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Going underground; from tame to thrilling, here are caves that you can explore around the West.

Carlsbad, N.M., 1922: Standing in a bucket suspended from a cable, you're slowly lowered into a black hole in the ground Darkness and silence envelop you as you descend 170 feet through the underground chamber You finally touch solid ground and someone hands you a kerosene lantern. Ghoulish forms appear in the circle of light emanating ftom the lantern, then slip back into the gloom as you tentatively make your way across the slippery cavern floor. Sound scary? No doubt it was. But that was part of the appeal for early visitors to Carlsbad Cavern, for whom riding the bucket (originally used for extracting bat guano from the cave) was the only way to witness first-hand the fantastic formations that fill this vast netherworld.

Things have changed quite a bit hereand at dozens of other caves in the West, where you can now tour without risking life and limb. At Carlsbad, an elevator carries visitors 750 feet down in a few seconds, and judiciously placed electric lights do away with the need for lanterns. But these improvements haven't dulled the thrill of rounding a bend and facing a towering stalagmite, almost alive in its glistening calcite cloak-or the awe inspired by your first view of the Big Room, many times larger than any sports stadium.

And at many caves, more rugged alternatives to tame walking tours still offer neophyte spelunkers (cave explorers) plenty of old-fashioned thrills and chills. You can crawl through narrow passages to otherwise inaccessible chambers, rappel into an apparently bottomless shaft, or see the caves as some intrepid early visitors did, lit only by hand-held candles.

Cool escapes for summer spelunkers It's easy to fit a cave visit into a summer vacation itinerary. Every Western state except Alaska and Wyoming has at least one cave open to the public. The 25 caves listed here-some private, others on public land-offer interpretive guidance.

Most have regularly scheduled tours. Caves maintain a consistent temperature in their deepest reaches that approximates the year-round average aboveground. Latitude, elevation, and air flow influence the temperature of individual caves; Western caves range from 30 degrees to 70 degrees, making them refreshingly cool retreats on scorching summer days (some stay cool enough to keep ice frozen in August).

Cave news: dramatic discoveries and laws to protect them "Space-the final frontier." This pronouncement, familiar to any Star Trek fan, holds true for space below terra firma as well as above it. For though every square mile of the earth's surface has been mapped by surveyors and satellites, important uncharted wilderness is still being discovered underground.

While biking in southeast Arizona 15 years ago, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen discovered a 2 1/2-mile-long cave with 20foot-long soda straws (see picture opposite)-among the longest in the world. But they kept their find secret until they were sure Kartchner Caverns (named after the landowners) would be properly managed and protected. With the help of The Nature Conservancy, the pair had the cave made a state park. Current plans are to open it to the public in 1992.

One of the most exciting American cave discoveries in decades occurred just three years ago in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Intrigued by wind blowing up through a pile of rock in an otherwise unexceptional pit known as Lechuguilia Cave (named for the spiky plant that surrounds the entrance), eavers decided to find out what the rubble might hide.

In May 1986, after two years of digging, they finally uncovered a crawlway to a large room. Since then, spelunkers have discovered 33 miles of narrow passages and immense chambers decorated with giant gypsum "chandeliers" and other formations. Teams have descended to 1,500 feet, making Lechuguilia the second deepest charted cave in this country. The technical demands of getting around the cave would prevent most people from seeing it as is. Since it underlies a wilderness area, that's the way it's likely to stay Some conservationists have proposed that Lechuguilla be designated the world's first cave wilderness, to ensure it's not harmed by oil and gas drilling or other potential threats. Such a designation is mentioned in a bill introduced by New Mexico senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman that authorizes a study of management alternatives for the cave.

Last year, Congress passed the first legislation to specifically recognize caves as "an invaluable and irreplaceable part of the nation's natural heritage." The act directs federal agencies to include caves in all land management plans. Cave locations are to be kept secret if necessary to protect fragile formations and habitat for cave creatures, such as bats.

Our caves are formed one of two ways Limestone caves (and those of marble, a metamorphosed form of limestone) are what most of us imagine when we think of a cave. This commonest type sprouts stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations created by minuscule amounts of minerals deposited by dripping water. If you've ever whiled away an afternoon giving identities to passing clouds, you'll have no trouble making out wicked witches, bashful elephants, and other imaginative creatures pointed out on guided tours.

It can take millions of years for a limestone cave to be etched out by ground water that has combined with carbon dioxide in the soil to form a weak acid. Lava tubes form in relatively instantaneous cataclysmic events. As hot lava flows from a volcano, the outer edges and surface cool rapidly. But underneath the hardening crust, the lava remains molten and continues to flow. Eventually tbe lava stops flowing, leaving a tube.

