My palms are sweating. Heart racing. Chest tight. It’s strange because I’m sitting on a couch in my living room and haven’t moved in over an hour, but I can’t help it. Watching disoriented cave divers in the documentary The Rescue, about the effort to save a youth soccer team trapped deep in a cave in Thailand, led to claustrophobia by proxy. I’ve had a similar reaction reading passages explaining a psychological condition affecting cavers referred to as the rapture in a book called Blind Descent. It’s paradoxically horrifying and alluring to imagine oneself wriggling through the tight underground passages.
There’s a pull to the unexplored realm beneath our feet. Even I, an admittedly claustrophobic person, feel it. While the distinctly mountainous skyline is Utah’s best-known feature, the caverns below hold underappreciated wonders just out of sight. Explore Utah’s caves—don’t worry, no ropes or specialized scuba gear required—from the Wasatch to the desert south and everywhere in between.
Utah Caving for Beginners
All the caves we’re talking about are non-technical, horizontal caves. In some, you’ll have to endure tight squeezes and sloped floors by crawling, chimneying, scrambling and the like. If you’re able to wriggle around in rocky, dirty passages, these caves shouldn’t prove impassable. Anything more technical than these, however, and you should seek some professional guidance and specialized gear.
Remember that caves are delicate and fragile ecosystems that took thousands to millions of years to form, so leave them better than you found them. Don’t alter caves in any way, leave nothing behind and take nothing from the cave but pictures. Time to explore the Utah underground.
The Perfect Introduction: Timpanogos Cave National Monument near Salt Lake City
Three limestone caves—Hansen, Middle and Timpanogos—formed by tectonic uplift and hydrothermal water were connected by man-made tunnels in the 1930s. Spectacular speleothems (Salvador Dalí-like formations of deposited minerals) cover the cave system’s enormous chambers. Visiting the caves requires a three-mile round trip hike. You must be part of a guided tour that is $12 for adults, and you can sign up for an introduction to caving tour for $22, which is the perfect way to get started spelunking. Visit NPS.gov for more information.
Follow the Flow: Mammoth Cave near Duck Creek Village
The massive tubes formed by cooling lava and water in the Dixie National Forest just over 2,000 years ago feature over 2,200 feet passages. The large entrance accesses chambers that quickly constrict and are completely dark. (Bring light!) The exit—nearly a quarter mile away—is a small tube with just enough room to crawl through on your belly. Travel as far as your nerve allows. The cave is not accessible until June due to snow. Visit fs.usda.gov for more information.
Spelunking Time: Bloomington Cave near St. George
The sprawling cave system—it’s the fifth longest in Utah at 1.39-miles—was created by tectonic movement. Thousands of years of water flow through the limestone has left stunning speleothems throughout to enjoy. A permit obtained from the Bureau of Land Management is required at least three days in advance to enter the cave.
There are five levels to the cave connected by a maze of passages, but it’s well-marked with numerous routes to help explorers along the way. The Bloomington Cave is considered unrated (non-technical). Make no mistake, however, you’re real-deal spelunking here, so come fully prepared with all the gear listed above. The most popular route is the White Route from the south entrance, which accesses the Big Room via a tight passage called the Fanny Flume.
Don’t Go So Deep: The Sand Caves near Kanab
If these cave adventures sound a bit too adventurous for those fond of the surface, there’s no need to go quite so deep. The Sand Caves off Hwy 89 near Kanab are human-made caverns from the area’s sand mining history. Filled with natural light, the sand caves are an aesthetic mixture of Utah’s famed sandstone arches and traditional caves that don’t require you to descend underground.
What to Bring
You won’t need much specialized gear for the first beginning caves mentioned here, but as you progress down the list you’re going to want to bring more of the items listed below. Caves can be dark, wet, rocky, slippery and cold, so plan accordingly.
A UIAA certified helmet (think a climbing helmet) like the Half Dome from local Utah gear company Black Diamond. ($60)
Three light sources (running out of light underground is a nightmare scenario and two should be hands free) like the ultra-lightweight Petzl Bindi. ($45)
Something with sturdy ankle protection and decent grip in the wet preferred, such as the Lone Peak All Weather Hiker from Utah company Altra. ($170)
Oval waterproof bags like the PVC-free Petzl Personnel Pack ($99) keep snacks, water, first aid kit and other necessities dry without getting stuck in tight passages.
Coveralls or sturdy long sleeves and pants
Carhartt and Dickies for the win because you’re going to get dirty.
Rocks are hard on unprotected hands.
Polypropylene long underwear
Wicking, non-cotton base layers keep you warm when wet.
Just like hands, rocks are hard on unprotected knees.