Earth Notes: What is a Cave?

Earth Notes is a monthly feature by Contributing Editor Ed Woten.

Once in a while I get someone telling me about this great “cave” that they know about that they think I should check out. While this frequently turns out to be a new adventure, it is clear to me that not everyone knows what a true cave really is. To qualify as an actual cave, the site has to meet three criteria.
Firstly, it has to be a natural opening in the earth. Up here in the Sacramento Mountains, and in many other places across Southern New Mexico, there was heavy mining at one time. Places like Oro Grande still have ongoing mining operations. The best examples near Cloudcroft would be found down Westside Road. For the most part these are small, hand-dug places of varying depths.
As a caver, I generally avoid mines just on the principle that they are not natural formations, therefore they are not stable. That is why many mines need to be shored up with heavy timbers. Many of these mines are old and should be avoided as serious safety hazards. Caves are naturally formed features which have developed over a long period of time.
Secondly, caves have to be big enough for a person to crawl into. Animal burrows or dens do not qualify. I’m one of those crazy people who don’t mind crawling into tight spaces, but I like to have somewhere to go to on the other side. One of the reasons that I like to take kids caving is that they can explore those little spaces that I no longer fit into.
Thirdly, true caves have to extend far enough into the earth to go beyond the zone of visible light. A good example of that would be the “F” Cave across from the Tunnel Vista. It looks impressive, but if you have ever climbed over to it, you will have found out that it doesn’t lead anywhere. You can see the back of it from the highway.
The entrances to most caves are are usually well lighted with sunlight penetrating to varying degrees depending upon the size of the cave or the angle of the passage. In Carlsbad Caverns, natural sunlight goes several hundred feet in. The transition into the dark is called the twilight zone. Many people are intimidated by total darkness. Personally, I find it very relaxing. I enjoy finding a nice comfortable spot to sit and just turn off my light and listen to the cave.
To recap, for the feature to be a true cave: it must be natural, it must be big enough for people to crawl into and it must extend beyond the zone of light. With these criteria in mind, there are surprisingly few caves to be found in the Sacramento Mountains. There are a few, such as Wimsatt Cave in the Twin Forks area, but the Cloudcroft Cave Club usually has to go farther afield to find fun caves to explore.
Caving is the one sport where you can literally, “boldly go where no one has gone before.” If you ever get the urge to try it, come out and join us. My next column will talk about some of the different kinds of caves to be found in New Mexico. Hasta la vista!
This article was originally published in the October 2013 print edition of the Mountain Monthly.