March, 2015 – Continuing our RV travels east from Big Bend National Park, we were headed to Fort Worth, Texas, to do a disc brake conversion on our trailer that would truly transform our driving experience and put a huge grin on Mark’s face. But first we decided to make a brief stop at the sensational Caverns of Sonora, a massive cave system that is considered to be one of the most beautiful caves in the world.
Fortunately for us, and for all RVers, Sonora is right on I-10, just a little north and east of Big Bend National Park, and the caves are just 8 miles west of Sonora. The tours run every 2 hours or so, and when we arrived there was no one signed up for the next tour. By the time it started 50 minutes later, there was a group of about 12!
This is a “warm” cave, and we were advised to shed our jackets and sweatshirts because the temperature is generally in the low 80’s in the cave. I was a little reluctant — after all, central Texas was in the throes of ice storms — but once we got into the cave, I was glad I did.
The Caverns of Sonora are on ranch land that was owned by Bill Mayfield at the turn of the last century, and they were first discovered when a rancher’s dog chased a raccoon into a hole.
Explorers quickly found out that after about 500 feet of scrambling along a narrow passage from the entrance, there was a massive pit that opened up and blocked the way completely. It took about 50 years for anyone to make it past the pit. It was a daredevil feat for the ones who did, because they had to climb way above the pit, with scant and dim sources of light!
These early explorers discovered that the cave is about 7 miles long and is filled with exotic and intricate calcite deposits and designs created by water filled with minerals dripping from the ceiling of the cave to the floor. There were no signs of human presence at any time, and no animals either. That huge pit by the entrance kept everyone out!
The Mayfield family has operated the cave as a commercial tourist enterprise since July, 1960, and they have done a terrific job of preserving the cave while making it available to the public to enjoy.
As we walked, the drip formations on the ceilings, walls and floor of the cave became ever more elaborate.
In places there were “icicles” hanging from the ceiling and “columns” growing up from the floor. There were even some pools of very clear water. Ironically, tourists from decades ago liked to throw pennies into one “wishing well,” and now the water is tinged green from all the copper. So another area has been established for tossing pennies (for those that must) where there won’t be any environmental impact.
Wonderful staircases and a concrete path took us from one gorgeous “room” to the next, and it was impossible to imagine just how challenging this cave was for the early cavers that tried to map it out and discover its depths.
All the different formations have names, like “cave curtains” and “cave coral” and “dogtooth spars.”
The cave is beautifully and creatively lit throughout. The guide turned on the lights ahead of us as we progressed down the path, and then turned out the lights behind us.
The lights were set behind various formations, making them glow as if lit from within.
The most ornately decorated “room” is the Crystal Palace, and when we got there we all stopped in awe.
It was filled with delicate stalactites and stalagmites. We were reminded that the “c” in stalactite is for “ceiling,” which helps you remember that these formations grow down from the ceiling while stalagmites grow up from the bottom of the cave!
The tour was over in just under two hours, and before we knew it, we were climbing the many stairs out of the cave. I was surprised to learn that the Mayfield family has had to ward off oil drilling interests that are insistently drilling and testing every inch of soil outside the boundary of the cave. They are hoping explorers find the cave is even bigger than they currently think it is — to help keep the oil drillers at bay.
The last bit of the tour took us through the “whalebone room” where the walls were rounded and smooth, as if made of whale bones.
What a neat little excursion this was!
If you are rattling across west Texas on I-10 in your RV, and you are looking for a really fun break from driving, check out the Caverns of Sonora. Besides all the pretty calcite formations in the cave, there is a small RV park right there next to the caverns.
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More info about this cool cave:
- Caverns of Sonora, Texas – Official Website
- Caverns of Sonora, Texas – Wikipedia Page
- RV Park at the Caverns of Sonora
- Casita Travel Trailers – A factory tour in Rice, Texas
- Interstate Rest Areas Texas to Florida – Not Just Any Pit Stop
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I was a spelunker (cave explorer) back in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s and did some exploration of the Caverns of Sonora, which was then called Mayfield Cave, before it was commercialized and all those fancy stairs, walkways, and electric lights were installed. We had to traverse the pit you mention to get into the depths of the cave. It was truly magnificent back in those days — the formations were all snow white and glistening with moisture. I visited the caverns again five or six years ago and was disappointed at the dulling and staining of those delicate formations by the the minute amount of oils and gasses given off by the thousands of tourists who have visited the caverns over the past tens of years. Having seen the effect of this, I am compelled to wonder if the commercialization of this natural jewel has been worth it.
By the way, we recently visited Carlsbad Caverns again after about 40 years, and other than the grandeur of the extremely large rooms and chambers there, it can’t hold a candle to the beauty and the extent of the delicate formations in the Caverns of Sonora.
How fascinating. Lucky you to have seen the caverns in their raw state as a spelunker and early explorer. The caves are truly stunning, and although the presence of people has dulled the surfaces in them, they are still utterly breathtaking. Fortunately the oil drilling nearby hasn’t damaged them either…