Day Trips & Beyond: Natural Bridge Caverns

Underground expedition explores hidden passage

One of the most experienced cave dome climbers in North America, Lee White, ascends the 120-foot high Dome Pit wall. After placing ropes, other members of the six-man team followed to the passage near the ceiling. (Photo by Bennet Lee Photography.)

Natural Bridge Caverns, one of Central Texas' most beautiful show caves, became 600 feet larger on May 8. Explorers entered a tunnel near the top of one of the large underground chambers to follow the passageway where no man had walked, or crawled, before.

Although the new passage won’t immediately alter what visitors to the cavern north of San Antonio see, it might increase the understanding of how the cave was formed and has changed over time, says Brad Wuest, who owns the cave along with his brother Travis.

The Wuest family settled on the land above the cave in 1883. In 1960, four college students from San Antonio explored the cave for first time. They eventually crawled, climbed, and shimmied two miles into the darkness using gas headlamps not much brighter than a cigarette lighter. The first half-mile section of the cave opened to the public in 1967.

The May expedition was the first major exploration of the cave since the Wuest brothers’ father found the Hidden Passages section leading to the “Dome Pit,” a large chamber stretching 120 feet from floor to ceiling. Near the ceiling they could see, but were unable to reach, another passageway.

Natural Bridge Caverns' co-discoverer, Orion Knox, now 78 years old, crawls through an area known as the “Birth Canal." Knox and three other college students discovered the cave on a ranch north of San Antonio in 1960. He quit college to help develop the cave for public viewing and worked many years for the Caverns. (Photo by Bennet Lee Photography)

Just to get to the Dome Pit the expedition had to maneuver more than 1,100 feet underground. At one point they passed through a tight 14-inch space called the “Birth Canal.”

The brothers first explored the inaccessible passage at the top of the Dome Pit with a drone on April 17. On the video monitor they saw a pile of bat guano and pools of water partially covered in “cave ice,” a calcite crust on the water that grows about one cubic inch in 100 years. “When we saw that we knew we had to go in there,” Brad said. Having grown up in the cavern, both brothers are skilled spelunkers with experience in caves around the world.

The Wuest brothers brought in Lee White, an expert cave dome wall climber, to scale the limestone wall that resembles melted wax. It took White less than two hours to the climb up to the passage. Video by Passmore VR.

A team of 14 made the trek, including 78-year-old Orion Knox Jr., one of the college students who made the original discovery. Knox eventually had to turn back when the sticky mud sucked the sole off one of his boots.

Eight support members of the team stayed behind in the staging area in the Dome Pit while six members made their way into the passageway to see spectacular cave formations that no human had ever seen.

With the brothers alternating the lead, the team hiked, crawled, and squeezed 600 feet to where the passage split in two. In all, they spent 13 hours in the subterranean world exiting around midnight. Video by Passmore VR.

Carbon dating the bat guano and bones and surveying the passage 145 feet below the surface will give them a better understanding of the cave environment, Brad says.

“It’s an incredible experience to stand where no human has gone before,” Brad says. “It’s exciting and humbling to be surrounded by the incredible beauty of the cave.”

These hyperdelicate phenomena are formed from mineral-rich drops of water that attach to each other and grow at the rate of approximately one cubic inch per 100 years, giving the visual impression of frosty “ice” around the surface edge of the pools. (Photo by Bennet Lee Photography)

Natural Bridge Caverns is about an hour south of Austin off I-35. For the rest of us, the caverns offers four tours to explore the depths without the sticky mud and tight spaces. The Discovery Tour follows the original explorers’ route for half a mile through the largest and most colorful rooms. The Hidden Passages Tour goes to the last section discovered and is famous for its soda straw stalactites. The Adventure Tour lets visitors get the feel of caving. The Lantern Tour goes below ground with only flashlights to light the way. For more information, go to www.naturalbridgecaverns.com.


Gerald E. McLeod has been traveling around Texas and beyond for his "Day Trips" column for more than 25 years. Keep up to date with his journeys on his archive page.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Day Trips, Natural Bridge Caverns, cave tours, Travis Wuest, Brad Wuest, Lee White, Orion Knox Jr.

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