Category Archives: Odd Caves

This is my catch all for caves that don’t fit normal categories. Includes fracture systems, non-soluble rock, etc…

2011 Huge Cave in Maple Canyon

Another gift of nice weather in late October, and thus another quickly planned trip to get out of the house. And a chance to wear stylishly garish colors during the deer hunt. This time I was more interested in just getting out and hiking, and wasn’t even necessarily looking for a cave trip. I was searching for some hikes that have been on the back burner, and stumbled back across another Utah website. (They stole my brilliant idea to list and describe all the interesting places in Utah, but they had a headstart before I thought of it. So they can keep it.) I had browsed through their site in the past looking at their descriptions of places I had been and others I wanted to visit, and seeing their site again triggered my memory of a trip I had been meaning to make.

Maple Canyon is an interesting little spot tucked away in conglomerate rock cliffs. Southeast of Nephi, it is a relatively quick hop from the Wasatch front to spend a day or a weekend. I had heard it is renowned as a  rock climbers paradise, and after visiting it I can see why. I have done some climbing, but never seriously pursued it. Walking around in Maple Canyon I kept finding myself thinking how fun it would be to climb that spire, or that crevice, or even that big wall over there…

Hidden among the big cliffs and spires, there is a spot I have only seen referred to as Huge Cave. Rumors abound that it is a single room the size of a football field. I am well used to overly exagerated descriptions of caves, but it still seemed intriguing enough to go and see what was there.

Travel Directions: To get to Maple Canyon from the Wasatch Front, head south along I-15 until Nephi. From Nephi head east through the mountains until Fountain Green, stay on the west side of the valley and head south to Freedom. At the first road in Freedom you will head west and follow the road a short distance back northwest into the canyon itself. The pavement stops shortly inside the canyon, but it is a well maintained road up to the campground. (We encountered actual signs pointing out the turns from Fountain Green on. And a Google search of Maple Canyon Campground should get you there as well.) 

Once you reach the campground, there are some choices of where to stop. There is a couple dollar day use fee for the campground area. Signs are everywhere, but the obvious place to pay is right when you reach the campground by the first kiosks you encounter. Rock climbers can go anywhere and find something to do, there are better climbing websites to explain their climbing options. If you are headed for the cave, you want to follow the road along and go to very far end of the campground. About 100 feet before you leave the campground there is a small pullout on the left. There is a kiosk back in the trees 30′ or so that describe the hiking trail system. You are looking for the Right Fork Trail, and headed most of the way up toward the “Viewpoint” labeled on the maps.

Kiosk at the trailhead

The hike itself isn’t too long. Less than a mile one way. There are several small side trails that take off to the various climbing routes. Only one side trail stuck out as potentially big enough to be confusing, and you stay left when you hit it. The trail immediately starts to climb steeper than it has been to that point. It isn’t horrible, but I was happy to stop and catch my breath a few times.  You are headed to the “Pipedream” climbing area, we encountered a sign tied up on a tree with some rope. This is the more heavily trafficked trail, and you can’t miss the cave or the climbing routes as you get close.

Huge Cave itself is eye catching right from the start. About 20 feet up the wall, and a big black hole. We free climbed up into it with heavy hiking boots without any trouble, but both of us are well over 6 feet tall and have done a fair bit of scrambling in the past. A rope and someone confident enough to lead climb and belay would probably be a safer plan. Also be aware there are several pigeons that appear to live in the cave, that can be surprising as they fly out the entrance. There are plenty of big hand and footholds in the cobbles, but it is high enough that a slip and fall would be very bad.

The entrance of the cave has a three foot wall that you actually climb up and over, stepping down into the cave. The “entrance” is obviously an area that simply eroded open as the cliff has eroded back, happening after the main void had formed. It certainly isn’t the size of a football field, but it is impressively large none the less. 

