Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Natural Bridge Caverns: A Bridge to Another World

The caverns decribed in the following feature also appear on the Texas Bucket List that appears on this site.

If you have seen the billboards for Natural Bridge Caverns around San Antonio, Texas, and wondered whether you should go and visit the popular local attraction, the answer is definitely yes. And, if you are wondering when you should do it, the answer is now (for reasons that will become apparent).

“The caverns have been known about since the early 1900s but their extensive [nature] wasn’t really known,” Travis Wuest, vice president of Natural Bridge Caverns, told me when I visited the site. His family has owned the surrounding land for more than a century.

“This was all ranchland and the sinkhole was just a pretty place to picnic,” Wuest said of the area spanned by the natural bridge of rock that is the namesake of the place. “It was always thought to be a small, very insignificant cave.”

“But in 1960, four college students who were amateur cave explorers heard about the Natural Bridge and the sinkhole and got permission from my grandmother to explore it,” Wuest continued. “On their fourth expedition here, on March 27, 1960, they discovered about two miles of never-before-seen cave passage, probably the first men ever to have seen it.”

Based on that great revelation, the family decided to open the caverns as an attraction. It has grown ever since and this year is celebrating the 51st anniversary of the cavern’s discovery and 47 years in business. Today, it is the largest series of caves open to the public in Texas.

“I’ve grown up here doing it and so it’s very much my life,” said Wuest, who is his 30s. “It’s a fun industry to work in.”

“The caverns themselves are spectacular,” Wuest said. “And they are absolutely stunning right now because of all the rain we’ve had. So, the pools of water are full, water is dripping and flowing, you’re going to get water dripping on you in various places. This is a really beautiful time to see the cave under pretty much ideal conditions. Because the water just adds a dimension to it and makes it even prettier.”

There are currently five different guided tours of the caverns available:

* The Discovery Tour begins at the mouth of the original cave, beneath the natural bridge, and goes through the first half-mile of the area discovered by the St. Mary’s University students half a century ago. Chambers as much as 250 feet long, forests of towering stone pillars as tall as 50 feet, and bridges over darkened chasms are among the highlights of this 75-minute trip through the underworld.

* The Illuminations Tour descends 180 steps down into a strikingly beautiful half-mile section of caverns known as the Hidden Passages that were discovered seven years after the main section (part of which is pictured here and in the next picture, below). Highlights include the glistening Diamond River, delicate, hollow soda straws as much as 10 feet in length, and all sorts of strange and unique formations.

* The Lantern Tour, which runs each morning at 9 a.m., is a new feature that is offered just once a day. In it, guests are guided only by a lantern and can get a sense of what some of the earliest explorers of the caverns experienced.

* The two Adventure Tours are for the most hardcore of visitors and start where the other tours end, going off the beaten path into parts of the two subterranean complexes that are not generally open to the public.

“Those are reservation-only caving trips to undeveloped sections of the caverns,” Wuest said. “You’re down and dirty, rappelling, crawling, climbing, hiking. It’s a great, great trip. Very different, though. On those, it’s down and dirty, you’re going to be very sweaty and muddy, and you’re going to be crawling. They’re a riot, a lot of fun.”

Natural Bridge Caverns is located just north of San Antonio at 26495 Natural Bridge Caverns Road, off of FM 3009 and eight miles north of that road’s intersection with IH 35 at exit 17. For more information about this great site, call (210) 651-6101 or go to Amenities include a giftshop, snackbar, various informational exhibits, and the “Watchtower Challenge,” a climbing tower equipped with two 350-foot ziplines.