The Natural Bridge Caverns take "deep in the heart of Texas Hill Country" to a whole new meaning.
With depths reaching 260 feet underground, it is Texas' largest-known cavern and consistently ranks as one of the state's top tourist destinations. Discovered in 1960 by students at St. Mary's University, the cavern, located just west of New Braunfels, has delighted visitors for decades with lantern-led tours, archaeological gems and natural formations like "soda straw" stalactites occurring along hidden passages.
Originally thought to consist of only a modest-sized cave under a 60-foot naturally occurring limestone bridge, it wasn't until four students with St. Mary's spelientology club took a routine caving expedition to the next level that the massive chambers of the cavern were discovered.
On March 27, 1960, students Orion Knox, Al Brandt, Preston Knodell and Jo Cantu decided to split off from the rest of their group, who were exploring the original cave of the Natural Bridge Caverns. Having visited the cave three times prior, the group of four was curious to see if there was anything more to the cave.
As the smallest member of the group, Knox, then 19, made his way through a tight crawlspace with a rock hammer and a carbide lamp. When he emerged on the other side, he was welcomed by a great expanse of darkness. He called back to the group, "Hey, we have may have something here."
That "something" was the largest underground cavern in Texas, and it would take the relentless efforts of the landowner, rancher and widow Clara Wuest, to bring its development to fruition. When Wuest first approached the state and national parks agencies to seek their assistance in developing the cavern, she was turned down.
But this setback didn't stop her. She mortgaged her ranch to fund the project, and for two years, cavers and workers, including Orion Knox, worked 14-hour days to develop the site. By completion, they had excavated a half-mile route into the cavern, complete with paths and tunnels for visitors to navigate.
Wuest opened the cavern to the public in 1964, and tourists began flocking to the attraction, giving a significant boost to the early years of Texas' tourism industry. In 1971, the Natural Bridge Caverns were listed as a registered U.S. natural landmark.
First discovered by student explorers, today the cavern aptly remains a principal site of study. The Center of Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio has been involved in the excavation of the landmark, and the cavern has provided students with an enlightening, hands-on dimension to their geological studies throughout the years.
Certainly for visitors of any age, the cavern provides an exciting learning experience. The Lantern Tour recreates the ambience of a dauntless exploratory expedition to the delight of its young patrons. Chalkboard drawings and lessons are replaced with palpable wonders such as stalagmites, stalactites and cave ribbons.
Children can take turns on the mining sluice, scrutinizing their fortunes as they sift through buckets to discover fossils, gems and arrowheads. Some arrowheads and spearheads found during the original excavation dated from 5,000 B.C.
The Natural Bridge Caverns' beauty dazzles observers and captivates photographers. In 2003, USA Today classified the Natural Bridge Caverns as one of "10 Great Places to get nature on film."
In addition to commercial praise, the cavern also enjoys national recognition from the U.S. Department of the Interior as part of the National Register of Historical Places.
Whether it's a classroom field trip, a summer daytrip, or scratching an itch for adventure, a visit to the Natural Bridge Caverns will not disappoint.
To learn more, visit www.naturalbridgecaverns.com.