In April 2007, we were given a high level of access to the Caverns of Sonora on the Mayfield Ranch just west of Sonora, Texas off Interstate 10, and about 1.5 hours south of San Angelo, Texas. At that time, the Caverns were still reeling from the vandalism of their most prized natural formation inside the cave, called The Butterfly. But as this article shows, there is much. much more to the Caverns.
Professional cavers and hobbyists – spelunkers – alike admire the Caverns of Sonora, 15 miles west of Sonora, Texas, for their display of virtually untouched natural beauty just below the surface. Stalagmites and stalactites, cave bacon, and other formations, or speleothems (SPEE-lee-ohth-EM), are on display in vast quantities.
The beauty and significance of these formations begin with the understanding that thousands of years of dripping, calcium-rich water feeds crystalline gardens and glassy facades to create a kaleidoscope of fantastic shapes. The growth of only one inch of material in a speleothem requires 100 to 150 years.
The Caverns of Sonora are unique because of their location above the Edwards-Trinity aquifer, yet winding through the deep limestone crust that covers the entire region. These conditions have allowed a surprising abundance of spectacular shapes and types of formations to grow in the Caverns, more so than in other caves on display throughout the country. The Caverns of Sonora are truly a unique treasure to this area, and are designated a National Natural Landmark.
Each successive cavern or “room” along the guided tour showcases a different type of speleothem. The most common formations are stalactites, icicle-shaped deposits extending from the ceiling towards the floor, and stalagmites which are similar formations that extend from the floor towards the ceiling. If a stalagmite grows upward toward a downward trending stalactite, it becomes a column. And columns require many thousands of years to form.
A stalactite starts out as mineral rich drops that slowly form a “soda straw” as carbon dioxide, calcium carbonate, and calcite flow with the water. The water drop oozes from between the rocks and drops to the floor leaving behind a minute deposit of the dissolved calcite in the shape of a ring. Ring forms upon ring until a small tube hangs from the ceiling called a "soda straw." Through the loss of the carbon dioxide, the dissolved calcite deposit continues until stalactites are formed.
The Caverns are well known for their “fishtail” helictites. These are seemingly clear crystal fishtails protruding from the rock. The Caverns’ signature attraction is a pair of symmetrical fishtail helictites that formed a butterfly shape, aptly named “The Butterfly” until damaged by vandals recently. “What is significant about the Butterfly is that it is a formation of two helicitites that grew from the same base,” said Jim Cumberland, tour guide at the Caverns.
Because of the quantity and quality of this geological history, the Caverns are what experts call a “show cave.” It is located on private land, the Mayfield-Ingham Ranch, and operated for profit. The only way to save the natural beauty of the Caverns, according to its owners, was to commercialize it. And its caretakers painstakingly prepared the cave for show, including magnificent indirect lighting and easily negotiated, accessible walkways. The explored portion of the cave includes over seven miles of passageways, but the standard guided tours only encompass portions of two miles of these passages.
The walkways are generally easy to navigate, even for the elderly, although there are stairs and some passageways requiring slight stooping.
The guided tour offered is a one-hour, 45-minute walk that descends 155 feet below the surface along a maze of walkways and staircases, through magnificent rooms of cave formations, including the Crystal Palace where are seen the rare forms of helicites. The tour is led by an experienced caver who showcases all of the active, still-forming cave features, and the remarkable “Halo Lake,” an underground body of crystal clear water. The walk is about one-and-three-fourths miles.
For the more adventurous, the Caverns of Sonora offer what they call a “Wild Tour,” in which participants don kneepads and a helmet-and-lamp headgear to see some of the more exclusive areas of the cave, places that can only be accessed by crawling on your knees and belly. “We’ll push you right to your limit as far as caving goes. At the end of the day, you’ll be repelling over a 45-foot ledge,” said Bill Sawyer, cave specialist and operations manager at the Caverns.
The mysteries just below the surface at the Caverns were hidden from human history until half a century ago when a 1955 exploration of additional caverns beyond the first large cavern, nicknamed “Devil’s Pit,” was initiated in earnest by professional spelunkers.
Prior to 1955, the Devil’s Pit was accessed from a hole, barely fifteen inches in diameter, located on the Mayfield Ranch. From the Devil’s Pit, through a small passage near the ceiling, a narrow ledge could be accessed and carefully crawled. Just to the left along the ledge is a 40-foot drop of unbroken exposure to a three-dimensional maze of passages and “live” geological formations.
