The Bat Cave – Ruby, AZ

This is the long abandoned Montana Mine in Ruby, Arizona, a ghost town about 75 miles south of Tucson and five miles from the Mexican border. Starting in 1877, a succession of owners spent 40 years carving out a meager existence mining gold and hoping to strike it rich. None of them did and by the early 1920’s, Ruby and its mine were on the verge of becoming a footnote in Arizona history. Then in 1926, a mining corporation from Joplin, MO came in and converted it into a successful lead mine. During the Great Depression, Ruby was a full fledged boomtown. At its peak in the 1930’s, it covered 400 acres and had 1,200 people, 300 of whom were miners. Mining went on 24×7 with an average wage of $3 a day. When the mine closed in 1940, the town died.

The mine was dug into a ridgeline called Eggshell Hill overlooking Ruby. There was a single shaft that went down almost 1,000 feet and nine levels of subterranean tunnels, along with secondary shafts in many directions. There were so many that the entire hill became unstable to the point where several decades ago, a portion of the southeast end of it collapsed. This exposed a cross-section of the mine – just like someone sliced off the end of the hill so you could see inside.

I call it The Bat Cave. From May to September, it’s the home of an estimated 200,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. They swarm at dusk and dawn, blackening the sky above Ruby for almost five minutes. Biologists estimate they eat several tons of bugs every night.

Collapsed Mine

You can clearly see the honeycomb of shafts and levels of the Montana Mine. They keep going down into the darkness but the edge was too unstable to risk a closer look. I was already past the warning sign. With binoculars and proper light, you can see timbers, hopper cars, wooden ladders and railroad track. This is where the Mexican freetail bats swarm in and out of from May to September.

I was never much of a photographer but have become increasingly interested in it as we continue our adventures in retirement. As such, I’ve always got a camera with me primed and ready. You never know when you’ll run into the mythical “Place That Nobody Knows About and Few Have Seen.” This one definitely qualifies.

Collapsed Mine

Here’s a closeup of the top of the cave in. You get a much better view of the remnants in the shafts. With binoculars and some favorable light, you can see even more.

Almost all of my pictures are done on the move and on the fly, with little planning and setup time. You come upon some great shots but grabbing them can be challenging. Neither of these pictures really do the area justice. It’s a massive cave in and it goes down into the blackness almost 1,000 feet. There’s a single strand of rusty barbed wire fence around the top and a warning sign – both of which I ignored. Anything for the shot.

I took both pictures with a Nikon D3100 on automatic settings, an 18-270mm lens and a circular polarizer. It was about 4:00 PM in January and the light/shadows were not helpful. In the original photos, the mine area is pitch black and the sunny slopes are almost whiteouts. I edited them in Picasa to bring out as much detail as I could. By altering the light and saturating the color, they came out pretty well. If we go back, I’ll try a series of shots for an HDR photo.

Ruby is a fascinating place. If you like ghost towns, you’ll love Ruby. You can read all about it on our website.

Here’s another recent blog posting about Ruby that you might like.

To the batcave … Boris and Natasha

Balanced Rock Geocache – Big Bend NP

Another adventure in Big Bend. In the northwest quadrant of the park, not far from the Panther Junction Visitor Center, lie the Grapevine Hills. Here you will see rock formations unlike any others in the park. This is igneous rock formed by cooling lava. The word igneous comes from the Latin word for fire – ignis. When solid material cools it shrinks, tearing itself apart. The result is a valley full of huge boulders that have been exposed to erosion and weathering for millions of years. Now it is a barren landscape with fantastic rock formations that look almost impossible to create.

The Grapevine Trail

This is the view looking back down the Grapevine Hills Trail from Balanced Rock.

The most famous of these is “Balanced Rock”. Located in a saddle about a mile and a half from the trailhead, it is exactly what it says – a huge boulder precariously perched between two others. In addition to a hike through the valley, some basic bouldering is required at the end. This area got its name from grapevines that used to grow here on the valley floor. The entire Big Bend area was once much more livable than it is now, with good grass, clean water, trees and crops. Overgrazing by sheep and cattle killed the grasslands and all the trees were cut down for firewood and construction. I guess they call that progress.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock and Ground Zero for the cache. Now all we have to do is get a picture with one of us in the window.

