Colorado caves: How to start spelunking wild caves in the Rocky Mountains

Editor’s note: The closure of a 46-mile stretch of Interstate 70 in western Colorado may make it difficult to reach some of the locations listed. Please check cave websites or codot.gov before heading out. 

There’s something daunting about caves. Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown, or of being trapped. Or those stories about the challenges encountered on spelunking expeditions. Or all those movies in which caves begin to collapse on top of the hero (see: “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or the Cave of Wonders in “Aladdin”). Or claustrophobia.

Certainly, only the bold head down to find out for themselves.

Colorado can give those folks plenty of opportunities to test their mettle, with more than 600 caves, according to Jon Schow, chair of the Colorado Grotto, a caving club. There are some well-known caves that provide guided tours, like Cave of the Winds in Manitou Springs. But many others are harder to find.

The best way to explore Colorado’s caves is by joining or contacting a grotto, said Schow. Experienced spelunkers can help you explore established caves (a few of which are family-friendly) or discover wild, undeveloped caves. (To learn more about wild caves and to explore them, contact a local grotto, via caves.org.)

Why does it seem like cavers are keeping a secret? Because they are. For the protection of caves and yourself, cave experts and enthusiasts prefer that the general public not know the locations of Colorado’s wild caves.

“Caves are one of the last unexplored frontiers on Earth and are considered one of the most fragile ecosystems,” according to the National Speleological Society website. They also are home to a very important species: bats. In recent years, the survival of bats has been a large concern among scientists and spelunkers, due to White Nose Syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus, with no known cure.

Before you head to the deep, dark depths of the Earth’s crust, be prepared. First, it’s important to decontaminate your clothes to avoid introducing harmful elements into the cave (such as a fungus, which is easily transmittable due to spores that can cling to your clothing and equipment). Second, it’s always good practice to get permission to enter, according to cave enthusiast Derek Bristol. (Go to fs.usda.gov for the Rocky Mountain Region Cave Access Registration Form.)

Schow suggests wearing comfortable clothes, knee and elbow pads, a helmet, gloves and a headlamp. He also recommends bringing an extra bottle in case you have to use the bathroom. Other must-haves: two extra light sources, batteries, water, snacks and dry, decontaminated clothes to change into afterward.

A map, compass and the tools necessary for descending into the cave are recommended. But often, the grotto you choose to explore with will have this equipment for you to use.

Lastly, before you enter, remember the cavers’ motto, “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but carefully placed footprints, kill nothing but time.”

Cave of the Winds in Manitou Springs

Cave of the Winds in Manitou Springs is an adventure for the whole family. Although it wasn’t discovered until 1881, it is estimated that the caves have been around for millions of years. Choose between the Discovery Tour and Haunted Lantern Tour, a 90-minute spookier experience for thrill-seekers. Cave of the Winds is open from Labor Day through Memorial Day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 100 Cave of the Winds Road, Manitou Springs, 719-685-5444; caveofthewinds.com

Discovery tour is a 45-60 minute tour that runs every 20 to 30 minutes. There are 15 rooms to explore along the 1½ mile route in addition to 196 stairs. Tickets are $25 for ages 13 and older, $17 for ages 4 to 12 and free for children 3 and under. Military discount is 10% off.

Haunted Lantern tour is a 90-minute, mile long tour. It is not suitable for those with back or knee issues, and ages 8 and younger are not permitted on this tour. Tickets are $34 for ages 13 and older, $24 for ages 8 to 12. Military discount is 10% off.

Note: Decontamination is not required before entering Cave of the Winds.

Spring Cave

Spring Cave is located in the White River National Forest and is regulated by the USDA Forest Service. This cave does require a bit of a hike and is close in nature to a wild cave. Spring Cave is only accessible April 16-Aug. 14 and requires registration and observed decontamination. There is a vault toilet at the trailhead and the closest town is Meeker. For more information, visit www.fs.usda.gov For specific directions, go here.

Groaning Cave

Groaning Cave is the longest cave in Colorado and is managed by the the Colorado Cave Survey (CCS). The approximately 15-foot cave is known for its beautiful cave decorations, crystal formations and gypsum flowers.

“There are sections of the cave that are so glittery it looks like you have stepped into a different realm,” Melissa Sims, who visited Groaning Cave through the National Speleological Society in 2016, said on Instagram.

You need a permit for this underground adventure in Garfield County. For more information, contact a local grotto. Watch this video of a caver in Groaning Cave on YouTube.

Rifle Mountain Park

Typically, caves are only accessible during the warmer months, but the ice caves at Rifle Mountain Park are an exception. Located between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, these frozen waterfalls typically form between December and February.

The four caves include Ice Palace, Soul on Ice, Stone Tree and The Final Curtain. And alltrails.com offers a hike to check out while you’re there. 13885 County Road 217, or go to the end of State Highway 325, north of Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery; rifleco.org

Yampah Hot Springs Vapor Caves

Less an active adventure and more an underground spa, this relaxing cave experience is a unique way to spend time underground.

Unlike the typical cool atmosphere of a cave, the temperature in the Vapor Caves averages between 110 degrees and 112 degrees. They are open every day of the week, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. year-round, with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. 709 E. 6th St., Glenwood Springs, 970-945-0667; yampahspa.com/caves 

The Grottos in Aspen

The Grottos are located in White River National Forest near Aspen and can be accessed by hiking The Grottos Trail (which also features a waterfall). The trail, a .6-mile loop with 29 feet of elevation gain, is rated easy on AllTrails, making it a great hike for kids. To access the trail, drive 9 miles east of Aspen on Highway 82. The trailhead will be on the right side of the road, approximately .9 miles past Weller Campground.

The Historic Fairy Caves and Kings Row Cave

Dubbed as the eighth wonder of the world, the historic Fairy Caves are nestled inside Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. A quarter-mile guided tour is a 40-minute stroll through narrow passages and winding pathways that lead to natural water and a lookout point. The Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park website warns that despite no requirement to bend or stoop down along the trail, some visitors may still experience claustrophobia.

The King’s Row Cave Tour is approximately 40 minutes long and, according to its website, is good for all skill levels. There are 120 stairs to climb leading up to “The Barn,” also known as “the most highly decorated cave room in Colorado,” according to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.

Tickets range between $34 and $61, which includes entry into both the Fairy Caves and Kings Row Cave. 51000 Two Rivers Plaza Road, Glenwood Springs; glenwoodcaverns.com 

Fulford Cave

Fulford Cave is as close to a wild cave as you can get without connecting with a local grotto. However, to enter the cave, a permit is required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service due to White Nose Syndrome. The cave is open from April 16 to Oct. 14 annually. You must first decontaminate your clothes before entering Fulford Cave. To access the cave, take the Fulford Cave Trail located in Eagle. The trail is a .9-mile out and back hike that is rated moderate with 534 feet of elevation gain. Fulford Cave Campground, Forest Road 415, Basalt

Editor’s note: Please check with USDA officials or a local grotto before exploring wild caves. White Nose Syndrome is harmful to the caves’ ecosystems and therefore should be taken seriously. It is best to follow cave protocol and decontaminate your clothing before entering and always make sure to pack appropriately for your excursion. 

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