A deep, dark, extremely fun adventure awaits in San Antonio.
By Niki Jones, Photos courtesy of Natural Bridge Caverns
Consider the following proposition: Someone is going to strap you into a harness, lower you through a hole in the ground 22 inches in diameter and then hand-winch you 160 feet straight down a well shaft into a deep, dark underground cavern. Are you game?
I am—until I see how narrow 22 inches really is. Then my heart begins to beat out of my chest. I am at Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio, about to embark on the Hidden Passages Adventure Tour. And as I stare down the dark, echoing well shaft, I know there is no backing out.
Outfitted in a helmet with a built-in headlamp, I begin my descent into the well shaft as Derek, one of my two tour guides, slowly turns the hand crank, lowering me into the abyss, each turn removing me farther from sound until I can no longer hear anything from above. I can’t wait to reach the bottom, where my other tour guide, Duncan, awaits.
After the longest five minutes of my life, I hit bottom. The shaft opens up and I am in the cave, Duncan cheerfully waiting for me. He detaches my harness and I slide on my rear end down the muddy limestone surface and take in the epic scene. Illuminated by just our two headlamps, the cave is huge, dark and silent in a way that is unfamiliar to me. There are colossal, glistening stalactites and stalagmites everywhere. The air is balmy, as the cavern maintains a temperature of 70 degrees year-round, but its 99 percent humidity level easily makes it feel 10 degrees warmer.
As Duncan and I wait for Derek to descend from above, Duncan reviews the safety rules, one of which is to always maintain three points of contact when navigating through the cave since the terrain is incredibly jagged and slippery, and, of course, visibility is limited.
Once Derek appears, loaded with medical supplies and water, the three of us are ready to begin our three-hour exploration. We traverse down into the bottom of the Cathedral Room, where the towering ceiling, ornate formations and sheer size of the space justify its name.
We make our way vigilantly through this inky, silent world. Derek discusses the different types of caves in Texas and points out various formations along our untrodden path. As our expedition continues, we descend deeper underground. I find myself getting significantly shorter of breath, which Derek explains can be attributed to elevated levels of carbon dioxide, a common occurrence in caves.
We enter a breakout dome called The Ballroom. I find myself standing on a ledge and wonder aloud how we will go down any farther.
“We rappel down,” Duncan says offhandedly, engaging my panic mode to its most extreme levels.
“I’ve never rappelled down anything before!”
“It’s easy,” Duncan says, while Derek offers, “We’ll show you how.”
If there is ever a place to learn a new technique, a slippery, pitch-black cave seems like the perfect setting to acquire a potentially deadly skill.
They hook me in, explain how to brake and descend, then coach me down the 45-degree, 40-foot ledge. At the bottom, we continue to climb over slick rocks (This is going to hurt tomorrow!) and tread along the craggy surface of the cave. We cross a rimstone pool, making sure to stay on the path so we disturb as little as possible.
Here, we approach the part of the adventure I’d been dreading: a tight squeeze through an extremely awkwardly angled pass. With a few deep breaths, I conjure up any you-can-do-it inspirational sayings I can think of, then push up/bear crawl my way over the slick, muddy surface.
I pop out into a fault room, the most remote part of the cavern. It’s quite the sight to behold; there are extraordinary formations everywhere. We use this spot to catch our breath as Derek talks about the cavern’s discovery. (It was located in 1960 by four college students and has sustained an interesting history since then.) At this point, we are 232 feet underground.
It’s time to make our way back, and this time, the bear crawl is a piece of cake. Halfway back to our starting point, we take seats on some flat rocks and turn off our headlamps. Words can’t describe how extraordinarily black it is. With the cavern’s complete absence of light, there is nothing for our eyes to adjust to, and no matter where I look, I cannot see a thing. We sit like this for close to 10 minutes—because it is just that mind-boggling—until I begin to feel delirious and terrified I will never see again. With a quick switch of my headlamp, all is well and we continue our trek back to our starting point, this time scaling the 40-foot ledge unattached to anything save for a knotted climbing rope.
Once we arrive back, we connect with the general-public area of the cave, where the paths are paved and lit. The illuminated walls and ceiling of the caverns are stunning.
Completely covered in mud, exhausted and sore yet feeling like a champ, I climb the stairs (186 steps!) as I take in even more natural wonders, like “soda straw” stalactites and a sparkling formation called Diamond River.
There isn’t one moment of the Hidden Passages Adventure Tour that isn’t intense and challenging, both physically and mentally. And a three-hour rush of adrenaline is taxing. I’m proud of myself for pushing far past my comfort zone so I could interact with a monumentally epic natural wonder.