This is a back country desert hike, not recommended in the summer. Take water, sun screen and a hat. We hiked out in the early morning and, once again, had the place to ourselves. In the picture, Natasha is getting us credit for the virtual cache located here.

Balanced Rock Geocache

Natasha at Ground Zero getting us credit for the cache.

Photography is a challenge at Big Bend. It’s all bright light and dark shadows. I’m not much with filters and all that but I’m pretty good with Picasa and Photoshop. Both came in handy on this trip.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Hot Springs – Big Bend National Park

Hot Springs - Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is full of surprises and this is one of them. In the far southeast corner of the park, a geothermal spring bubbles up from the bottom of the Rio Grande River. A relic of the area’s ancient volcanic past, it is crystal clear, laden with healthy minerals and is a constant 105 degrees – about the same temp as a hot tub. In 1909, an entrepeneur named J.O. Langford built a bathhouse to corral the springs and opened a health resort. Besides the bath house, it had a store, a cafe, a post office and cabins that rented for $1.25 a night. People came from all over the world to soak in its healing waters and there are all kinds of stories of people being made well from just about everything. In 1916, Langford had to abandon his operation because of the Pancho Villa raids. After 10 years of border violence, Langford returned in 1927 and started over, making things bigger and better. He sold the operation to the state of Texas in 1942, which donated it to the National Park Service. The NPS ran the resort as a concession until 1952, when it was abandoned for good. However, the springs and the foundation of the bath house are still open to the public. You can soak in it all you want (although you can’t do it naked like the old days). If you get hot, you can hop into the Rio Grande to cool off, then climb back in. It is the most popular destination in the park. In addition to the springs, you can explore the ruins of the old resort facilities. There’s also a geocache there, so how could we resist? The yellow arrow points to the spring. The water in the enclosure is all spring water. It flows into the river over the outside wall.

Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is just amazing. This enormous crevice is Santa Elena Canyon. The orange dot in the foreground is the lovely Natasha getting us credit for the virtual geocache located here. The canyon is contained in an escarpment that rises 1500 feet and was once the bottom of a primordial inland sea. The Rio Grande River carved out this channel millions of years later. Texas is on the right; Mexico on the left. Santa Elena Canyon runs to the northwest about eight miles. You wouldn’t know it to look at it now, but this section of the Rio Grande, which is flowing towards you, wasn’t navigated successfully until 1885, when the Texas Rangers pulled it off. All that showed up from previous attempts were planks and splinters. You can hike about 3/4 of a mile into the canyon. At the end of that, the walls go completely vertical right out of the water and the canyon is only 30 feet wide. We made the hike and were not disappointed. And much to our surprise, we had the place to ourselves.

Top 10 geocaches – #5

Hi again,

We continue to count down our Top 10.  Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 –  Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache,  Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache,  Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

Google map of the geocache.
Shown is the location of the Dragoon Springs geocache. Don’t let the close proximity of I-10 fool you. This is rugged desert back country with no cell phone service and no AAA.

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is sometimes elusive because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s.    Basically, to make the list, there has to be something extraordinary about the geocache under consideration.  It might distance, difficulty, uniqueness, history or just the surroundings.  Our #5 cache fell into all of these.  From January 2012, welcome to the geocache at Dragoon Springs.

In the high desert Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains of southeast Arizona, a number of natural springs gurgle out from amongst the rocks.  One of them was Dragoon Springs.  This area was the homeland of the Apache, who didn’t take kindly to trespassers.  Since water was critical, they watched and guarded the springs aggressively against interlopers from the Conquistadors to Mexican bandits.

Station at Dragoon Springs
Ruins of the stage station at Dragoon Springs. This was a “swing” station which had only horses and water. “Home” stations had food, quarters and maintenance. The livestock and the workers all lived inside the big stone corral, which was 10 feet high and up to four feet wide. There was no roof. This gave protection from Indians, bandits and predators which abounded, including mountain lions, bears and wolves.