The uphill end narrows down to a small crack. The downhill end has a large dirt pile, and had some minor water flow on the dirt that had come from the continuation of the crack system recently. The whole interior is fairly dusty, and pictures with a flash will look like a snowstorm if you have walked around much at all. It is interesting to walk around and try to hypothesize how the void formed, but there isn’t much more to look at than the big open space and ubiquitous conglomerate rocks. (There are a couple bolts we noticed inside, so somebody has done some interesting climbing.)

After the cave, we decided to continue hiking the loop over the viewpoint, and back down the Middle Fork trail. It is fairly steep heading up, and the trail was obviously less used and even partially washed out in a couple places. We decided we had to be on the right route when we found some extensive trail work creating stairs and erosion control. We followed our way up to the top, and followed the trail along the top of the cliffs. Despite the overcast and cloudy day, we still had some beautiful views looking down over Maple Canyon and out into the valley beyond.

The Middle Fork trail appeared to be more heavily used most of the way along. There was also a very impressive arch just a few hundred yards off the main trail, and one of the more impressive things to not miss if you are in the area.

On our way back out of the area, we noticed an interesting looking slot canyon. We decided it couldn’t go very far up, and decided to check it out as sunset rapidly approached. It was a very fun little spot, that was a fairly impressive slot canyon that was generally about 20 feet wide. After scrambling through some large boulder piles we found ourselves at a 30′ waterfall with a rope hanging down. We decided that was a good time to turn around in the semidarkness and cold, and found our way back out to end our day. (After doing some research later, the Box Canyon is private property that the landowners have allowed the public to continue to visit. Please be responsible and leave no trace if you visit so future access isn’t restricted.)

2011 Jewel Cave, South Dakota

This was part of a larger driving vacation well outside of Utah, but the second longest known cave in the world is not to be passed up when it is conveniently along your route. Over 150 miles of documented passage have been mapped in Jewel Cave as of the time of this post. The fine folks mapping out the cave are still adding miles per year, and are primarily limited now simply because of the lack of easy access points to the far reaches of the cave. Mapping and exploration trips now often require several days of camping in the cave, simply because it takes most of a day to get out to the known edges to explore. (A great caving description of Jewel Cave from a few years ago by someone who is now a Utah based caver.)

Another fun fact is that this cave has been outfitted with the tallest elevator in South Dakota at 234 feet, which beats my normal access route into caves.  The ½ mile loop that we toured is hard to even find in the sprawling maps you look at on the wall in the visitor center. There is only one known natural entrance, and now an elevator entrance about a mile away. It is incredible to think that something this large has only been proven to connect to the surface in one place.

Having experienced the convenience, I now believe most caves should be outfitted with elevators, and aluminum walkways before I visit. It would greatly stimulate the economy with job creation, and make travel through the caves much easier and safer. I am fairly certain if more Utah caves had elevators and walkways, our local caves would become considerably larger as well.

Overall the tour was great. We had signed up for the “scenic tour” and lucked out by being before the main tourist season. Even on a Saturday only really had about 15 people in the whole tour group.  So we had a little time to look around and ask questions between major stopping points.  I resisted the urge to go look around corners, knowing that I could spend days wandering around and never see it all.

The items I found fascinating as a caver used to wild caves:

  1. The elevator — After spending many hours of my life climbing thousands of feet to get to cave entrances, I have long argued caves should come with a parking lot and elevator. The fact that they had decided to install these 30-40 years ago is incredible. Most of us that ridgewalk can only dream of finding a cave worthy of tours, let alone elevators.
  2. Aluminum walkways — The sheer amount of aluminum used to make the walkways, stairs, and railings along the tour route was breathtaking in places. When you start out in the target room, you are standing on a massive platform that will easily hold entire tour groups. Comparable to a good sized set of aluminum bleachers in area. As you look over the railings while listening to the initial spiel, you realize there are small stairways and pathways down in the darkness below you. And you proceed to take a tour along aluminum walkways and stairs that even left my wife commenting on how much time and effort it would have taken to build. Then you factor in the concrete…
  3. Formations — The walls are absolutely coated in spar. As you are walking, you eventually notice that the small broken chunks of rock they lined the concrete path with are actually chunks of spar encrusted bedrock. There isn’t anywhere I remember on the tour that you aren’t able to stop and look around and see some sort of formation.  Beautiful soda straws, stalactites and stalagmites are the other things you will see. Some boxwork can be seen on the tour, as well as some small rimstone dams, and even flowstone draperies.

