I’m perched at the side of an underground pit, watching nervously as a guide shuffles across a ledge in front of me.
It’s my turn next. And even though I’m wearing a harness that will keep me safe if I slip, the prospect of plummeting into the 30-foot hole feels very real.
I tighten the buckle on my helmet and inch forward, clipping the carabiner dangling from my harness onto a safety rope affixed to the wall. Then I ease out onto a rock shelf and slowly tiptoe my way across the Fairy Pit.
In a few minutes I arrive safely on the other side. I’ve just conquered one of the more exciting parts of the new St. Mary’s Adventure Tour at Natural Bridge Caverns. Before I finish the three-hour tour, I’ll also scamper up two steep inclines and slosh through a subterranean pool of water.
This, my friends, is the best way to explore a cave.
The new adventure tour at Natural Bridge Caverns, step by step
Unlike the traditional guided tours of the caverns, which stick to paved pathways and don’t involve mud, water or scrambling up rocky inclines, this one serves up something much more authentic.
To prepare, I spent about 20 minutes gearing up and practicing clipping and unclipping my safety equipment. Then we hiked down a paved trail beneath the namesake natural rock bridge at the cavern’s entrance. A few hundred yards in, tour guide Ethan Fagan lifted a rope that blocked access to a much more rugged passageway.
“There’s lots to see back there,” Fagan said. He and team leader John Young, who’s also with us today, helped design the new tour at the cave north of San Antonio.
We follow a dirt passageway, and I’m glad I’ve worn sturdy shoes with good grip. I point my headlamp down the rocky tunnel. Delicate straws hang from the ceiling and pillars as thick as my leg rise from the ground. Some of the cream-colored formations are streaked with red and black.
Wading through water
At one point, we forge a watery, ankle-deep pool of water. There’s no point trying to keep my feet dry, so I just walk right through it. There’s mud, too, and pretty soon I look like I’ve been in a mud wrestling match. (Showers are available at the end, and I’ve brought a change of clothes, so I don’t mind.)
A bat flaps past, ignoring us. We see baseball-bat sized columns called broomsticks, and formations that look like fried eggs. In one spot, the guides point out what looks like a cup of crème brulee perched atop a pedestal.
“The formations are absolutely incredible,” Young says, and he’s right.
History behind the new Adventure Tour at Natural Bridge Caverns
The new tour is named for St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Four students from the caving club at the university discovered much of these caverns back in 1960. Exploration has never really stopped. A little more than 3.5 miles have been surveyed, but cavers still check out new “leads,” where the passages could continue. At its deepest known point, this cave reaches 304 feet below the scrub-covered surface.
I want to know what it’s like to experience utter darkness, so the two guides and I flip off our lights. It’s so dark I can’t even see my hand in front of my face.
“This is like going to church for me,” Young says, as we sit quietly.
Young and Fagan designed the tour to give visitors the chance to put on a harness and get a taste of what a real caver experiences when he or she creeps through a wild cave. They hope the experience will inspire those who take it to protect delicate cave environments that exist throughout Central Texas and beyond.
The new St. Mary’s Adventure Tour is one of two wild tours at Natural Bridge Caverns. The four-hour Discovery Adventure Tour is more physically demanding, and participants must crawl, stoop, and squat their way around obstacles. The St. Mary’s Tour doesn’t call for any crawling but does require climbing and the use of technical equipment. No previous experience is needed for either tour.
If You Go
Natural Bridge Caverns is located about 50 miles from downtown Austin, at 26495 Natural Bridge Caverns Road.
There is no on-site lodging at Natural Bridge Caverns.
Eat & Drink:
Big Daddy’s Sweets, Treats and Brew, located at the park, serves ice cream, fudge, nuts, beer, wine and more. The Cavern Café in the park’s visitor center offers pizza, chicken strips, burgers, hot dogs and more.
Chances are you’ll get muddy. Bring a change of clothing. Showers are available. Info: https://naturalbridgecaverns.com/