The Gadsen Purchase of 1853 made the land part of the United States.  White settlers, ranchers and miners began arriving in great numbers and a large military presence was also established.  In the decade before the Civil War, the whites and the Apache, under Cochise and Mangas, observed an uneasy truce.  In 1857, the Butterfield Overland Stageline began operation through the area on its way from St. Louis to San Francisco.  They had way stations with food and fresh horses at each of the springs.  One of them was Dragoon Springs.   In 1861,  the Apache ended the truce and started ridding their lands of whites.  The Butterfield stages became prime targets, with 22 drivers killed in 16 months.  The line was already in financial trouble.  Apache attacks and competition from the Pony Express finished the job.  It folded just after the Civil War began.

Dragoon Springs
The site of the actual springs, which no longer run. They were sealed off by an earthquake in 1880. The wall was built by ranchers after the Civil War to keep cattle out. Water flowed down the wash and was channeled into tanks to water livestock. The geocache is about a quarter of a mile uphill off the top of the picture.

The way stations and the route itself were the only transportation and logistics infrastructure in the entire region, so they were used by both sides in the desert war of 1862.  In this little known theater of the Civil War, the Union Army, the Confederate Army and the Apache all fought each other.  The abandoned Butterfield Stage station at Dragoon Springs was the site of two fights between Confederate cavalry and Apache war parties.

On May 5, 1862, a Confederate patrol was foraging and rounding up stray cattle in the area around Dragoon Springs.  They were jumped by an estimated 100 Apache at the now abandoned stage station.  Four Confederate soldiers were killed and the livestock stolen.  The rest of the patrol got away. This was the First Battle of Dragoon Springs and they were the western-most combat deaths suffered by the Confederacy.

Dragoon Springs National Historic Site
Dragoon Springs Station is now a National Historic Site. Getting to it requires either a long hike or four wheeling over some of the worst terrain I’ve ever had to negotiate. It took us several hours. The site and the scenery are worth the trip. This is an overview of the whole site with a cameo appearance by Team Snowbird.

Four days later, on May 9, came the Second Battle of Dragoon Springs. A larger patrol found and engaged the Apache war party in the same area, killing five and getting the livestock back.  The four Confederates killed in the first battle were buried in shallow graves and covered with stones. Those graves are preserved and marked by the National Park Service along with the ruins of the relay station.

The geocache itself is a further hike from the station.  We were able to drive to within 7/10 of a mile, then hiked in the rest of the way.  An ATV can almost drive up to Ground Zero.  The geocache itself is an easy find.  Like they say, getting there is half the fun.

Natasha at Ground Zero.
Mission accomplished. Natasha at Ground Zero signing the log. Now it’s off to Tombstone and dinner at the Crystal Palace, which hasn’t changed much since the Earp brothers ate there.

This one took us most of a day from our snowbird headquarters in Tucson.  The Dragoon Mountains are spectacular and full of cool places to check out.  We barely scratched the surface but are headed back in 2013.  Can’t wait!

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Top 10 Geocaches – #6

Map of the Trolls Cache
A Google Earth shot of the area around the Trolls Cache, which is at the green arrow. You can also see the town of Livingston.

Hi again,

We continue to count down our Top 10. 

So far, we’ve shown you the following:

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 –  Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache,  Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache,  Kuhntown, PA

This one is from my pre-Natasha days – my single Spartan divorced middle-aged male phase.  From June of 2006, the Trolls Cache.

In June of 2006, my son Ben and I headed out for our annual summer road trip.  He was 13 at the time and we had just discovered geocaching the previous year.  We were both hooked. This would be the first of many big geocaching expeditions. After Yellowstone and white water rafting on the Gallatin River, we headed to Bozeman, Montana for some back country geocaching.

In those days, smart phone apps and geocaching on-the-fly weren’t around yet.  There was a lot more planning involved and a lot less flexibility.

The GPS we had were Magellan SporTrak Map models.  They were first generation hand helds but they got the job done.  We sometimes had to stick them out the window to get good GPS fixes.