Overall the cave is well worth visiting if you are in the area. Anyone with even a remote interest in caves would enjoy themselves. It is a spacious tour, with only a handful of places you need to duck and watch your head. Most of the time you are on pathways in large rooms and passageways. I hope to come back and spend some time on wild tours or other projects in the future. At the very least plan to bring your own little light with you and you will see many more of the hidden corners and details. And recognize how big the rooms are, most cameras don’t have enough of a flash to light up a room.

2006 Tripod lessons with Schurtz

Somehow I talked my way into what was basically a Shurtz family trip for this event. It was the first time in quite a while that I felt like the slow person who was out of shape and slowing everyone else down. But it was an absolute blast!

We started out with an assignment to deal with some parts missing from the gate. There is a metal bar to keep people from having to negotiate the 90 degree corner while travelling both directions. It was rumored to be at the bottom of the shaft, so Dave arrived with materials to make do.

Dave showed us the basics of making a tripod in a few minutes. We added a few extra safety features, and tested it out. Partial slow motion failure ensued. We had a good laugh, and added a couple nails to keep the ropes from being able to slide along the smooth 2×4’s. If we would have started with anything with a rough surface the initial design would have been golden.

Everybody double checked gear, and made last surface stops. Around this time we found the “missing” bar stashed in some trees and bushes 100′ away. Since the tripod was already set up and ready to go, we went ahead and left the bar to deal with on our return.

We dropped down to cave level, and decided we would skip anything requiring further vertical gear for that day. We left some gear behind and began to travel pretty light, with basic necessities like water.  A couple of them had spent considerable time in the cave over the years, so Dave took some time to point out some of the important features and junctions for those who hadn’t. There were a couple potential leads a couple of them wanted to check out, and Dave trailed along and humored my picture taking while pointing out the places to be extra careful. There are parts of this cave where you do your best to reuse the same footprints and handholds everyone before you have used, to avoid additional damage.

We eventually looped back to a part of the cave I was familiar with, coming up into it from below! I was starting to understand why there were requirements that you have been on several trips to the cave before you should be considered qualified to lead trips. It is rare that I have no idea how parts of a cave interconnect, but this was one of those times. It didn’t help my cause that everyone I was following either had levitation abilities, or a shorter genetic link to spider monkeys.

Our return to the surface was relatively uneventful. Once up top we took the tripod apart, and attached the bar back to the chains below the gate so it wouldn’t disappear again. I had a great time on the trip, and got a taste of what it is like to be the slow person holding the group up. That was a very different experience for me, since years of hiking had trained me to take lots of pictures to slow me down for others with shorter legs.

2006 Candle lit Formations Galore

This was my first visit to this cave. It requires a 90′ free hang rappel, then you have to get into a side passage before you get off rope to avoid going another 100′ straight down. Not a good place to be learning basics of rappelling, and best to visit after you have had some considerable practice first.

The cave itself is billed as Utah’s piece of Lechuguilla Cave. It is formed bottom up, and full of fascinating formations and unique features that aren’t normally found in other Utah Caves.  There are thick deposits in some places, and in others the formations are so thick and delicate you are scared to breathe hard. In order to protect the cave there are some established routes to follow, and it is best to go with someone who has visited the cave several times to avoid getting turned around in some of the labyrinth sections. And they are able to point out some of the fun items to see like the bubblegum pink popcorn and candycane striped passageways.

We had a good time this trip, right up until we were back on the surface and discovered one of the vehicles had taken some more serious damage than initially thought on the way to the cave. Some temporary repairs were made, and we rushed back to civilization.