In this country, lava tubes occur only in the volcanic West and Hawaii. For the most part, they lack the spectacular formations of limestone caves, but exploring them can be as enjoyable as trying to find your way around a fun-house maze.

Caves around the West

Most limestone cave visitors take guided tours on paths (often paved) linking electrically lit chambers. These tours are generally easy to negotiate, though they may involve some stooping or going up or down long flights of stairs. Expect to pay $2 to $6 for adults, less for children.

On the other hand, spelunking tours require much more exertion, as well as a tolerance for mud and tight spaces with names like Fat Man's Misery. Coveralls and helmets with lamps are supplied, unless noted. In any case, wear clothes you won't mind getting dirty-and sturdy, over-the-ankle shoes or boots. Kneepads are also a good idea.

If a guided spelunking trip inspires the cave man (or woman) in you, write or call the National Speleological Society, Cave Ave., Huntsville, Ala. 35810; (205) 8521300. It can put you in touch with your nearest chapter (called a "grotto"). Most grottoes teach beginners how to explore undeveloped eaves safely, protecting both you and the fragile cave environment.

Lava tubes are usually self-guided. Bring at least two light sources (one as a backup; lanterns throw more light than flashlights). In low tubes, a hard hat or helmet protects your bead. Lug-soled boots provide solid footing on craggy lava floors.

Unless noted, caves are open daily yearround. We list summer hours (generally Memorial to Labor Day); hours tend to be shorter at other times. Tours usually run several times a day.

ARIZONA 1. Grand Canyon Caverns. The 45-minute tour of this dry eave begins with an elevator ride. It takes you 21 stories down to a room the size of a football field.

Open 8 to 6. From Seligman (73 miles west of Flagstaff on I-40), go northwest 26 miles on State Highway 66.

2. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The manmade cave at this top-notch museum and zoo is a composite of Sonoran Desert caves, complete with dripping water and live bats fooled by its authenticity Optional narrow passages help create a spelunking experience.

Open 7.-30 to 5. From 1-10 in Tucson, exit on W. Speedway Boulevard,- continue west 14 miles on Gates Pass Road and Tucson Mountain Road, following signs.

3. Colossal Cave. This limestonecave in the Rincon Mountains dried out about 2,000 years ago but still has plenty of colorful formations. The 45-minute tours twist through 1/2 mile of the cave's extensive passages and up 363 stairs.

Open 8 to 6 (until 7 Sundays, holidays). From Tucson, take Old Spanish Trail 22 miles southeast; the road ends at the cave. CALIFORNIA 4. Lava Beds National Monument. Almost 200 lava tubes burrow through this remote hotbed of volcanic activity. Ladders and trails help you explore 22 tubes, near marked pull-outs on 2'/4-mile Cave Loop Road. Recommended are Golden Dome and Hopkins Chocolate for intriguing colors and textures, Catacombs for bewildering forks and dead ends, Skull for sheer enormity (this tube, actually one collapsed tube atop another, is one of two in the monument with year-round ice).

Bring a lantern, or borrow an electric one, free, at the visitor center. Start in illuminated Mushpot Cave, where exhibits explain how tubes formed. Rangers conduct talks, walks, and campfire programs.

Visitor center open 9 to 6. From US 97 at the Oregon- California border, take State 161 east 19 miles to Stale 139; turn right (southeast) and drive 8 miles to the signed turnoff for the monument.

5. Lake Shasta Caverns. Visits here take a novel approach. First a catamaran ferries you across an arm of Lake Shasta, then a bus drives you to the cave, 800 feet above the lake. Dazzling formations include a curtain of draperies as grand as those in an opera house. Total tour takes 2 hours. Open 9 to 4. From 1-5, exit on Shasta Caverns Road, 15 miles north of Redding.

6. Subway Cave. On a self-guided 1/3-mile tour of this lava tube in Lassen National Forest, interpretive plaques explain sights in chambers named Stubtoe Hall, Wind Tunnel, Lucifer's Cul-de-sac, Sanctum, and Lavacicle Lane. Bring lights.

Always open. From Redding, take State 44 east 50 miles to Old Station; eave is just north of town on State 89.

7. California Caverns. John Muir wrote eloquently about his visit to the West's first commercial cave; other early visitors were satisfied with carving their names in its walls. Since then, new discoveries have added unmarred chambers to tours. A 1 1/2-hour guided walk visits the Jungle Room, named for its profusion of vine-like soda straws. Spelunking tours (2 to 5 hours) take you crawling through tightand muddy in early season-passages and rafting across an underground lake; advanced tour begins with a 160-foot rappel. Open 10 to 5 (closed December through May). Spelunking tours cost $35 to $59; call (209) 736-2708 to "serve. From State 49 in San Andreas, take Mountain Ranch Road east about 8 miles to the turnoff.