Navigation was done by laptop using Delorme Street Atlas.  So we had to do a search in an area, pick out the caches we wanted to do, print off the cache sheet then enter it as a destination in Street Atlas.  It was primitive by today’s standards but pretty much state-of-the-art then. 

We didn’t have Internet in the car, so we did our searching and prep at the hotel, then loaded up the laptop, Street Atlas and the Magellans with everything we’d need. The laptop had external USB GPS and a power converter for the car, so we could run it whenever we needed.  We even had a small USB Canon printer that we could run in the back of the car if needed. Ben became quite adept at doing all that and navigating in the car with a laptop.

In one of our searches, we came up with a geocache called the Trolls Cache.  It was halfway between Bozeman and Livingston way back in the Gallatin National Forest.  It hadn’t been found in almost two years.  We decided to take a crack at it.

We headed for it in early afternoon.  It seemed like we drove forever on a series of dirt roads that got progressively worse and worse.  Our navigation  finally got us to a point that had ground zero about 1/4 of a mile to our right  – across a stream and up a steep mountain. Off we went.  We walked and walked and walked. Most of it was uphill.  The area had been lumbered out years before, so there was thick new growth and lots of ankle-breaking flotsam and jetsam on the ground.  It was hot, slow going.  Like idiots, we didn’t take any water because we figured it would be a short jaunt.  We also found out later that this is prime grizzly habitat and we had nothing for bear defense.

At some point I turned around and realized that I couldn’t see the car anymore and the sun was below the ridgeline.  Shadows were getting deep and dark fast.  We were about 50 yards away from Ground Zero when I told him we had to back off.  It wasn’t safe.  We made our way back down the mountain thinking now we know why no one has found it in two years.  The car was barely visible when we came out of the forest and it was pitch black when we drove out.

Making the Find
I was still surveying the top of the hill on our second attempt when Ben made a beeline for this geo-beacon. The camera just happened to be at the right place at the right time to record the find.

Back at the hotel, we were bummed out.  We decided to take another shot at it.  We fired up Google Earth and got out the Delorme Montana Gazetteer.  We found what looked like an old road, maybe a lumber trail, that might lead up to the cache.  It would be a walk along the ridgeline instead of going up the mountain.  The next day, we were off in early morning with a map, GatorAde, lunch and bear spray.

GZ at Trolls Cache
Ben opens the prize at Ground Zero.

The rental car company would have had a cow if they had seen the roads, rocks and stream crossings we negotiated with their AWD Murano.  But we found the trail and parked about 1/2 mile from the cache.  Twenty minutes later, we were on top of the mountain and Ben made the find in short order.  It was an ammo box in great condition.

After high fives and some trash talking, we celebrated by sitting on a stump, drinking GatorAde, eating lunch and soaking up the gorgeous and rugged panorama that was present at Ground Zero.

View from GZ
The view from Ground Zero. We took it in while eating lunch. The haze in the background is smoke from a distant forest fire.

We learned some hard lessons on this one.  For me, the biggest one was I’m not a Marine anymore.  I don’t have to get hurt or killed to find a cache.  Ben, who was 13 at the time, was tough and had his game face on the whole time.  I asked him how many of his buddies had found an ammo box in the Montana wilderness lately.  He got a confidence builder and a crash course in real world decision making which he never forgot. Over six years later, the kid is grown up and off to college,  but we still laugh and shake our heads over the Trolls Cache.

Cheers …. Boris

Lewis and Clark Caverns

View inside the caverns

A view deep inside the caverns. As part of the tour, shortly after this picture was taken, the guide got us in a small group and turned out the lights. The blackness was unbelievable. The eyes don’t adjust because there is zero light. In the days of Morrison and the Civilian Conservation Corps, men sometimes found themselves stranded in the caves with no light. Under those circumstances, there was no way out. They simply had to wait until someone found them.

Fifty miles west of Bozeman, Montana, near the town of Whitehall, the Lewis and Clark Caverns are some of the largest, most spectacular and well developed limestone cavern complexes in the western hemisphere. Now part of the Montana State Park system, it was named for the leaders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which passed nearby twice but never saw the caves.

