Having heard a lot of great things about the Caverns of Sonora, how could we not make a short side trip to Sonora to check themout before we finished the last leg of our fantastic trip exploring west Texas. We had some high expectations for the Caverns and we weren’t disappointed – our two tours turned out to be a highlight of the whole trip!
The Caverns of Sonora is a unique cave located on private property about 15 miles west of Sonora. The Caverns were discovered in 1905 when one of the ranch dogs chased a raccoon into a 20 inch opening in the rocks. Locals then began exploring the cave in the early 1920’s but they would only explore back about 500 feet from the entrance. Visitors were allowed in the cave in the 30’s but it opened to the public after the discovery and exploration of new sections of the cave in 1955 when Jack Prince crossed devils pit. They changed the name from Mayfield cave in 1955 to Secret cave so no one would know the two caves were one in the same to protect this beautiful cave they had discovered. They opened July, 16, 1960 and changed the name to Caverns of Sonora. The picture to the right is a replica of the original entrance to the Cavern.
The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth form 20′ to 180′ below the surface. Caverns of Sonora is ranked as one of the Top Ten Caverns in the United States and it is one of the most active caves in the world with over 95% of its formations still growing. The Cavern is best known for its extremely delicate formations and the abundance and variety of formations. The cave is a constant 71 degrees with a 98% humidity level which makes it feel about 85 degrees.
We signed up for the regular guided tour which was fantastic. The tour guide leads a party of up to 12 through multiple sections of the cavern that are absolutely stunning. The two miles of paths for the tour are paved with handrails and over 350 steps as you ascend and descend throughout the cave. You’ll see unbelievable formations of all shapes and sizes and colors and crystal clear ponds. Our guide was Bill Sawyer and he was outstanding – he has been involved with the Caverns of Sonora for over 15 years and he is passionate about the cave, extremely knowledgeable, and has a great personality. He made the almost two hour tour fun and educational as he stopped to explain formations, the history, the geology, and answer any questions.
Caverns of Sonora is world-class cave due to its stunning array of calcite crystal formations. The variety of formations (95% of which are still forming) is unbelievable – you’ll find helictites, soda straws stalactites, speleothems, stalagmites, cave bacon, and other formations. I’m not sure I remember which is which, but I do still have vivid memories of how unusual and stunningly beautiful there were! These formations are found in extreme abundance, often with a rare purity and complexity not found in other caves. One of the most unique formations is the caverns famous signature, the “Butterfly” formation. Unfortunately, as you will most likely hear during the tour, the Butterfly was vandalized and lost 2/3rds of its right wing.
The cave is very well prepared for tours with magnificent indirect lighting which showcases the formations and the various rooms of the cave. The trail is paved and meanders up and down the cavern and takes you through both narrow sections of the cave where you have to be careful not to bump any formations (or your head) and huge beautiful rooms like the Crystal Palace with unbelievable beauty. You’ll visit a number of sections or rooms of the cave with names that reflect the formations in that section, like White Giants, Christmas Tree Room, Halo Lake, Valley of Ice, Baby Grand Canyon, or Palace of the Angels. This tour is appropriate for all ages – kids should love it.
After the regular tour, our guide Bill gave our party of four a special treat – he took us on a portion of the Discovery Challenge to give us an idea of what that tour would be like. Normally, the Discovery Challenge is a 4 hour tour with a maximum of six people where you get off the beaten path and explore sections of the cave that are not a part of the tour. But what makes this tour exciting is the passageways you explore as well as the opportunity to rappel into Devils Pit. To start the tour, Bill told us to put on old grubby clothes because we were going to get down and dirty! He then outfitted us with kneepads, gloves, and miners helmets with lamps and led us to the entrance of the cave, where he assured us that we could all do what he was about to lead us through! After donning all this gear and listening to his short lecture on rules, claustrophobia, tight spaces, total darkness, and more, our hearts were beating fast and seemed to be in our throat as we began to wonder what we were in for!
Bill and another great guide, Ed, first took us through a few mazes and narrow passageways in complete darkness, except for your miners light. The first stop was at a very small horizontal hole (seemed like it was about 2′ by 2′) in the wall of the cave. We expected a good story about the hole, but instead Bill said we were to enter this very small entrance and crawl through it and meet him on the other side! After explaining what we were about to do (“just crawl on your belly through this narrow passageway – stay low, crawl through the water and around some twists and turns…..”) and giving us the assurance (and confidence?) that we could do it, he had each of us stick our heads in the very narrow passageway entrance and take a quick look at what we were about to do. Then he asked each of us if we could do it – since our hearts were in our throats, we’d come this far, and none of us wanted to chicken out, we mumbled a very weak and timid “yes.” Then he said wait here and he left us – the fear started to heighten with worries about claustrophobia, am I skinny enough to make it through, sure is dark, what about a cave-in, etc.. We had expected him to lead the way and we could hold onto his feet, but he left us there in the dark and took a different route to the other end of the cave where he eventually (seemed like he was gone for hours as we stood shaking at the entrance) yelled from the other end of the passageway, ‘Ok, who wants to go first?” Needless to say, we all made it through safe and sound and were extremely proud of ourselves for having the confidence and guts to do it – well worth that initial intimidation! From the pictures you can get a feel for how narrow the passageway exit was – I was sure I would get stuck but Bill kept coaching me through and assuring me that a 240 pound, 6’ 5″ football player had made it – but was he telling the truth or just trying to give me some additional confidence?
After that experience, the rest of the passageways and tour seemed like a piece of cake – until we got to the end of another passage where Bill said “take a look at what we are going to rappel down!” A sheer drop of more than 50′ in the dark to the bottom of Devils Pit! Ok, no problem – we can do it! Although we have never rappelled, if we can make it through that previous passageway, surely we can do this. Bill carefully outfits you with the rappelling gear, gives you some instruction, and off you go! Wow – that was fun was the reaction from each of us as we set foot at the bottom of the pit. We then spent another half an hour exploring other sections of the cave. We hated to see daylight, knowing that our tour was done. We all wanted to crawl back through that narrow passageway and rappel again.
The Discovery Challenge is a unique once in a lifetime experience and well worth the amount of intimidation, fear, adrenaline rush, and trepidation. Based on their years of experience, Bill and the other guides are able to determine what they think you are capable of handing and they tailor the tour appropriately. For example, for the really brave, athletic, and adventurous, Bill showed us one of the passageways that he has taken tours on – the entrance was very small, the passageway had a number of twists and turns, and it sloped up at about a 45% angle – no thanks, not for us old folks . Bill easily recognize that that tunnel was not for us plus he was probably wondering if my fat tummy would have made it in the entrance! This trip is suitable for adults as well as for kids, who typically don’t show near the fear that adults do. You will regret it if you make the trip to Sonora and don’t sign up for the Discovery Challenge. Reservations for this tour are required well in advance.
In addition to the regular tour and Discovery Challenge, the Caverns at Sonora offers other specialty and group tours as well as workshops. The workshops include cave safety and ascending, orienteering workshops, and great interactive classes held in the Caverns Hilton Room.
You’ll also find a very complete gift and souvenir shop and gemstone panning where your panning is guaranteed to produce some gems, emeralds, or fossils.Make your visit a weekend trip and spend the night in the Caverns of Sonora RV park which is a stones throw from the gift shop and entrance to the caverns. There are 48 sites which are a combination of a few pull through RV sites with water and electric and several tent sites under the trees which also have water and electricity. Showers and restrooms are available. Because the sites are so close to the cavern, no dump station is available.
If you’re interested in pictures and more information about the Caverns, visit Caverns of Sonora Website.