Ethan Fagan leads a tour of Natural Bridge Caverns' soon-to-open two-hour adventure tour. He traverses a narrow ledge over a 30-foot-deep pit by clipping into a rope anchored to the cave walls. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report
Brad Wuest doesn’t remember his first trip into the caves and passages of Natural Bridge Caverns.
“My mother carried me in a baby backpack,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a photo somewhere.”
Since then, Wuest, the third-generation owner, president and CEO of one of Texas’ largest cave systems has made countless excursions into the massive system.
Located in Comal County just outside of New Braunfels, Natural Bridge Caverns has become an international tourist destination for cavers and casual day visitors alike. The cave system was created over millions of years, as rainwater seeped underground, slowing dissolving the limestone until an underground river formed, further enlarging the caves.
It is still being actively explored and mapped out to this day. In just the past four years, Wuest, along with his brother Travis Wuest and their team of specialized cavers, have expanded the known parts of the cave by more than a mile, to a total of 3.65 explored miles.
Thanks to a new expedition tour launching later this month, guests will soon have the opportunity to see parts of the cave system that haven’t yet been open to the public, while also getting a chance to test their agility by climbing up short slippery slopes, sliding down muddy shelves and traversing a narrow ledge around a 30-foot deep pit.
The new tour, which will be known as St. Mary’s Adventure Tour in honor of the four St. Mary’s University students who first explored the caves in 1960 after getting permission from Wuest’s grandparents, is a roughly two-hour introduction to caving.
Natural Bridge Caverns will offer two of these tours per day, allowing interested morning visitors to catch the afternoon trip if they’re interested, Wuest said. The caverns’ current four-hour adventure tour is a little more intense, and requires advance booking at least a day ahead. Up to six guests are allowed on each expedition, accompanied by two guides.
Earlier this week, Wuest and two guides gave the San Antonio Report an exclusive first look at the new tour.
The San Antonio Report’s environment reporter Lindsey Carnett (right) and summer intern Ava Flores (left) got an exclusive first look at the new St. Mary’s Adventure Tour inside Natural Bridge Caverns Monday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report
Three rules of three
Wuest met the group at the cave’s entrance, under a striking limestone arch that appears to float above the open entry way. He wore custom-made caving pants that have faded from red to muddied pink, a waist harness adorned with ropes and carabiners, a helmet with LED headlamp and ankle-high, waterproof hiking boots.
Just beyond the entrance, tour guide Ethan Fagan explained the three rules of three when caving: make sure you have at least a group of three people, that there are at least three light sources and always make three points of contact while climbing.
Fagan, a recent UTSA graduate why earned his bachelor’s degree in geology, started the tour from a paved passageway that snakes downwards into an open area known as “St. Mary’s Hall,” also named in honor of those first spelunkers.
Fagan instructed the group to turn on their headlamps, and then follow him over a short brick step into wild cave. This portion of the caverns differs considerably from the paved, well-lit one-hour discovery tours that everyday visitors take at regular intervals.
As the group came upon the first of many climbs, Fagan scaled the muddy hill in seconds. The group’s trailing guide, Spencer Weaver, took turns clipping each caver onto a rope with a specialized ascension carabiner to prevent falls before handing each person a separate knotted rope to pull on. The climb wasn’t as easy as Fagan made it look.
“You’re officially a caver now,” Fagan said to one neophyte caver who made it to the top, panting.
Fagan led the group through shin-high water, into narrow passages and under delicate stalactites — the calcium salt spires that form from the roof of caves. Early in the tour, Wuest asked the group to avoid touching the walls, and to only hold stalagmites — the ones that grow up from the cave floor — at the base, and only if necessary to regain balance.
About halfway through the journey, the group had to traverse a narrow ledge above a 30-foot-deep pit via a “traverse line” — a short network of anchored ropes parallel to the ground on the narrow ridge surrounding the pit. To make it around, cavers have to clip and unclip a pair of carabiners to stay safely strapped to the wall as they stepped carefully along the ridge.
Looking as if he’d done it a thousand times, Fagan leaned perilously far out over the pit when illustrating how to do it.
The odyssey included several special cave formations, including black calcite, a natural dark crystal formation; box work, honeycomb-like structures that can form in some sedimentary rock; and soda straws, hollow cylindrical tubes hanging delicately along parts of the cavern ceiling.
At one point, everyone turned off their headlamps to experience total darkness. It was awesome — but also a bit terrifying.
The journey to the tail of the soon-to-be-opened passage and back to the entrance took roughly two hours. Afterwards, the group power washed the mud off their shoes before hitting the adventure tour station, where showers, water and snacks are available.
More to explore
“Do you see that hole right there?” Wuest said, pointing to the top of one of the dome caves during the excursion. “That’s a lead” — an entry point to an unexplored part of the cavern system.
These days, new leads in the caverns are found on a regular basis, Wuest said, thanks to improvements in technology, caving gear and surveying equipment.
For example, cavers of old wore carbide lamps attached to their helmets that only illuminated a few feet in any direction. Today, intense LED lights light up far larger areas, allowing for the discovery of new leads quickly, Wuest said, while drones with cameras make it possible to explore leads unreachable by humans.
Lindsey Carnett, environment reporter for the San Antonio Report, emerges from a narrow passage that opens to a larger cave room as part of the St. Mary’s Adventure Tour Monday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report
Just weeks ago, Wuest and his team discovered a lead that directed them to a previously unexplored cave that contains an underground river Wuest said is connected to the Glen Rose Aquifer, which lies beneath the caverns — a huge discovery, he said.
He and the team are hopeful they will find unique cave-dwelling species in the river. Environmental scientists have been meticulously studying different sections of the cave over the past year to identify them, he said.
One of the most important takeaways Wuest said he hopes guests get out of their tours is the importance of environmental stewardship.
According to census data, Comal County is the second fastest-growing county in the nation, and has been for the last several years. As housing and developments expand across the Hill Country and along the I-35 corridor, it’s more important than ever to protect unique natural resources like Natural Bridge Caverns, Wuest said.
Wuest said he hopes seeing the caverns can help people make the connection.
“We are highly dependent on our groundwater; it’s our lifeline,” Wuest said. “A lot of people don’t realize the connection between the surface and our groundwater resources, and how what we do on the surface has such a tremendous effect on the quality of that water and the quantity.”