written by: Tony Gill
The adventurous enter Utah’s landscape in search of classically Western panoramas from jagged, snow-capped mountain peaks to soaring desert mesas. Under clear skies and expansive scenery, it’s easy to be awed and feel small. Beneath the surface, however, a wholly different experience awaits the resolute who want to feel rather large. Don’t just get off the beaten path. Get below it.
Perhaps this sounds like a claustrophobe’s nightmare, but one’s not required to confront “the rapture”‑a psychological reaction to depth and darkness colorfully described in James Tabor’s book about cavers, Blind Descent, as an experience akin to having an anxiety attack while on methamphetamines—to enjoy the grottos and fissures that crisscross the Beehive State. Some caves are merely a short jaunt from the car door right near Salt Lake City. Or you can head south for buried canyons with a cabriolet experience. Whatever you’re searching for, there’s a whole new world down there.
Timpanogos Cave National Monument
Timpanogos is the Queen of the Wasatch, rivalled in height only by Mt. Nebo, but unchallenged in its allure and outline against the horizon. It’s possible to drive by it for years without ever realizing the massif holds a subterranean world impressive enough to earn its own National Monument designation. Entering Timpanogos Cave requires a guided tour from the National Park Service, and it’s recommended you purchase tickets—$16 per adult—in advance of your tour.
A brief but strenuous hike rising nearly 1,100 feet over 1.5 miles brings visitors to the cave entrance at 6,730 feet. From there, the ranger-led tour explores the twisting caverns of three limestone caves: Hansen Cave, Middle Cave and Timpanogos Cave. The underground chambers are colorfully ornamented with formations of helictites and anthodites. Rangers educate cavers about the science behind the formations as well as stories of the caves’ discovery and exploration.
2038 Alpine Loop Rd., American Fork, 877-444-6777, nps.gov/tica
Ready To Crawl
Mammoth Lava Tubes and Bloomington Cave
Ready to strike out on your own? Numerous caves across Utah are easily accessible and can be explored on your own without requiring advanced technical skills or specialized gear—as long as you don’t mind a tight squeeze or two.
The Mammoth Lava Tubes are in the Dixie National Forest, near Duck Creek Village. The location makes cave a great spot to hit while visiting nearby landmarks like Cedar Breaks National Monument and Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The caves were formed by cooling lava and water as recently as 2,000 years ago, leading to more than 2,200 feet of passages. Mammoth Lava Tubes holds four main chambers with tunnels varying from full standing height to belly crawls. You can park right by the main cave entrance, making the cave ideal for families. The largest chamber may be closed during winter months to protect hibernating bats, but the smaller tunnels are accessible whenever the road is passable. Remember to bring headlamp or flashlight and some water.
Mammoth Cave Road, Duck Creek Village
For a headier challenge, head down to Bloomington Cave near St. George. You can explore the cave on your own, but you need to secure a permit, which is free, from the St. George Bureau of Land Management Field Office. Bloomington Cave is a tectonic cave formed along a fracture line with a surveyed length of more than 7,500 feet with narrow, labyrinthine passages winding through six distinct levels. The cave can be very challenging for the inexperienced, but the effort is worth it. Passages have slippery surfaces and require steep, narrow climbing, so come prepared with lights, food, water and clothing. Bring a map for navigation, which corresponds with flags throughout the cave that mark the route. Visit the St. George BLM Field Office for more information.
345 East Riverside Drive, St. George, 435-688-3200, blm.gov
Drop Top Exploration
Southern Utah Canyoneering
Prefer a little sunlight with your exploration? Southern Utah is a canyoneering mecca. You can get a great introduction to slot canyons by visiting popular sites like Little Wild Horse Canyon and Ding and Dang Canyon, all near Goblin Valley State Park in the San Rafael Swell. These hikes are non-technical but still give an easily navigable slot canyon experience in a half day trip.
For the adventurous, we recommend hooking up with a guide service to descend into Southern Utah’s depths. Get In The Wild Adventures (GITW) has an array of canyoneering trips designed to provide a true wilderness experience. “We operate geographically between popular places in the Dirty Devil/Robber’s Roost area. It’s a spectacular area, and you’ll see virtually no other people,” says GITW owner and lead guide Christopher Hagedorn.
GITW offers everything from day trips departing from Green River and Hanksville to fully-supported multi-day canyoneering base camp trips. You can take a trip through Blue John Canyon—famous for being the site of Aaron Ralston’s harrowing story chronicled in the film 127 Hours—a gorgeous, beginner-friendly canyon featuring towering walls and narrow passages. Stepping up to Hogwarts Canyon, you’ll be challenged with four rappels, including one through a red sandstone arch, and a tight cathedral section so narrow you’ll have to take your pack off to squeeze through. GITW even offers occasional nighttime trips where you’ll enjoy the company of the local bats under a full moon. Another highlight of many GITW trips is the opportunity to see Native American pictographs and artifacts along your journey. Day trips cost $199 per person, and GITW will provide you with all the gear and expertise you need to safely enjoy exploring a stunning, unique landscape without the crowds you’ll find in the typical tourist hot spots.
A Treat For Your Feet
Guide Christopher Hagedorn is quick to remind folks not to wear their Sunday best in caves and canyons. “Bring your play clothes,” he says. “Canyons tend to shred clothing and gear, so nothing lasts very long.” Footwear, however, is another story and is extremely important. Any rubber soled shoes will do, but kicks with sticky, black rubber
give you the grip you need scramble up canyon walls and squeeze through narrow passages.
Five Ten Access
These versatile hikers have sticky Stealth rubber soles, reinforced toe protection and won’t look out of place in a canyon or the bar and restaurant after you’re done exploring. $140 fiveten.com
La Sportiva TX2 women’s
These ultra-lightweight Italian beauties are packable, drain quickly and will have you clinging to the rock like the spiders you’re likely to be sharing space with. $130 lasportiva.com
See more inside our 2017 November/December Issue.