If you are new to caving or an experienced caver who has moved to Colorado, the Centennial State does not have the density of caves and karst that other states and regions have, but it does have a wide variety of caves. In addition, Colorado’s spectacular scenery makes the hike to the cave enjoyable.
Limestone caves are located throughout Colorado, with significant concentrations on the White River Plateau north of Glenwood Springs and Rifle, in the San Juan Mountains south of Silverton, in the Sawatch Range north of Aspen, in the Taylor Park region northeast of Gunnison, in the Sangre de Cristo Range west and north of Westcliffe, in the South Park region northeast of Buena Vista and southwest of Fairplay, in the Garden Park region north of Canon City, and in the Williams Canyon region north of Manitou Springs.
Colorado has a few gypsum caves, mostly in the massive gypsum beds near Eagle, Gypsum and Carbondale. Significant granite fault caves are found in Colorado’s Front Range near Deckers, on Pikes Peak, and in Clear Creek Canyon near Golden. In recent years, cavers have been documenting claystone caves – soil piping caves in clays that harden like adobe – near Rulison, DeBeque, Gunnison, Delta, Grand Junction and Meeker. Other claystone caves are known to be located on BLM lands in more wild regions of the state, such as the northwestern corner north of Maybell. There may be hundreds, if not thousands, of claystone caves in Colorado.
Many cavers begin their underground exploration by first visiting one or more of Colorado’s commercially-operated caves. Glenwood Caverns at Glenwood Springs offers two tour routes with electrical lighting. For the more adventurous, the wild tour at the cave provides an opportunity to venture away from the electrical lights and see sections of the cave that are in a natural state of darkness, where visitors have to crawl, climb and squeeze through passageways. Cavers with the Fairy Caves Project are permitted to investigate many other regions of the cave, as well as smaller caves on the property.
Cave of the Winds at Manitou Springs offers the Discovery Tour with electrical lighting, as well as a lantern tour through the historic Manitou Grand Caverns. Seasonally, the cave offers the off-trail “Caving 101” tour in the Grand Caverns section of the system. Other caves in the canyon are closed to the public, but open to members of the Williams Canyon Project of the National Speleological Society.
Rifle Falls State Park north of Rifle has numerous undeveloped small caves up to a few hundred feet in length. Developed in travertine, these caves may be explored by the public. North of the park, Rifle Mountain Park, has several large shelter caves open for public inspection along the sides of the limestone canyon.
Many caves are located on public lands within Colorado, the majority being on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. For all USFS caves, the Region 2 office in Lakewood currently requires free registration for all cave trips, including visits to popular caves such as Fulford Cave south of Eagle and Spring Cave southeast of Meeker. Registration is a part of the district’s management for the protection of bat species that live in the caves, which are threatened by potential westward expansion of the pathogen that creates the deadly White Nose Syndrome among select species of hibernating bats. Cavers planning on visiting Colorado caves, including those on public Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, and to privately-owned caves, are expected to follow appropriate decontamination protocol to prevent the spread of the pathogen. This is particularly an issue for cavers from the eastern United States who may be visiting Colorado on vacation – in these instances, visitors are requested to leave home their caving gear and use either new gear or Colorado-specific caving gear when visiting caves in Colorado. Bat management policies have also seasonally closed caves on federal lands; be aware that some caves are not open for visitation during particular seasons. A few caves are closed annually owing to their importance to large bat colonies which use the caves for hibernation, maternity, and swarming activities.
Following exploration of commercial and public caves like Spring and Fulford, both in the White River National Forest, new cavers often then seek out organizations that have the common interest of caving. The non-profit National Speleological Society, chartered in 1941, is America’s oldest, largest and most influential caving organization. It has more than 9,000 members in all 50 states, as well as local chapters called grottoes. The Colorado Western Slope Grotto of Glenwood Springs and Rifle is a member organization, and offers information about caves and caving, trips to local caves, and fellowship.
Visitors are welcome to attend meetings at no cost or obligation. After attending a meeting or two, most cavers then join the grotto and become actively involved with caving trips, scientific studies, cave photography, surveying and cartography, conservation activities and cave management and relations with federal, state and local agencies and private land owners. After about six months, many grotto members then join the National Speleological Society to learn more about caves and caving across the country, and to become a greater part of the national caving community.
As a member of the Colorado and national caving communities, opportunities to explore caves across the state and the country become available. The grottoes of Colorado are members of the Colorado Cave Survey, a statewide organization of grottoes, that works closely with landowners, private, state and federal, in managing access to caves and protecting caves from harm. Most grottoes are also members of the state caving journal, the quarterly Rocky Mountain Caving, which publishes content about caves, caving and cavers of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West. Cavers also become involved with the Colorado Cave Rescue Network, learning about cave rescue techniques and procedures.
With other grottoes in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, and Montana, the Colorado Western Slope Grotto is a member of the National Speleological Society’s Rocky Mountain Region. Annually, the region hosts a gathering in one of the member states, providing cave trips, an annual banquet and an opportunity for fellowship with other cavers. The National Speleological Society also hosts an annual convention, with two recent conventions – in 1996 and in 2011 – being held in Colorado.