Deep chill

No matter how many summers you’ve spent in South Texas, you’ll never tire of finding new ways to beat the 100-plus degree heat. Surprisingly enough, Texas is home to more than 2,000 known caves, most of which are located in the limestone and gypsum rich areas of central and west Texas.

Though Natural Bridge Caverns in New Braunfels seems the go-to site — it is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year — my fellow spelunker and I chose to visit the smaller, yet still well-known, Cascade Caverns in Boerne. The park is quaint and unassuming, and my companion remarked that everything looks a whole lot tinier than it did when he visited as a kid. The blazing heat outside the visitors’ center made the sight of our tour guide a welcome relief, and our small group of four gratefully followed him down the rock steps leading to the cave’s entrance as a resident family of vultures huddled on a shady ledge above.

The cool, moist air swelling from the cave feels fantastic — once inside, the temperature evens out to a comfortable 68 degrees. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the trail isn’t paved in concrete and sectioned off by rope barriers. Instead, we used limestone steps that were a tad slippery, then tread upon a slightly muddy, gravel walkway. The cave is left in a very natural state, greatly contributing to the feeling that you’re actually exploring.

Our guide relayed that the cave is 95-percent active, which means it’s still living, and cave
formations evolve continually as water dissolves the rock inside. He dips a hand into a pool of water dripping from the wall, and welcomes us to taste it. All of the pools and streams in the cavern are fed by natural springs and the water is 98-percent pure due to natural filtering processes. We had to crouch down to about half our size as we passed through a chamber leading to additional rooms — this would never happen on a more commercial cave tour! — and large water droplets (dubbed “cave kisses” by the guide) trickled onto us.

We looked a few feet above our heads to observe the “Diamond Ceiling,” thousands of stalactite-formation remains crowned by drops of water. This cave’s stalactites don’t often reach soda-straw length as they do in others, largely due to the low ceiling and the amount of flooding Cascade has experienced in the past. Another interesting aspect of this cave is that it supports plant life. Small ferns peek out of crevices along the trail, and our guide pointed out one that feeds off minerals in the air — it’s roots hug the outside of a rock, uncovered by soil.

Cascade’s largest room is about 200 feet below ground and houses a vast pool of water that is supposed to be fed by the grand finale, a 100-foot waterfall. Unfortunately, the natural springs that feed the waterfall are currently dried up due to drought, but the pool alone is something to behold. Our guide reminded us that this room was underwater when it was first explored, and we struggled to imagine the original owner swimming around here with a flashlight.

Our fellow cavers, Roger and Sonya from Denton, were trying to also hit the Cave Without A Name near Boerne in the afternoon. They spoke of thin crystals and bright colors in the Caverns of Sonora, which they visited the day before, but attested that widely varying structures make every cave a worthy destination. We all enjoyed the raw element of Cascade, especially because its largely unadulterated atmosphere made it easy to imagine what its original explorers must have encountered. •


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