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Spelunking in Idaho's Underworld

Exploring an unnamed lava tube at Craters of the Moon. Photo: courtesy Craters of the Moon National Park Service

The whole idea of crawling and slithering like a snake in tight spaces, or, worse, running into a snake coming the other way, sounds preposterous to many of us.

But caving, or “spelunking,” as it’s sometimes called, is part of a larger, more inclusive activity called “canyoneering” that incorporates the best of climbing, caving and hiking. Often it means heading into the bowels of vertiginous slot canyons, where the natural beauty is remarkable and uncharted.

There are numerous caves scattered throughout Idaho, especially in the south central and eastern parts of the state. Some of the most popular caves in Idaho for canyoneers and spelunkers include the Minnetonka, Wilson Butte, Shoshone, Devil’s Hole and Eureka.

Also worth a visit are the caves at Craters of the Moon, southeast of the Wood River Valley. “It’s a pretty remarkable place,” said Doug Owen, Craters of the Moon park ranger, geologist and educator for 17 years. “There’s an incredible adaptation of plant and animal life.”

Indeed. So unusual is the national monument that, in 1969, Apollo 14 astronauts, including Alan Shepard, visited the Craters to prepare for future trips to the moon. Reportedly, NASA still has ongoing projects there.
The volcanic history of Craters of the Moon, as the Shoshone Indian legend tells it, involves a somewhat angry serpent that coiled around and squeezed the mountain until liquid rock flowed, fire shot from cracks and the mountain exploded. That explosion created the deepest rift on the planet and the largest basaltic, dominantly Holocene lava field in the lower 48 states in the last 10,000 years. Of the 239 caves created by the lava flow, only five are open to the public. Some caves have crawls in them and all involve a little boulder scampering.

Also near the Wood River Valley is Idaho’s Mammoth Cave. It is the largest volcanic cave in the world and has walls that shine silver from the mineral deposits. This is a flat, well-excavated cave and easy for any kind of visitor.
The Papoose Cave, near Riggins, is the 11th deepest cave in North America and much higher on the adventure meter. Discovered by two elk hunters in 1970, it requires explorers to have a Forest Service permit to enter, along with a Forest Service Cave Monitor. It’s a “very tortuous” passage that is at most two to three feet wide and about 100 feet high, said Joe Crocks, owner of Hyperspud Sports in Moscow, Idaho.
 In the summer, moisture is plentiful inside the Papoose Cave, offering a 40-foot repel down a waterfall. A small trickling stream and deep pool also appear which, due to the depth of the cave, remain at about 34 degrees. In the winter, the water inside the Papoose Cave freezes and the interior is “decorated by limestone formations that are quite pristine and unusual in the West,” Crocks said. It takes a full day to hike from the entrance to the end of the cave and back, which doesn’t include time exploring all the separate passages.

“It can be challenging and technical,” said Lisa Jennings of the Idaho Canyoneers. “Caving and canyoneering are similar, though canyoneering is more above ground. It’s a whole lot of fun.”
Among the local caves the Idaho Canyoneers have explored are the Beauty Cave at Craters of the Moon and Smith’s Crack near Mountain Home, which has many underground “rooms” and a 20-foot vertical drop.
“After the bottom, the caverns slowly begin to regain altitude, eventually leading to the exit, about 100 yards north of the entrance. A few spots are tight so be forewarned,” Jennings explained.
And yeah, there are snakes sometimes. Ken Ordes, a climber from Boise, recalled a time at Gore’s Cave, near Mountain Home, when the group stopped “dead in our tracks as we listened to rattlesnakes guarding the entrance,” he said. “No one went in that trip.”

But when there aren’t snakes guarding the entrance to Idaho’s underworld, a spelunking trip could be more revealing than anything you might find aboveground. -Dana DuGan



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