll almost certainly get muddy.
There are no green plants beyond cave entrances because there is no sunlight to turn into energy but if you’re lucky you may see wildlife- roosting bats, small pythons, or even white, blind cave fish and odd, sightless insects. If you’re staying near a cave resort, go for a walk around sunset and you may see the resident bats spiralling up into the sky to begin a long night hunting insects.
All caving is an adventure, from the easiest of self-guided tours or a multi-day expedition in the darkness. Wherever you go underground, you’ll enter a world very different to the one on the surface.
Jess Spate has been a keen caver for as long as she can remember, and spent much of her childhood in and around the caves of South East Australia with her father. Since then she has caved in almost every Australian state, South-East Asia, Spain, and the UK. She now lives in Wales, UK, and edits Outdoor Equipment Online, a price comparison site for outdoor gear, and works for Appalachian Outdoors.
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