Keith met up with us as we pulled into the parking lot at Cathedral Caverns
State Park at 8:30. The drive from Winston County had taken only a leisurely
two hours. Mina, a coworker of Keith, and her friend Susan arrived about
fifteen minutes later.
We decided that since the first cave tour did not begin until 10:15 and with the forecasted weather promising the hottest day of the year that it might be better to explore nearby Stephens Gap Cave first since that entailed a short hike to climb up there.
Mina and Susan declined thinking they did not have adequate foot gear for the hike. They may have been correct. Though only a mile from the parking area to the cave, some of the path is very steep and with rocks at various angles trying to trip you up.
Stephens Gap is not terribly difficult to find. From US 72, take AL 35 towards
Woodville. (This road is technically AL 35 South though you will be traveling
northeast on this stretch.) About three or four miles past Woodville, look for
a short paved cutover across the railroad tracks. This is Jackson County
Road 30. Turn left. An informal parking area is another fifty yards or so.
Start the hike by walking around the gate in front of an unpaved road. When it forks, keep to the left. A trail heads off through the woods to the right in less than a tenth of a mile. But if you miss this, no problem, just keep on the road-trail and the two join up together eventually.
We took the road-trail on the way up and after about twenty minutes came to a deep pit cave. While impressive and definitely a little scary to stand on the edge, this was only a tease for where we were really going.
Until this point, the trail had been relatively level and easy. But then we found ourselves on steeper terrain and the rocks became more numerous. If the ground had been wet, this part of the trail would have been a terror. You would be slipping and sliding all over the place and would probably just give up after a while and wait for another day.
After about another fifteen strenuous minutes, we found ourselves looking down
into the 150 foot deep pit that is Stephens Gap Cave. A stream flows in near
the top and splashes down along the side. Beams of sunlight illuminate the
sides of the crater.
Rappelling was not an option for us. Fortunately there is a side entrance into the cave though even this requires carefully descending a rock-strewn, very slippery path for fifty yards or more. Two ledges after such effort provide excellent vantage points to view the interior of the cavern. The path continues downward but we judged it already too wet and slippery.
When we surfaced again, a group of a dozen was preparing to rappel into the cave. We watched them tie knots for a little while before returning to the car and Cathedral Caverns.
Keith had to leave but Mimi and I hung around for the hourly cave tour at 12:15. The fee was $13 apiece for a 90 minute guided tour. You cannot enter the cave on your own which is probably a good idea given the trashed-up conditions of publically accessible caves in the Sipsey Wilderness.
About fifty people of all ages were on our tour. It's an easy walk for 3500 feet (1 km) along a concrete pathway about two yards wide with railings and sufficient lighting so you can see where your feet are. A small flashlight might be welcome. The place is totally handicapped accessible.
We would stop every five minutes or so and the guide would inform us of some bit of history or geology, perhaps with some anecdote, and point out interesting rock formations.
The cave is nicely lit. When we reached the end of the walkway, the guide turned out the lights for a couple of minutes so everyone could experience total darkness. You cannot even see your own hands and begin to appreciate some of your other senses more.
The walkway is fairly flat but there are a couple of spots where the slope is almost 45 degrees for ten yards at most. One of these even has a detour for those who find the angle uncomfortable.
I suppose the best part of the cave, especially on this sweltering day, is that the temperature inside ranges from 56 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit.
All in all, we enjoyed both places very much. Stephens Gap offers an ideal short hike for a summer day with something to see at the end. Cathedral Caverns is your standard cave tour but what a cave!
We originally had intended to camp at the state park which advertises primitive camping. The campground turned out to be just a large grassy field - and not such a level one at that - with a Porta-Potty at one end, and with a location not particularly convenient to the rest of the park. Such accommodation also costs $13 a night and we were glad to have passed on it. For state park camping in this area, it would be much better to stay at Monte Sano or Lake Guntersville.
For these and other photos, please see our Picasa Web Album Northeastern Alabama Caves, June 2012.
|Submitted 26 Jun 2012|
|Photos: Keith, Mimi|