Published: January 3rd 2013November 6th 2011
Palace of the Angels
A small portion of the Caverns of Sonora
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the real sub-eatha guide, not the book by Douglas Adams
, begins as follows:
“Space is big
. Really Big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is!”
Clearly, whoever wrote that part never visited Texas.
I spent hours in my car today, across a distance that in the Northeast would involve at least six states.
Not only did I spend the entire drive in Texas, I didn’t even cross half the state!
Most of it was as empty, and mind numbing, as the last few days.
This part of Texas sits on the Edwards Plateau
, which by itself is larger than some states.
The place is unbelievably large, and most is quite flat.
Little mesas do stick up here and there.
I then started seeing oil pumps.
Their numbers quickly grew until they covered the landscape. Oil
is as much a part of the character of Texas as cattle ranching
Above them was something a little more surprising, a huge collection of windmills.
Everything out here is covered in brown scrub.
Part of the first major room in the cave
Much of it is dying, and the rest is already dead.
This area forms the heart of the worst drought in US history
for nearly a century.
Parts of this landscape have not seen moisture of any type in a year, and most of the rest has had less than an inch.
For what it’s worth, the sky was nearly cloudless throughout.
The scenery remained the same for a long time, until I entered a wide canyon.
The center held a wide strip of sand with a thin ribbon of water through the middle, the Pecos River.
It’s the first flowing water of any kind I’ve seen in two days.
The roadway crossed the river, climbed out of the canyon, and continued east.
I finally pulled off the interstate at a rural but paved road, with no signs of civilization.
The road entered a valley past oil wells and two cattle ranches, then split and climbed a very steep hill.
At the top it passed through other valleys.
It then ended at something out of character for this landscape, a campground next
Valley of Ice
A small portion of this room, which has more helictites by itself than most caves
to a large building.
The building sign states “Caverns of Sonora”.
The Caverns of Sonora
, although relatively unknown outside the state, is Texas’ most beautiful cave.
It’s small, but absolutely filled with formations
of all kinds, including incredibly rare ones found almost nowhere else.
Geologists have held conventions in this remote spot just so they can study the minerals in this cave.
I had a wait for the next tour
, so I asked the ticket people where I could get lunch.
They sent me to Sonora, the closest town.
I need to point out that ‘closest’ out here meant a fifteen minute drive.
In Sonora, I went to Dairy Queen
Most Americans know this chain as the purveyor of soft serve ice cream treats.
In rural Texas, they are far more, the place where the community gathers
They have an entire menu of fast food, with the largest portions listed as ‘Texas sized’.
The Sonora Dairy Queen also had a bulletin board; instead of the usual community notices it was covered in newspaper clippings about the local high school football team and
Helictites close up
The Caverns of Sonora's most famous, and numerous, formation type
Caverns of Sonora
The Caverns of Sonora have strange geology
Like Carlsbad Caverns [see The Grand Canyon With a Roof
] the cave occurs in a thick limestone layer above petroleum deposits.
Unlike Carlsbad, it contains a maze of small passages and rooms.
Geologists currently believe the cave was carved by steam containing sulfuric acid.
Like few other caves worldwide, this one is also warm and humid.
The high humidity likely contributed to the incredible profusion of formations.
It also means that any tour will be a sweaty hike.
Past the entrance, we dropped through a maze of tight little passages.
The walls are all curved into weird shapes with no formations whatsoever.
They lead to a series of small rooms.
All of them had wavy walls.
The guide pointed out a series of shallow potholes on the ceiling, how geologists deduced the cave was carved by steam.
We then entered an obviously artificial tunnel.
It circumvents an incredibly narrow passage that ends above a ten foot drop.
The tunnel ended at the largest room so far, the Devil’s Pit,
Sonora Christmas Trees
A formation found nowhere else, stalagmites covered in helictites
on the other side of that drop.
In this room, our guide described the early exploration
of the cave.
He pointed out markings on the wall left by the first explorers to mark the way out.
One of those markings was next to a hole in the wall that looked impossibly small.
It leads to a passage just wide enough for a human and twenty feet long.
We bypassed that one through another artificial tunnel.
Until this point, the Caverns of Sonora has resembled a smaller version of other caves I’ve been in.
The cave is cool and dry, and has no formations at all.
The trail now dropped elevation, and that changed.
The place became warm, and as humid as an East Texas summer.
Formations started appearing, slowly at first and then more and more.
Like no other cave I’ve seen, the formations in this one are incredibly dense, and wet.
The wetness is important because it means they are all still growing.
First, we passed some clumps of stalactites and stalagmites, and a wall of white flowstone.
A room filled with incredibly fragile soda staws, most two feet or more long
we saw cave popcorn, where water pooled on the walls and evaporated.
We then saw our first instance of this cave’s signature formation, little white crystals on the walls, in the Sponge Room.
These are helictites of calcite, one of the rarest of all cave formations.
These don’t look very impressive, but they are just the teaser.
The trail passed more stalactites and stalagmites.
They appear denser and denser as the path proceeds.
Some had the layers of flowstone that make them look like wedding cakes.
A few had merged to form columns.
Our guide pointed out the drops of water on several of them, showing the formations are still building.
Others glistened in the artificial light from a layer of moisture.
Touching any of these formations will irreparably damage them due to the oil on people’s fingerprints.
Valley of Ice
We then entered a room that was truly astonishing
, the Valley of Ice.