These speleothems are called “live” or “active” because deep inside the Caverns, formations are still growing, fed by nearly 100% humidity and flowing water (if at no more than a trickle) through cracks and crevasses of limestone that extend from the surface to hundreds of feet below. The temperature inside the cave is a steady 71 degrees Farenheit, year round.
No one dared crawl through that passage until professionals from the National Speleological Society, Bob and Bart Crisman and Jack Prince, arrived from Dallas. Jack Prince accepted the challenge of making the first crawl down the narrow passage on Labor Day, 1955.
The inaccessibility of the still-growing sections of the Caverns is significant. Because of dangerous passages, no one dared explore beyond it, leaving all successive portions of the Caverns as virgin territory. No humans had seen, much less disturbed the magnificent formations growing deep inside. On the tour, you will see the original crawl space that Prince navigated.
After the underground world beyond that narrow passageway was discovered, plans were set to prepare the cave for public tours. But for five years, until 1960, the Caverns were a little known secret amongst cave enthusiasts. Rumors spread about the beautiful virgin caverns beyond the first room, but no one was quite sure where the Caverns were exactly.
With the discovery, the owners of the Caverns, Stanley Mayfield and Jim Papadakis (who was also a geologist from Wisconsin), made plans open the Caverns to public tours. They hired renowned cave developer Jack Burch to engineer a series of pathways, stairs and bridges. Burch said that to create passages, he had to destroy more formations than many caves had altogether.
The Caverns opened in 1960 with just 1,800 feet of trails. Throngs of visitors proved the Caverns were a hit. An additional 1,700 feet of trails were added in 1961. In 1978, the second section of walkways encompassing the “long tour” through the Crystal Palace was added.
Since then, millions of people have traversed the passageways deep inside. And with the passage of time, some pieces of formations have been touched or broken by carelessness, curiosity or thoughtlessness.
On November 21, 2006, however, the Caverns fell victim to an egregious act of vandalism. The famous and signature Butterfly formation was broken by what witnesses describe as college-aged pranksters. “We don’t have any hard evidence of who did this,” said Sawyer.
The staff at the Caverns has a theory. A group of young adults visited the Caverns together for a tour. Near the Butterfly formation, a member of the party created a distraction for the tour guide. With the supervision distracted, a member of the party crawled over the railing in front of The Butterfly and broke off 2/3’s of the Butterfly’s right wing and pocketed it.
A second group that seemed to be affiliated with the first group went on the next tour to seemingly photograph the damage. The damage was not discovered until the second tour, and the managers of the Caverns did not connect the dots until reviewing the day’s events for a police report later that day. The Caverns staff discovered that both groups of young adults used the same credit card to pay for the tours.
According to Sawyer, a member of the first party called the Caverns office from Ozona looking for the second party when they were still inside the cave.
The Caverns of Sonora filed a police report with the county sheriff, but the crime was categorized as only a misdemeanor, since a value had not been placed on the Butterfly, according to Sawyer. Recently, Caverns owners signed an affidavit that stated the Butterfly was worth more than $200,000. That elevated the misdemeanor to a felony.
Though the suspects paid for their tour with a credit card, the Caverns have been unsuccessful in obtaining more than the name on the card from the credit card company despite frequent inquiries. “We’ve been waiting for that information for way too long,” Sawyer said.
The Butterfly took tens of thousands of years to form, and if the Caverns can retrieve the lost piece of the Butterfly soon enough, it can be reconstructed with modern restoration techniques. But as time moves on, the wing will lose its moisture and repairing the formation will be impossible.
“We believe the group that destroyed the Butterfly are from the Houston area,” Sawyer said.
The investigation is being handled by the Sutton County Sheriff’s Office. Chief Deputy Joe Harris said that since the investigation is ongoing, he cannot comment on the details. “We’re doing all we can do,” he said. The Caverns of Sonora has a standing reward of $20,000 that will be issued for information related to the safe return of the formation. Anyone with information should contact the Sutton County Sheriff at 325-387-2288.
The Caverns of Sonora are open every day of the year except Christmas Day. Tours depart frequently and the staff there can accommodate your group once you arrive. Wear tennis shoes or hiking boots. Although none of the passageways are strenuous, you do want to be comfortable. The temperature inside the cave is a constant 71 degrees F. The Wild Tour requires advance reservations.
To get to the Caverns, travel approximately eight miles west of Sonora on Interstate 10 to the Caverns of Sonora exit. Travel south on FM 1989 approximately seven miles, following the conspicuously placed signs to the Caverns office. More information can be obtained by calling the Caverns office at (325) 387-3105 and visiting their Web site at www.cavernsofsonora.com.