In winter, the 50 degree cave air mixing with the cold air outside creates an effect that looks like smoke coming out of the ground. 

The local Native Americans knew of the caves for centuries but there’s no indication that they ever went there.  It was considered a holy and forbidden place. If they ever explored it, they left absolutely no trace.  It was completely unknown to whites until its discovery by hunters in 1895, who were drawn to explore the mysterious ground smoke.

Subsequent to that, a miner and entrepreneur named Dan Morrison staked a claim to the land and began to explore the inside of the cavern. Working by the faint light of carbide headlamps and candle lanterns, he rigged 2,000 wooden steps and began leading eight hour tours through the caverns around the turn of the century. Some of the remnants of those steps and ladders can be seen in today’s tours.

The Northern Pacific Railroad sued over his stake, claiming the land belonged to them.  They won, but Morrison kept fighting them and leading tours up to his death in 1932 at age 80.

The railroad gave the land to the federal government and in 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps went to work. Working under many of the same conditions as Morrison had, they turned the caverns into what they are today. They widened passages and blasted the tunnel through which tours now exit. They also built steps or chiseled them into limestone to replace Morrison’s rickety wooden ones.  For safety, they laid an electrical grid to power lights and communications.  They also explored all chambers and hauled away tons of bat guano.

Steps inside the cavern

Steps built by the CCC showing you’re one mile high inside a mountain.

Today the caverns are part of a 3000 acre park of the same name.  There are campsites, hiking and biking trails, a visitor’s center, a store and  a cafe (summer only). Cavern tours are available from May 1 to September 30.

The tours are two hours long and can be strenuous. The altitude here is 5300 feet.  There is a long uphill walk to the entrance of the cavern, where you meet your guide. During the tour, you will ascend or descend 600 steps, slide through narrow tunnels between chambers and work your way around close passageways.  It covers about two linear miles and ends 200 feet below where you started. The temperature is 50 degrees year round.  Wear a sweater and good rubber soled shoes.  Also bring some water. If you are out of shape, extremely overweight or claustrophobic, you might want to skip this tour.  We’ve been on many cave/cavern tours and this one was probably the toughest one we’ve seen that’s open to the general public.

I would also take a flashlight or two. (Remember-Two is one and one is none.) The cave is wired with lights and communications systems.  The guide has radio contact with the Visitor Center at all times and checks in with them regularly.  But after being in that darkness for two minutes, I’d have my own backup with me.

A view of the park

Natasha in the Visitor Center parking lot. Check out the scenery. The caverns are inside the barren mountain on the right. The GPS coordinates for the parking lot are N45.838624, W111.866831. The hyperlinked numbers will take you to a Google map.

The rest of the park is breath taking (sometimes literally) and is an outdoorsman’s paradise.  There are no geocaches in the park, but there are a half dozen within a short drive and they are on the upper end of the difficulty scale.  If you’re looking for adventure caching, Montana is the place to be. More information and details about this cool place can be found on Montana’s state park website.

If you can’t get there in person, here’s a link to a great virtual tour inside the caves.

Rock on … Boris and Natasha

Devils Tower National Monument

If Devils Tower National Monument looks familiar to you but you can’t quite place it, perhaps you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It was used as a location for the movie. A massive tapered stone column towering over 1,000 feet above the surrounding countryside, Devils Tower can be seen for miles and would be a perfect beacon for alien spaceships.  More likely, you’ve seen some of the beautiful scenic photographs taken over the years. Either way it is a sight you will not soon forget.

Close up view of Devils Tower

Classic view of Devils Tower taken from the parking lot in front of the visitors center. The actual formation of the tower is a source of mystery and argument among geologists. While it is clearly volcanic in nature, there is no evidence of any volcanic activity anywhere in the area. The best guess is that it is cooled lava that was a mile or more underground at one time.  It all eroded away and left this.  It will be gone in about a million years because the rock keeps eroding, sometimes sloughing off in big slabs, creating the grooves on the tower and the talus rock around the base.