8. Mercer Caverns. This earthquake-born, mostly vertical cave (visitors descend and then climb 440 stairs) is bounded on one side by a sheer rock wall. The 1-hour tour offers close-up views of many types of formations, including delicate aragonite flowers.

Open 9 to 5. From Murphys (just off State 4, 9 miles northwest of Angels Camp), take Sheep Ranch Road north 1 mile.

9. Moaning Cavern. Contemplating a ride in a bucket into this 125-foot-deep natural pit, Mark Twain reportedly remarked, "The exact length of time it took for a dropped rock to hit bottom was the time it took me to change my mind." The bucket's gone, but there are now two other ways to get to the bottom of the cave: on a spiral staircase, or rappelling on secure ropes. Adventurers can continue deeper on a 3-hour spelunking tour.

Open 9 to 6. Rappelling costs $20, spelunking $35; to reserve, call (209) 7362708. From Vallecito (5 miles east of Angels Camp on State 4), take Parrotts Ferry Road south 1 1/2 miles to the turnoff.

10. Boyden Cavern. A breathtaking drive into the Kings River Canyon (deepest in the U.S.) brings you to this marble cave. Tours (45 minutes) begin with a short hike up to the cave, decorated with sparkly flowstone, draperies, and soda straws. Part of the tour leaves the path to follow narrow passages of a dry stream bed. Open 10 to 5 (closed November through April). From Fresno, take State 180 east about 65 miles.

11. Crystal Cave. In Sequoia National Park, a 1/2-mile nature trail winds past waterfalls of aptly named Cascade Creek; another stream flows through the marble cave. A 1-hour tour visits chambers such as the Organ Room, with stalactites arrayed like a giant pipe organ. The popular 6-hour spelunking tour (evenings, Fridays through Sundays) includes a room decorated with exquisite shields. Open 10 to 3 (closed October through April). Spelunking tour costs $35; to reserve, call (209) 565-3341, ext. 731, From Fresno, take State 180 east 50 miles. Two miles southwest of Giant Forest Village on General's Highway, look for a sign marking the road to the cave, 61/2 miles ahead.

12. Mitchell Cavern& Though closed in summer, these two limestone caves (linked by a manmade tunnel) are open mid-September to mid-June. You get a sweeping view of the Mojave Desert on the 1/2-mile walk to the small but formation-rich caves, viewed on ranger-led, 1 1/2hour tours.

Tours offered at 1:30 weekdays, and al 10, 1:30, and 3 weekends and holidays. From 1-40 about 100 miles east of Barstow, drive northwest 16 miles on Essex Road.

COLORADO

13. Cave of the Wind& In a chamber added last year to the 40-minute walking tour, theatrical lighting helps show how the cave was formed. Tour passes formations in a dry portion of the cave. A 2hour spelunking tour lets you explore larger chambers with still-growing helictites (twisting soda straws that look like ramen noodles); bring lights and caving clothes. Spelunkers may see cave researchers at work in a huge chamber. Open 9 to 9. Spelunking tour costs $15; call (719) 685-5444 to reserve. From I-25 in Colorado Springs, take US 24 northwest 6 miles to the signed exit.

HAWAII

14. Thurston Lava Tube. A 1/4 -mile loop takes you through a lush fern jungle to the entrance of this 450-foot lava tube, on the rim of the Kilauea Iki Crater, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Check the park's schedule of interpretive programs for naturalist-led hikes. Always open. The cave is at the easternmost point of Crater Rim Drive.

IDAHO 15. Shoshone Indian Ice Caves. Visitors on 45-minute guided tours of this lava tube follow a boardwalk over a slab of ice 1,000 feet long and 35 feet thick.

Open 8 to 8 (closed October through April). From Twin Falls, lake US 93 north 21 miles to Shoshone. Continue north 17 miles on State 75.

16. Craters of the Moon National Monu ment. Below the eerie lava landscape are five lava tubes created by a single eruption. Roof collapses allow daylight into Indian Tunnel, the largest, making it easy to traverse. You'll need lights in the other four, including Boy Scout Cave, which has a floor of ice. Explore on your own or join a naturalist on a 1 -hour tour.

Open 8 to 6. Monument is 84 miles northeast of Twin Falls on US 93; caves are a 1/2 -mile walk from signed parking on Loop Drive.

17. Minnetonka Cave With an entrance elevation of 7,700 feet, this is the highest cave we list. Forest Service rangers lead 1-hour walks through a series of decorated chambers, including one that's 90 feet high and 300 feet wide.

