All of the caves within the High Guads area require a two hour drive from Camp Washington Ranch to reach the trails to the caves. The first hour of the drive on paved roads will bring you to the very small "village" of Queen, NM. There is a small cafe called the Queen Store and Cafe in that cluster of ranch houses and trailers, but not much else. From there it is still another hour to reach either the Dark Canyon Lookout Tower or the trail to Virgin Cave. It is a shorter distance drive than the first part, but the roads are much more rough and slow to drive over. Three Mile Hill takes about half an hour to drive up. The Dark Canyon Lookout Tower has a fire tower you can climb the stairs up part way for a view as well as an outhouse. From there, you will either park and walk the remaining half a mile down to the entrance of Cottonwood Cave or go a bit further by 4 wheel drive vehicle to the parking area for Hidden, Hell Below, Cave Tree or Black Caves. Despite being in warm weather with light clothing on your way to these areas in the morning, your trip back in the evening may be much cooler as temperatures drop as much as 50 degrees when the sun goes down. Bring warmer clothes to put on for the hike and ride back to Camp Washington Ranch in the evening. A breathable wind breaker will help cut the wind for that hike back.

Caves within Lincoln National Forest (the High Guads) are listed below:

Cottonwood Cave

Cave temperature: 56 F
Driving time: 2 hours
Hiking time to entrance: 30 minutes from the Lookout Tower
Type of cave: Cottonwood is entirely horizontal for the areas we will visit.
It is a very beautiful cave with a wide variety of different types of formations. The entry hall is filled with very large stalagmites of all different shapes and sizes. Perhaps the most well known and photogenic of them is Goliath that fills the passageway about 1000 feet inside the entrance hallway. The passage is wide enough to allow for many people to photograph in the cave in close proximity to one another. It is one of the most famous and heavily visited caves in the High Guads and a must for you to visit.
Photography options: Cottonwood is one of the prettiest caves in the Guads. Because the passages and formations are so large, flash bulbs can be used to great advantage. The entrance is large enough to let in considerable light as well for longer exposures. Combining two separate images, one with strobes for fine detail and another with big flashbulbs can be a very effective way to photograph the cave.

Hidden Cave

Cave temperature: 56 F
Driving time: 2 1/2 hours, last half hour by 4 wheel drive vehicle
Hiking time to entrance: 30 minutes from the parking area
Type of cave: Vertical.
There is a 50 foot entrance drop into a narrow canyon area that goes in two directions. When rappelling into the slot, beware of the potential for rattlesnakes. The trip leader should be the first person down the drop to find and clear out any snake. The upper passage leads to some nice formations within small rooms. In the other direction is another short 20' drop into the lower portion of the cave. There is a very large room with many big and beautiful formations and passages to explore and photograph. If it has been a wet season, there is likely to be a large pool area filled with water behind a "wall of China" type formation. Entrance drop will be pre-rigged.
Photography options: There are a lot of photo opportunities throughout the cave. The large passageways and large formations offer many different photo settings. Both bulbs and strobes can be used in the lower portions. A tripod is strongly recommended, as if you didn't already and always bring one with you anyway!!

