Serendipity and the Caverns of Sonora
My idea of a road trip is having a general idea of a destination but leaving a fair amount to serendipity.
That’s worked well for me over the years. It’s how I ended up at the Ben and Jerry’s plant in Vermont, discovered what The Thing is in Arizona and, last fall, how found myself in the Caverns of Sonora.
I had a week to kill between the Marfa, Texas, music festival I’d attended and my planned visit to Oztoberfest in Kansas. A chance encounter with a couple at Prada Marfa turned me toward Big Bend Ranch State Park, which then led to Big Bend National Park where -
I was about three-fourths of the way up the park’s Lost Mines Trail, happened upon a couple walking the opposite direction and shared with them that, after finishing the day’s hike, I would be heading north but really didn’t know where I was going.
That’s when I learned about the Caverns of Sonora. They raved about the Caverns, even saying they thought it was better than Carlsbad Caverns.
So Caverns of Sonora it was!
Before talking about the caverns, I feel the need to tell you about Sonora.
Sonora is kind of out in the middle of no-man’s land. It’s a town of just 3,000 located 170 miles northwest of San Antonio.
It’s a good four-hour drive from where I was coming from in the national park so I didn’t arrive until early evening, too late to explore the caverns. I found a room in a local motel and went out to try to find a bar and something to eat. Turns out the one and only place serving beer in town is a Mexican restaurant.
Nothing against Mexican food, no secret I’ve eaten and continue to eat my fair share, but it wasn’t what I was looking for on this particular occasion. I found a gas station, filled up with gas, purchased some provisions, and headed back to the motel.
The walls of the motel were a little on the thin side. Paper thin is the commonly used expression.
Watching tv, I could easily hear my next-door neighbor’s conversation. Especially as the volume of his voice grew ever louder.
He was talking with his daughter who, from what I could gather was probably around ninth grade or so in age. Apparently she had been lying on her back, scrolling along on her cellphone and it had slipped out of her hand, falling to her face and chipping off her front tooth. (I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the walls were thin, I might as well have been sitting in the same room with him.)
I felt so sorry for the girl as her father screamed at her, berated her, told her how stupid she was and called her at least a couple of choice names. Meanwhile I kept thinking he should be directing those words at himself. I considered yelling out at him but decided it wouldn’t make things better and might even make them worse.
Eventually the conversation ended and I was able to enjoy my cuisine of beer, chips and dip.
And anyway, that’s not what we’re here to discuss, so let’s get onto the –
Caverns of Sonora
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Caverns of Sonora is that it’s warm. They tell you to leave jackets and sweaters in the car. Trust them on that.
With a temperature of 72 degrees (F) and 98 percent humidity making it feel like 85(F), it felt warmer inside the caverns than it was outside on the morning I was there.
The Caverns are alive, constantly growing and changing with water trickling through. It is a fragile environment. Visitors are not allowed to touch anything inside or bring purses, backpacks or other items with them. If you do bring a jacket, you are required to wear it throughout the tour. You are allowed to bring a camera and your phone to take as many photos as you like.
The Caverns were discovered in the early 1900s, when a dog chased a raccoon down a hole, and have only been open to the public since 1960.
One thing making it especially unique is the extremely large number of calcite crystal formations.
Those include beautiful helictite formations that, unlike stalagmites and stalactites, can grow out from the side of the cavern wall.
By the way and by the by, I know I’m not the only one who learned how to remember the difference between stalagmites and stalactites. Stalag-might grow to the ceiling from the ground while stalac-tight hang tight from the ceiling.
In 2006, one of the more unusual helictite formations in the caverns was damaged with a piece stolen by a visitor. The culprit was never found but the incident led to the state of Texas passing a law now making it a felony to vandalize a cave.
We had a great tour guide named Lane who, as it turned out was not from the area and had never studied geology. She’d passed through Sonora shortly after college graduation, toured the caverns, loved it, saw a help wanted sign there and decided to stay.
In addition to the helictites there are countless speleothems formations including ones, are you ready, called popcorn, soda straws and bacon. Really. When you see them you’ll know why.
Popcorn is a kind of small bumps on the cavern surfaces. Soda straws, as you might imagine, are hollow cylinder formations and bacon is a kind of layered stone made by water slowly adding surfaces over time.
One of the really cool things came near the end of the tour when Lane turned off the cavern lights and we were able to see formations that glowed in the dark. I make not claims at being a spelunker, full disclosure, I looked up the terms used in this post, and sadly can’t remember the name of that particular formation.
The caverns are well lit and the walking surface is flat and smooth. One thing to keep in mind is that the tour takes you 155 feet below the surface with 360 steps along the way.
Lane was great about going slow and taking a couple of breaks along the way so pretty much anyone with near-average health can make the trip, but if you have trouble getting around you might want to think twice about it.
Cost for an adult is $20 and it’s open every day but Christmas. I’m just disappointed I wasn’t able to take part in their Discovery Challenge tour (I wasn’t there at the right time.)
It’s a four-hour tour that takes participants off the normal path including a 50-foot rappel into the Devil’s Pit. Though I am heading back through the area later this summer. Maybe they’ll be a side trip on the agenda.
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