Orion Knox's life was changed when he became the first human to view the incredible rock formations of Natural Bridge Caverns
By Gerald E. McLeod, Fri., April 9, 2010
Seeing Natural Bridge Caverns for the first time was a life-changing event for Orion Knox. After crawling through a muddy crevice nearly a hundred feet underground, he was the first human to see the incredible rock formations hidden far below the rocky soil. The cavern west of New Braunfels is Texas' biggest and most spectacular show cave.
In March 1960, four college buddies went through five gates to get to the Wuest family ranch house to ask permission to explore a sinkhole on the property. The collapsed cave was the only hint of the cavern below the surface. On the fourth trip underground – with Knox in the lead followed by Preston Knodell, Al Brandt, and Joe Cantu – the group hit the mother lode. In the faint light of their headlamps were giant columns as shiny as wax, dripping rock icicles hanging from the ceiling, and petrified waterfalls tumbling off the wall.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery, the Wuest family, who still own and operate the cave, invited the three surviving explorers back to reminisce.
"On our fourth trip into the cave, we crawled until everything ahead of us turned black," said Knox, who was 19 years old at the time. "Finding that first room was the biggest adrenaline rush of my life."
"It was the second biggest moment of my life," Knodell said. (Getting married was the first.)
"It was a really tight fit the entire way," Cantu said. "From the very beginning, Orion said he was going to help open the cave to the world. And he did."
On return trips, the boys brought cameras to document the colorful stalagmites, soda straws, and cave ribbons. It was under the glare of the photography lights that they discovered the enormity of what they had found.
Knox quit college and spent three years helping build the paths and bridges that take visitors 180 feet below the earth's surface. "It was a labor-intensive job," Knox says. "Everything had to be carried in or out." He was also among the first tour guides.
Very little about the cave has changed since it opened, other than improvements to the trail and lighting. The rock formations, created by mineral-rich water dripping through the limestone, grow about a centimeter every century. Many of the names given to the rooms and features by the discoverers are still used. Near the beginning of the tour, a sign marks the 2-foot-diameter hole that the boys crawled through. The space looks very small and dark from the path that winds through the cave.
Natural Bridge Caverns is about eight miles west of I-35. The cave is open daily from 9am to 4pm with extended hours during the summer. Watch for special events to commemorate the anniversary. For more information, call 210/651-6101 or go to www.naturalbridgecaverns.com.
979th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.