President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as our first National Monument on September 24, 1906.  It is located not far from Sundance, Wyoming in the northeast corner of Wyoming in the Black Hills overlooking the Belle Fourche River Valley. It stands 1267 feet tall with a diameter at the bottom of 1,000 feet and 275 feet at the top.  The top is roughly the size and shape of a football field, covered with scrub grass and actually has small resident rodents that call it home. The elevation at the summit is 5,212 feet.

The first documented white visitors to the tower were  members of Captain William Raynold’s 1859 Yellowstone Expedition, although it was probably explored years before by mountain men.

The first formal survey of Devils Tower was led by Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge in 1875 and it was this expedition that gave it its Anglo name.  Dodge’s Indian interpreter translated the Native American name to Bad God’s Tower which led to Devils Tower.  The name has a historical hiccup which exists to this day.  The word Devils is the correct name as opposed to Devil’s, which is grammatically proper. According to the National Park Service,  the proclamation signed by President Theodore Roosevelt inadvertently dropped the apostrophe in Devil’s.  That made the official name Devils and it was never changed. 

It has long been considered a sacred site by many of the northern plains Indian tribes. Some of those tribes referred to it as the Bear’s Lodge. One of the legends that surround Devils Tower is that the vertical grooves in the rock were placed there by a giant bear that was chasing some Indian maidens, who climbed the column to safety. There are six major tribes that have both cultural and geographic ties to the area: Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Shoshone. The National Park Service says that there are over 20 tribes that have treated Devils Tower as Holy Ground.

Distant view of Devils Tower

Distant view of Devils Tower from a roadside pullout about five miles south. The rolling hills of this 1,347 acre park are covered with pine forests, deciduous woodlands, and prairie grasslands. Deer, prairie dogs, and other wildlife are abundant.  There is a huge prairie dog village along the road near the entrance which is a great source of amusement for visitors.

Today the monument attracts about 400,000 tourists each year. They peacefully co-exist with the Native American traditions and rites still observed at Devils Tower. Visitors will see various prayer objects hanging in trees or on the ground and are asked not to disturb them.

In addition to camping, hiking and sightseeing, a major recreational activity at Devils Tower is mountain climbing.  Colonel Dodge’s survey report concluded that the summit was “inaccessible to anything without wings.”  It was almost another 20 years before two local ranchers – William Rogers and Willard Ripley – became the first to climb it.

They spent weeks pounding wooden pegs into a continuous crack on the southeast face and attaching wooden steps to them. On July 4, 1893 in front of 1,000 spectators, they ascended their makeshift ladder to the top and ran an American flag up a flagpole they had pre-staged there. Mountain climbing at Devils Tower was born. Parts of the ladder used by Rogers and Ripley are still visible today.

The first technical ascent was on June 28, 1937 by Fritz Weissner and Lawrence Coveney.  Roughly 5,000 people climb it each year with only five deaths reported since 1893.

In 1941, a man named George Hopkins parachuted on to the summit.  He then had to wait six days to be rescued and was half-dead from exposure and dehydration when they got to him.

Top of Devils Tower

OK. I knew you wanted to see the top. This is the best I could do until I climb it. Climbing is big business with a number of climbing schools, clinics and guides available. There are many different routes to the top of varying difficulty. In keeping with the sanctity and solemness of the site, they have sacred names like Rock Suckers and Spank the Monkey.

For those who are less adventuresome, there are two trails around the base of the tower. The Red Beds Trail is a three mile hike and there is a shorter 1.25 mile Base Trail. These hikes are worth taking as they bring you close to the tower and give you a different perspective of its majesty. They can be a bit strenuous with altitude and some short but steep grades. Be sure to allow sufficient time and take water with you. There’s none on the trails.

There are camp sites available and a visitor’s center but other than that, accommodations and creature comforts are pretty sparse.  Parking can be a challenge during the peak season.  Be prepared to park along the road or down below and walk a ways.

As with most National Parks and Monuments there are no traditional container geocaches on monument grounds. There are numerous geocaches in the surrounding area and nearby Black Hills.