At first glance, ever surface appeared to be coated with white confectioners’ sugar.
A closer look showed that everything was actually helictites
Most caves have
This is solid stone, believe it or not
only a small number if they have any at all; in this room they covered every conceivable surface.
Our guide described the types.
Most common are spikes, which appeared everywhere; the walls, on other formations like stalactites, and even on each other.
Next were twisting curls called pretzel knots.
Finally, the helictites can form small triangular fins attached at a single point, fishtails.
The Caverns of the Sonora are the only cave in the world with the last type.
Geologists can’t explain why this cave has so many helictites in general, while every other has almost none.
From that room, we passed deeper in the cave, and the scenery became still more amazing
We passed multiple stalagmites so covered in helictite spikes they looked like a pine forest in winter underground, the Christmas Tree Room.
We then passed a dense collection of tiered flowstones covered in helictites, fairy tale wedding cakes, in the Palace of the Angels.
The formations just go on and on.
Lower Room Soda Straws Soda straws
are rare formations created by the steady drip of water drops.
The largest formations in the cave
Limestone solidifies on the outside of the drips, creating a thin hollow tube.
They are incredibly fragile, and most caves only have short ones.
We passed through a room containing multiple soda straws over two feet long with one nearly four feet, the Lower Room.
All of them were surrounded by more helicite formations.
Our guide then pointed out something truly incredible, a helicite fish tail attached to the bottom of a two foot soda straw!
In one corridor we passed a squat wet stalagmite with a remarkable green-brown color.
An early explorer recorded its remarkable resemblance, in both form and color, to a mound of applesauce.
The name stuck.
In the deepest accessible room in the cave, the Little Lower Room, we passed a set of odd green-purplish rocks.
Cave geologists could not identify what they were.
They ultimately took a sample and sent it to several universities.
One of them finally identified it as an incredibly rare amalgam of petroleum and limestone.
Sometime in the past, oil from deposits below had seeped into this part of the cave.
Baby Grand Canyon
A small portion of a large rift underground
We later passed through a series of larger rooms.
These contained the largest stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone in the cave.
Some of them looked like the tiered wedding cakes that I saw back at Carlsbad.
The largest of these is called Red Top from its color.
One room contained a deep fissure absolutely filled with stalagmites, the Baby Grand Canyon.
Some caves have formations where a stream of water containing minerals drips along a wall.
Over time, the stream deposits minerals along its course, creating a ribbon.
The mineral content usually changes over time, creating multicolored ribbons that look like bacon strips.
This cave has half a dozen examples on a single wall.
A narrow high room featured two passages high on the wall right next to each other; one with white flowstone and the other with brown.
The two types of flowstone
stay separate all the way from the passages to the floor of the room.
Geologists can’t explain how this happened.
Another room features a ribbon of pure white flowstone from a high passage to
What remains of the cave's most famous formation, the butterfly
the floor, Moonmilk Falls.
A room called the Crystal Palace features a stalactite and stalagmite separated by a gap about as large as a water drop.
Unlike the version in Carlsbad Cavern, in this cave the gap had a water drop in it.
Their official name is The Lovers.
One passage follows a narrow crevice with a slanted shelf above it.
At one point water containing brown minerals dripped directly on the edge of the shelf.
Over time it produced the astonishing formation of a stalagmite on the edge of the ledge, a stalactite directly below it, and another stalagmite on the floor of the ravine below.
Near the end of the tour, we saw what was once the cave’s most famous formation, the Butterfly.
Two separate fishtails grew from the exact same spot.
I have to say ‘once was’ because some scoundrel broke part of the right wing
a decade ago, making the formation less impressive than it once was.
The group that owns the cave has a huge reward for whomever manages to catch the creep
Belly of the Whale
A natural corridor on the way out of the cave
(whether dead or alive is unknown; this IS Texas).
On the way out, we climbed through more rooms like those on the way in, rounded wavy walls with no formations at all.
Thanks to all the humidity, this was a tiring hike.
Those rooms lead to a long corridor with a nearly perfect parabolic ceiling and white walls, the Belly of the Whale.
That in turn led to a blasted passage, and the exit.
After the cave, the highway east was just the same as before: dry mesas, dead plants, oil wells, and long views.
Very gradually, the scenery finally changed.
The mesas became low rolling hills.
The dead desert scrub became live green, and then turned into trees.
These became more and more dense.
I have finally left the deserts for the hill country of central Texas.
I pulled off the interstate at Fredericksburg
Downtown, I found myself transported from Texas to Germany.
Fredericksburg looks exactly like a German village.
The town was founded by German immigrants
over a century ago, and it has
Texas oil well
I wouldn't be in Texas without seeing something like this
kept the look and atmosphere.
That atmosphere and its proximity to San Antonio mean the place is overwhelmed with visiting Texans every weekend.
Every good lodging is a Bed and Breakfast
, and the area has one of the highest concentrations in the state.
I went through the Absolute Charm
agency to find a place to stay.
They treated me well even after I asked for something on the low end of the price spectrum, for which they deserve credit.
I ended up with a spare room in a house within walking distance of downtown.
I ate dinner tonight at a restaurant recommended by my host, Auslander
They serve some of the most authentic German food available in this very Germanic town.
The décor is quite authentic, with lots of old wood.
My dinner was very meat heavy and tasty, washed down with obscure German beer.
The deserts were all American, though.
The other reminder that I am still in Texas was the TVs behind the bar, which showed non-stop American football.