Open 10 to 5:30 till Labor Day, then closed to mid-June. From Montpelier drive south 18 miles on US 89 and turn right (west) on Minnetonka Cave Road; the cave is 9 miles ahead.

MONTANA

18. Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. This profusely decorated limestone cave became Montana's first state park in 1937. Visitors descend about 500 steps (326-foot total drop) on a 2-hour guided tour of the mostly vertical cave. No need to climb back out, though: a 500-foot-long manmade tunnel leads to the exit.

Open 9 to 7 (closed October through April). The park is on State 2, about halfway between Bozeman and Butte.

NEVADA

19. Lehman Caves. Parachute-like shields with veils of flowstone, and a dripping room where stalactites hang like Spanish moss are among the attractions in this limestone cave, in Great Basin National Park. Visit during the daytime on 1 1/2hour ranger-led tours, or in the evening on 45-minute candlelight walks. Weekends, spelunkers slither for 3 hours through Little Muddy Cave; helmets with lights are provided, but bring four D batteries. Open 8 to 6. Spelunking tour costs $6; to reserve, call (702) 234-7331. From US 50 near the Nevada-Utah border, drive 5 miles south on State 487; turn right (west) on State 488 and drive 5 miles to the park.

NEW MEXICO 20. Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Some might miss the subtleties of the park's Chihuahuan Desert landscape, but only the most jaded could resist the awesome splendor of the chambers beneath it. There are two self-guided options. The 3mile, all-on-foot Blue Tour begins with an 829-foot descent from the cave's natural entrance, and takes you through the royally appointed Kings Palace and Queens Chamber. On the Red Tour, an elevator drops you quickly for a 1 1/4-mile circuit around the Big Room, the world's second largest chamber. Optional hand-held radio receivers explain its sights. Through September, free evening programs in an amphitheater conclude with hundreds of thousands of Mexican freetail bats swirling out of the cave. Best flights occur in August and September.

Rangers lead 2 1/2-hour flashlight tours of undeveloped New Cave, reached by a steep 1/2-mile hike up a canyon; bring a flashlight. Call (505) 785-2232 to reserve. Also ask about spelunking in wild caves. Visitor center open 8:30 to 7. From Us 621180, turn west at Whites City (20 miles south of Carlsbad) and follow signs.

OREGON 21. Lava River Cave Almost a mile long, this is Oregon's longest uncollapsed lava tube. Lanterns and guide brochures are available at a booth operated by Deschutes National Forest. You can also explore many nearby lava tubes, including one with rare "lavacicle" formations (open only to guided groups); ask for details at Lava Lands Visitor Center (open 9 to 5), a mile north of Lava River Cave. Open 9 to 5 (closed October to mid-May). From Bend, drive south 11 miles on Us 97.

22. Oregon Caves National Monument. Extensive restoration has uncovered parts of this marble cave hidden for 50 years by blasted rubble. Visit its pure white formations and clear-flowing stream on a 1 1/4hour guided tour; be prepared to duck through low passages and scale hundreds of stairs. On summer evenings, rangers conduct programs in Oregon Caves Chateau and in a nearby campground.

Open 8 to 7. From US 199 at Cave Junction (30 miles south of Grants Pass), drive east 20 miles on State 46.

UTAH 23. Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Guided tours last 45 minutes, but a steep 1 1/2-mile hike up a paved trail to the cave and back can take another 2 hours. Inside, a filigree of sparkling crystals covers much of three limestone caves linked by manmade tunnels. Large, colorful formations include a giant heart-shaped stalactite, "The Great Heart of Timpanogos." Special tours by candle and flashlight are offered, as well as tours through a lower passage.

Open 8 to 5 (closed November through April). Special tours cost $3; to "serve, call (801) 756-5238. From Salt Lake City, drive south 20 miles on I-15, and exit east on State 92; monument is 10 miles ahead

WASHINGTON

24. Ape Cave. In Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, this 12,810foot-long lava tube can be explored on naturalist- or self-guided tours. Pick up interpretive brochures at the new information center near the main entrance (propane lanterns for rent here).

Open 10 to 6 daily until Labor Day, 10 to 6 weekends through September From Vancouver, drive north 21 miles on 1-5; at Woodland, take State 503 east 35 miles to the signed turnoff, 3 miles north.

25. Gardner Cave. State park rangers lead free 1-hour tours of this small, remote limestone cave on the Canadian border.

Open 9 to 6 (closed mid-September through April). From Spokane, drive north 97 miles on US 2, State 211, State 20, and State 31 to Metaline. Turn left on Boundary Dam Road, and follow signs 12 miles to Crawford State Park and cave.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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