So if you are ever in the Wyoming Black Hills, turn north at Sundance and follow the signs to Devils Tower. You can’t miss it.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #7

After a brief hiatus to get acquainted with our new granddaughter, the countdown continues.  This is a Pennsylvania cache from July 2005 called The Spooky Tunnel.

When people think of my native Pennsylvania, they usually think Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – urban areas.  In fact, most of Pennsylvania is heavily wooded and mountainous.  The Allegheny Mountains run northeast to southwest through the center half of the state.  Part of these mountains run through Somerset and Westmoreland counties and are called the Laurel Highlands.  This is the area where I grew up and it looks much as it did 200 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see.

Through the middle of all this, the state built a four lane highway that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed highway in the U.S.  Construction started in October 1938.  The first 160 mile section from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg opened for business on October 1, 1940.  Construction and expansion have been ongoing ever since.

The original design envisioned speeds of up to 100 mph. The road was designed to maximize straightaways and minimize curves and hills.  To do this, they built a series of tunnels through the mountains instead of going over them.  One of these was the Laurel Hill Tunnel.  Its story is told in the pictures that follow.

Laurel Hill Tunnel in the 1940's
A view of the Laurel Hill Tunnel in the 1940’s. It was originally designed and excavated as a railroad tunnel at the turn of the century but the railroad never got here. It was incorporated into the Pennsylvania Turnpike which opened in 1940 as the nation’s First Superhighway.

This rugged woodland is a geocachers dream.  It has everything from one star drive ups to five star expeditions.  Overlooking the long abandoned Laurel Hill Tunnel is the three star Spooky Tunnel geocache.  My son and I tackled it in July of 2005.  It was our first summer of geocaching.

The abandoned Laurel Hill Tunnel
The problem with the Laurel Hill Tunnel is that it only had two lanes and the turnpike had four. It became a two-ended bottleneck. Even in the 1940’s and 50’s, traffic jammed up at both ends. As cars and trucks became bigger and faster, the traffic got worse and the tunnel got more dangerous. There were horrific crashes in and around the tunnel during its years of use. By the early 1960’s, something had to be done. That something was to forget about 100 mph straightaways and build a six lane road over the steep mountain, bypassing the tunnel completely. The Laurel Hill Bypass opened in 1964. The now abandoned tunnel lay dormant for years. This a view from the early 1980’s.

The hardest part of the cache is figuring out which back country road goes to the parking pullout.  Once parked, it’s about 1/2 mile of bushwhacking to get to the cache.  There’s no trail and the summertime brush, the bugs and old barbed wire fences can be challenging. The cache itself is well hidden (at least it was) and the heavy overhead canopy can make the GPS go crazy.

Laurel Hill Tunnel
The abandoned tunnel served a variety of ad hoc purposes for 30 years after it was abandoned. It was used as a garage for maintenance vehicles, storage for road sand and salt and a police firing range. Up until the early 80’s, you could walk or bike through it. Around 2000, the tunnel became the scene of intense activity. No Trespassing signs were posted and the State Police patrolled it heavily. Structures resembling airlocks or decon stations went up along with barriers and satellite antennae. The whole thing was sealed off with no outward evidence of activity or occupation. People began to speculate about all the things that might be going on there. Department of Defense? Homeland Security? Nuclear waste?  Archaeological dig? Alien spacecraft?

You can’t miss the tunnel.  Just keep walking downhill and you’ll run right into it. The view of the tunnel from the cache site is awesome.  It’s completely out of place in this remote area but there it is, satellite antennae and all.

Spooky Tunnel
After years of speculation, the answer finally got out, thanks to the Internet. An engineering company that develops NASCAR racing technology bought the tunnel and turned it into a giant wind tunnel. They wanted to keep it quiet but you know how that goes. Now, they have a website that tells all. It’s pretty interesting. The place is strictly off limits but a geocache was placed above it in 2003. It’s still there. This is a geocacher’s view of the (Not So) Spooky Tunnel.

Anyway, we had a good time getting it and bagged several more in the same area that day.  As I’ve said before, some of my best days as a Dad were out geocaching with the kids and this was one of them.

