Crawling Around Chiricahua Crystal Cave In Arizona

  • Updated: December 27, 2013
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

December 27th, 2013

Wheeeeeeee!  The previous day had been a mad dash flying back from Sacramento where I'd spent Christmas with my parents only to stay in Orange County just long enough to throw all my climbing gear into the jeep and take off east with Jeff and Jen reaching Tucson late that night.

A long long drive later we found ourselves driving down a slightly less remote dirt road that I generally prefer in order to find a quiet -ish place to bivy for the night.  We settled down amid the scattered debris and passed out.

The only reason we were camped this close to a major city was because the following morning we were picking up a key for Crystal Cave which would kick off 5 days, 3 caves, 2 5th class peaks, and a fair amount of driving.  Throw in a middle of nowhere speeding ticket, a technical peak bailout, and one skunk attack to the face while sleeping (yes skunk and yes to the FACE), and we were in for a suitably eventful few days.
We were up early and after signing a fairly pedestrian release we had our key and were headed even further east along the 10 until we just crossed over into New Mexico.  From here we headed south along a two lane road well watched by the local Lordsburg PD.  (For the record It's a 55 mph road that goes straight and flat forever and a day and there are few if any speed limit signs.  On the plus side tickets are $91 if you agree to please guilty on the spot and payable online...)

We soon entered Coronado National Forest which is a rather pretty area I'm really looking forward to getting back to again.

And of course since we're in the general region of the border you get the requisite fun sign's / posing opportunities.

We eventually reached a small dirt parking area that made no mention of the cave nearby.  We swapped in to our hiking gear, threw helmets and knee pads into packs, and started walking.

There's is a trail which starts out in a dry riverbed and takes you the entire way unless you manage to loose it...

The first sign you're near the cave is a friendly sign tell you it's closed.  Which is technically true.

There's a metal gate with two locks blocking the entrance which sadly was put into place well after the cave had been heavily impacted.  With some difficulty we got the gate opened and as instructed locked it behind us.  (There is an emergency key located inside to prevent you accidentally locking yourself in.)

Once past the gate we quickly left the daylight behind leaving us with only our headlamps and the two backup light sources we were required to carry to light the way.  Pictures became much more difficult due to the amount of dust in the air causing the flash to bounce back in odd ways.  Still we did our best.

From the entry passage we soon had to make out way down a slightly steep section to the floor of the main entrance cavern.  This was rather large and so all but impossible to show in pictures.

The first major landmark was the register showing just how heavily visited the cave was.  We signed in and set off deeper.

The cave had been explored extensively of course and there are colored ribbons at pretty much every hole and branch but we had no information what any of the markings on them meant.  In addition there was always arrows painted on the walls showing how to get back out.  So getting lost wasn't really a concern.

From the register we went down to the right and then started exploring a promising looking hole leading down and to the left.  We spent 3 hours just crawling around exploring this branch.

Sometimes we were able to walk but most of the time we were crawling to various degrees.  Jen had spent some time with a local grotto and had convinced Jeff and I to bring knee pads which was a very very good idea.

We all ended up squeezing past things and getting slightly scraped up here and there.  And when things got really tight we sent Jen.

This branch seemed to drop down quite a ways and we had a few sections of low grade vertical scrambling.  Somehow knowing how far we were underground made this somewhat more exciting than your average Sierra boulder hop...

The crystals this cave is named for were all over once we got below the main chamber.

We got rather up close and personal with them since beyond the initial open chamber there were rarely if ever any decently sized open spaces.  Where as the limited smaller caves I'd been in (like Leviathan a few weeks back) had squeeze points in between sizable chambers this felt like a series of squeezes sometimes 30 ft long ending in an awkward contortion that once passed led to another small area.

It was a blast was different from anything else I'd done to that point.  There also wasn't anything like a main path deeper so generally we were stretched out or exploring separate nearby passages within yelling distance.  When we found something that looked promising we'd call the others over and continue deeper.  Once passages started rejoining others in different places it got interesting.

As I mentioned above we had a bit of light scrambling but we also ran into two points where we really would have needed a rope.  (One even had the wrapper from a rope someone else had left behind)  We ended up eyeing the moves required to climb down, considering what it would take to crawl back up, then thinking how we were probably an hour plus at least underground, and decided to back off.  Which was too bad because they both looked really promising as near as we could see past them.

We stayed underground for about a total of 8 hours before we were ready to stop.  We'd heard there was a second gate once past the main chamber that was somewhat difficult to find and sure enough we never found it.  This was despite making three detailed searches around the main cavern determined to at least find it.

So we left having had a blast and also determined to come back at some point with either more directions or someone who knew how to find the second gate and the underground river running somewhere beyond it.

Exhausted we drove only a short distance before finding a nice (if slightly cold) campground and settling down to prepare for a slightly easier day 2.  

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  1. About the colored ribbons you mentioned: There is a mapping project going on since January 2012. These pieces of flagging (otherwise known as surveyor's tape or surveyor's ribbon) are the survey stations. Thanks for not disturbing them. When the survey has been finished, they will be removed. Until then, you never know when any of them may be important to complete the survey. I hope others will be as considerate as you have been and not remove or re-position these. No permanent marks, such as spray painted arrows or signatures, etc. should ever be made in a cave.

    1. Hi David. Are the results of the mapping project available anywhere? We had some beta on the cave and had heard about the second locked gate but never found it despite checking the main chamber rather thoroughly. We're all rather curious and plan to go back at some point.

    2. Hi Matthew,
      I would suggest going to one of the grotto meeting. They are wonderful people and would be a great source of information. There are a few, but I do know that SAG meets in Tucson Game and Fish department on Greesewood the first Thursday of every month. Best of luck to you and your friends.

  2. The second gate is actually very easy to find once to find the main route that goes to the graffiti and pelican rooms. There is also a second register in the pelican room.