Hell Below Cave

Cave temperature: 58 F
Driving time: 2 1/2 hours, last half hour by 4 wheel drive vehicle
Hiking time to entrance: 20 minutes from the parking area
Type of cave: Vertical.
The gated entrance leads down a narrow slot to a series of rope pitches. The first part of the drop is about 15 feet deep down a narrow fissure. There is a small waiting area there for the next portion of the drop. Be very careful of not dropping things in that area as they may fall down into small holes and continue another 70 feet down to the floor where they will be shattered and destroyed!! Not good for camera gear. The second part of the drop must be entered feet first and clipped into the traverse rope with your pack tethered and dragged behind you. The passage is narrow and low for a few feet, then opens up and dips downward a bit. You will see a bolt on the righthand wall that aligns the rope away from the V-notch directly under your feet. Slide out to that bolt and attach your rack, lock it off, then pull your pack through behind you. The drop is about 70 feet down and is free the entire way. There is liable to be a small wet pool on the floor where you land, so swing your tethered pack out of the way onto the dry area before the last few feet of your rappel. There is another short drop after you have disengaged from the rope. You will see that it is tied off as effectively a separate rope from the main drop, so two people can be on the different parts of the drop at the same time. You may leave your vertical gear at the bottom of the second drop, but keep your harness and a cow’s tail with single ascender on. Farther into the cave are two more roped areas that are more safety hand-lines to clip into rather than actual rappels or ascents as they are somewhat exposed. Safety is paramount in this cave as a rescue from injury would be very difficult task.
Photography options: There are many! The character of the cave changes as you go through it. There are formations all along the route into the cave from large stalagmites to gypsum formations, delicate helictites, large pools of blue water against orange walls. Something for nearly everyone to photograph! Strobes are best, but if you like shooting large areas, bulbs can also be used. Truly a beautiful and photogenic cave

Black Cave

Cave temperature: 58 F
Driving time: 2 1/2 hours, last half hour by 4 wheel drive vehicle
Hiking time to entrance: 30 minutes from the parking area
Type of cave: Horizontal.
Black Cave is one of the triumvirate of caves that most cavers go to on their first trip to the Guads (Cottonwood and Hidden Caves being the other two). The cave is an easy hike to get to and usually the first impression is that it is indeed black on the inside as though painted with black paint. Farther into the cave, the colors lighten up it and loses that blackness. Theories are that a huge fire and the resulting carbon from the embers colored the formations and walls near the entrance. Other theories suggest a black iron oxide coloration. Whatever it is, it is indeed black!
Photography options: The blackness of the passage near the entrance will suck the light right out of the image you capture. To offset that intensity, having a person in brighter clothing near what you are photographing will at least give some contrast to the image. Farther into the cave are some more colorful formations that stand out against the black background. Passages are mostly small, so strobes are sufficient for illumination. Near the back of the cave, there is a nice canyon that one can carefully climb down from to the pool below. A good cave for non-vertical cavers

Virgin Cave

Cave temperature: 58 F
Driving time: 2 3/4 hours, last half hour by 4 wheel drive vehicle
Hiking time to entrance: 50 minutes from the parking area. The hike to the entrance is a bit challenging in that it requires climbing down some rocky areas with a bit of exposure in some places. It is the most challenging cave to get to and should be reserved for those with good hiking and climbing skills. The fifty minute trip down to the cave will turn into an hour or more hike back up to the vehicle as it is all uphill. Trips to Virgin will leave earlier in the morning and will return later at night, so be prepared for late arrival back at Camp Washington Ranch in the evening
Type of cave: Horizontal and vertical.
Once inside the entrance, the cave splits into two areas that are connected in several places, but the lower area is best accessed by a 70’ free rappel. The upper section is not a vertical area, although it is recommended that you bring a seat harness and an ascender as a safety for one short stretch up a steep and slippery slope on a fixed rope. The lower part of the cave has a couple of places that require hand climbs and have fixed ropes in place. Care must be taken in these areas as there is some exposure. Both areas are very well decorated and have a variety of photo opportunities throughout.
Photography options: Virgin Cave is probably one of the most beautiful caves in the Guads and rivals Lechuguilla Cave in many ways. It is not anywhere near the size of Lech, but it is varied and has a multitude of different types of photographic opportunities. There are skeletal remains of a porcupine in one area of the lower portion of the cave, large formations in some places, delicate micro-helictites, huge draperies, several large pools of water and lots of colorful areas. Strobes are usually all that is needed to light virtually all areas as there are no large rooms that will be visited requiring flash bulbs. Photography in Virgin will challenge your skills, so be prepared for lots of different scenarios
Cave List End


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Organiser Dan Legnini - Warrenville, Illinois, USA
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