BTW, if you’re interested in who is using the tunnel and what they’re doing, here’s the tell all website.

Cheers … The Cachemanian Devils

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #8

Picking out the 10 best is proving to be a challenge. Here’s what we’ve got so far:

#10 – Easy to Overlook, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain, Sundance, WY

Tonight, we continue our Top 10 geocache countdown. The #8 slot is a find from July 2008 (during our honeymoon) called “The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands.”

One of our favorite places to explore is the Door County peninsula in Wisconsin.  Located on the state’s eastern shore, it juts out into the lake like a little finger sticking out of a mitten.  The peninsula has Lake Michigan on the eastern side and Green Bay on the western side.  They meet at the top of the peninsula, where there are a number of islands.  The largest of these is Washington Island, a fishing community and resort town.  The strait that runs between the peninsula and Washington Island was called Death’s Door by the Potawatomi and Winnebago Indians and later by the Europeans. The winds, waves, currents and rocks of these waters have claimed everything from birch bark canoes to iron hulled steam ships along with the people in them.   This is where the county got its name – the shortened form of Death’s Door.  It’s famous for two things – shipwrecks and cherry orchards.  It has plenty of both.

The tip of the peninsula is called the Headlands.  It is heavily forested and weather beaten.  The dominant terrain feature of the area is the steep cliffs, about 40 feet high, which go right down to the water.  These bluffs are actually the exposed edge of the Niagara Escarpment, an elevated plateau that runs from upstate New York to Chicago.  Four hundred twenty miles to the southeast of this picture,  the Niagara River roars over the edge of this same escarpment, creating Niagara Falls.  There’s nothing like that here, but geologically, they’re the same.

The shore of the Door county headlands.
The Headlands, at the very tip of the Door county peninsula. This is the route to the cache, taken near the driftwood teepee as you come out of the forest. The GPS will have you at about a half mile away, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. You’ll be hiking all the way around the far point and beyond. Actually, hiking isn’t a good term. Picking your way along is a better description. The rocks can be treacherous. The day we were there, the sun was brutal. Wear a hat and soak it in the ice cold lake water to cool off. Drinking the water is not a good idea. Be sure to bring your sense of humor.

Rock fracturing and erosion have carved out caves in the bluffs.  They aren’t very far in and you don’t have to be a spelunker to retrieve the cache. The trick is finding the right one and getting to it.   So now you know why this cache is called The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands.

This cache is a significant undertaking.  First, you have to find your way through the forest down to the shore.  There’s one trail that will get you there and lots of dead ends. There is no trail on the shore itself.  The entire walk to the cache is along the shore picking your way through talus rocks with shaky footing. There’s not one square foot of soft stable ground and it’s a slow grind. Make sure you wear stout shoes. Flip-flops not recommended!  Then you have to find the right cave and get to it,  which means climbing and entering.  The final phase is potentially the toughest – getting back.  The shoreline all looks the same so finding the one place where the trail leads back up into the forest can be tricky.  Fortunately, previous explorers have marked the spot with a huge driftwood teepee and others have added rock cairns.  The driftwood teepee is a key marker and we made our own stack of rocks to make double sure we knew where to head inland.  Take a good look around you when you break out on to the shore and stay oriented.  You’ll be fine.

A cave on the Door county bluffs.
The cache cave on the Door county bluffs. You have to come up from below.  Footing and handholds are critical when making your approach. Trees have very shallow roots and rocks give way easily. There are two very important rules in bouldering – keep three points of contact on the rocks at all times and don’t cross your feet. Move slow. Keep your center of gravity close to the slope. Test your hand and foot holds. No flip flops here either. Don’t let all this intimidate you. We were in our late 50’s when we did this one.

Give yourself several hours for this one and make sure you take water and sunscreen. A flashlight might be helpful too.  If you have some energy left, there are numerous other caches in the immediate vicinity.  They are much simpler.  This is the only one that requires you to negotiate the bluffs of the Door county headlands.

This link will open a Google Map of the area.

This link will open the cache description page on geocaching (dot) com.

Enjoy …. The Cachemanian Devils