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HIT THE ROAD

Texas Down Under

Deep below the surface, subterranean worlds of wonder await

Gil Adams

The stars at night are not big and bright deep in this heart of Texas ... in fact, in the thousands of caves found beneath the state’s surface, neither the stars nor sun nor sky are visible. But down here, you’ll experience beauty you can’t find anywhere else.

In these places, hundreds of feet of soil and rock loom above, and curiosity beckons you to venture farther into the unfamiliar and unknown underground. Many of Texas’ caves are inaccessible to amateurs, but more than a handful welcome even the most casual of spelunkers.

Of these so-called “show caves,” one of the best known is Natural Bridge Caverns. The family-owned and -operated cave system, about 15 miles west of New Braunfels, has been ushering visitors through its cavernous rooms since 1964. Discovered in 1960, parts of its 2 1/2 miles of underground chambers and tunnels were developed for tours not long after. A variety of diversions have been added in the years since, such as a climbing tower/zip line, a kid-friendly mining sluice and a neighboring drive-through safari park.

But the caverns are the main draw. There are several tours from which to choose, varying by time and effort required. The most ambitious is a three- to four-hour journey that begins with a 160-foot drop into a well shaft 22 inches in diameter. But the more sedate Discovery Tour, which has been offered since the caverns opened to the public, is the most popular.

This tour, which takes about an hour and 15 minutes to complete, begins on a patio overlooking the caverns’ namesake natural bridge—a rock span left when the roof of an upper cavern collapsed about 5,000 years ago. After following a guide down a textured concrete sidewalk to a locked, gated entrance, visitors are given a brief orientation.

Then, angling ever down, hikers descend through a set of humidity-fogged glass doors and, eventually, into the first large chamber, Pluto’s Anteroom, where an array of dramatically lighted stalactites, stalagmites, columns and cave ribbons decorate every surface.

Other striking formations and rooms on the tour also have colorful names, including Sherwood Forest, with “broomstick” stalagmites that resemble tree trunks dominated by the towering, straight Totem Pole column and the King’s Throne, a large stalagmite decorated by a canopy of milky flowstone, which stands in the Castle of the White Giants.

In places, the passage narrows and the ceiling drops so that tall or large people might have to duck their heads or turn sideways to fit. But much of the underground journey passes through rooms with towering ceilings housing colossal formations of rock that grow with each droplet of mineral-laden water that lands upon them.

Despite the 99 percent humidity in the caverns, a constant temperature of 70 degrees makes the half-mile Discovery Tour, which includes a vertical change of 180 feet, pleasant. Shoes with rubber soles are recommended, as the path is often wet, and angles can be steep.

The Discovery Tour’s finale is a climb into the spectacular Hall of the Mountain King, a “breakout dome” formation that forms a 350-foot-long, 100-foot-wide room with a 100-foot-tall ceiling.

Other Texas show caves include Cave Without a Name near Boerne, Longhorn Cavern near Burnet and the Caverns of Sonora, which you can read more about in this story from our December 2007 issue.

For a different caving experience, one without smooth, lighted paths or handrails, travel to South Texas to Kickapoo Cavern State Park, northeast of Del Rio and about 25 miles north of Brackettville. Once each Saturday, visitors who have made reservations can experience a cave the way its discoverers might have.

Armed with two sources of light each and having signed liability waivers, explorers pile into Texas Parks and Wildlife Department vehicles for a jouncy, but short, trip up a rough track to the cave entrance. Guides unlock the iron gate that bars the narrow opening, and after a dusty scramble down, cavers find themselves standing in a large room. Light beams show the ceiling far above and a rough jumble of fallen rock ahead.

Picking their way among the debris, the guides lead visitors to the cave’s most singular feature, a pair of massive floor-to-ceiling rock columns that are thought to be the biggest in any cave in the state.

As on many cave tours, at one point guides urge their charges to take a seat and turn off their lights. The absolute pitch black presses down. It’s a relief when lights are switched back on.

At tour’s end, cavers climb back into the land of sunlight, breathing in the fresh air and feeling a new appreciation for the wide-open Texas skies.

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Kevin Hargis, food editor