NATURAL BRIDGE CAVERNS EXPLORATION TEAM FINDS INCREDIBLE NEW CHAMBERS AND FORMATIONS DURING 19-HOUR GRUELING JOURNEY
Discoveries found and no end in sight for Texas’ largest cavern system.
SAN ANTONIO – Aug. 7, 2019 – “Make it go!” is a phrase cavers tell each other when exploring. It means to climb to or crawl into every lead no matter how high or small, descend every pit no matter how deep, slog through knee-deep mud and wade through waist-deep water – whatever it takes to ensure the cave passages keep on going. Every caver secretly dreams of discovering untouched cave passage, and that is exactly what’s been happening on recent caving expeditions into Natural Bridge Caverns, Texas’ largest cavern system.
In May 2019, a team of cave explorers led by Natural Bridge Caverns owner/operators, Brad and Travis Wuest, discovered an additional 600-feet of never before seen passage, which to date, was the largest discovery at Natural Bridge Caverns since 1967. The team also discovered several long-abandoned bat roosts with underlying guano piles. Guano samples were collected from two areas and were sent to a laboratory for carbon dating, which determined that the roosts were approximately 6,300 and 7,500 years old respectively.
Access to this new area has led to a whole new era of exploration and discovery. Most recently, on July 27, the Wuest brothers and speleologist William “Bill” Steele assembled a “dream team” of cavers to help with:
- Surveying, mapping and sketching each passage, chamber and formation to annotate its location in relation to the surface as well as length, size and layout of the areas.
- LiDAR scanning and Photogrammetry of two areas of the cave known as the Moors and Satan’s Pit Passage.
- Radiolocation to determine the location and depth of specific points. An underground radio transmitter is used to emit a signal that is received on the surface. For this to be successful, both the surface and below ground team must try to be in the same place at the same time, which without cell phones or other communication devices can be extremely difficult and time-consuming.
- Videography and photography to both document the expedition and to showcase the beautiful passages and formations.
- Exploration, continuing into undiscovered sections of the cavern system.
As explorers move deeper into the cavern, each expedition takes longer, with the latest taking more than 19 hours to complete. Just to reach the unexplored areas now takes a minimum of six hours of hard and exhaustive caving with some team members carrying heavy 30 to 50-pound packs filled with gear and equipment. These challenges have the Wuest family considering the idea of drilling an entrance shaft to provide faster and safer access and to reduce the impact on the current passages used to enter this new area.
Brad Wuest was the first person to see what is now called the Travertine Passage. “As I rappelled down what is now called the River Pit, I was hoping to make a connection into the already surveyed Lake Passage which would provide an easier and faster way out for our team,” Wuest said. “But I soon realized I was descending deeper than anticipated into large, never before seen passage. I could hear running water below me and hoped my 100 feet of rope was long enough to reach the bottom, then while still on rope my headlight illuminated a passage filled with spectacular travertine pools of pristine flowing water that extend the entire length and width of the passage. My heart leaped at the sight of the natural beauty before me and the realization that our team just made a significant discovery.”
Travis Wuest led one of the exploration teams through Flowstone Hall and discovered a unique stalagmite formation, not seen anywhere else in Natural Bridge Caverns. The shape was hollow in the center and resembled a large clay bowl, now named the Grotto Bowl. “This formation is likely a small rim-stone pool that formed on the flowstone while dripping water from the ceiling allowed the edges to grow up away from the flowstone base,” suggested Wuest. “As the water spilled over the edges, the rim of the bowl would grow taller and taller, creating the basin of the bowl.”
Further down this passage, they discovered another large chamber now called the Midnight Dome, which is more than 65,000 cubic feet in volume. To put this discovery into perspective, a regulation-sized tennis court with seating for spectators would fit in this room, albeit on a slope of about 45 degrees. Beautiful formations were found throughout the room in a spectrum of colors including shades of white, brown, tan and gray, but most interesting were the black formations in the center of the room, some even surrounded by pure white flowstone providing a stark contrast. Black calcite formations are not uncommon, but they have never been seen in Natural Bridge Caverns. The Wuest brothers took several small samples that will be sent to Dr. Jay Banner, the F. M. Bullard Professor in the department of geological sciences in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin for testing to determine what minerals and compounds make up this unique formation.
“These speleothems may provide new insight into the paleoclimate of Texas as part of ongoing research at the University of Texas,” said Dr. Banner. The largest room recently discovered is the Frozen Falls Chamber, which is 135 feet long, 40 feet wide and 30 feet high with a volume of 162,000 cubic feet.
“Since May 8, we have now discovered over 1,600 feet of new passages, including spectacular chambers and lakes,” said Brad Wuest, President and co-owner of Natural Bridge Caverns. “Just thinking that these incredible rooms and passages have been here under our ranch, never before seen and just waiting for us to find is amazing. The best part for us is that the cavern system shows no end in sight.”
Video was shot and edited by Passmore VR.
Still photography should be credited to Bennett Lee Photography.
ABOUT NATURAL BRIDGE CAVERNS
On March 27, 1960, four college students, Orion Knox Jr., Preston Knodell Jr., Al Brandt, and Joe Cantu from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio began an underground exploration that ultimately would reveal the most extensive, largest cavern system in Texas. After hearing of an incredible 60-foot natural limestone bridge, which later became the caverns’ namesake, the students asked landowner Clara Wuest if they could investigate what laid beneath their family’s ranch. On the cavers’ fourth expedition, they uncovered a long, narrow crawlspace that ultimately opened into 2 miles of virgin caverns. Today, their discovery is recognized as one of the world’s premier show caverns.
Natural Bridge Caverns located between San Antonio and New Braunfels, Texas, offers year-round activities including multiple cavern tours, a maze, a ropes course and zip lines, gemstone mining, restaurants, and shopping. Grounds offer several ideal settings for weddings, groups, and birthday parties. Christmas at the Caverns includes holiday light displays, carolers throughout the caverns, and a hill country hayride. Natural Bridge Caverns is owned and operated by the Wuest family and is a designated State Historical Site, National Natural Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.