Tom’s Missing Goats
Tom Tucker went searching for a group of missing goats back in on hot July day in 1937. Eventually, he found his animals but in doing so he also found the Slaughter Canyon Cave entrance. Back then, the cave was filled with bat guano and in the following years, miners would bring in their tools and machinery to harvest this important agricultural resource. They soon discovered that the guano was too old and too much of the nutrients had leached out to be useful as fertilizer.
Introductions at the Visitor Center
On an October morning, Hitch and I wake early. Today’s cave hike will last for 6 hours, so I prep a decent sized breakfast, rich in proteins. We grab our packs, which I prepared the night before with water and snacks, and head for the visitor center for our pre-hike instruction. When we get to the center, I’m surprised to find that there are only six of us in our group and two ranger guides. Apparently, taking the tour in October is a boon for us. In the height of summer when the tourists flock to the cave, the Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour group will fill to its maximum capacity of 20! For about 20 minutes we learn names, rules, restrictions, prevention of white-nose syndrome in bats, and get geared up. There are no bathrooms at Slaughter Canyon, and I am repulsed at the thought of doing my business in a bag, so I quickly hit the restroom before hopping back in the truck to join the car caravan.
I remember being really excited about this particular cave tour, with its gigantic columns, stalagmites, and flowstone formations. I also know it will be hard work getting up there, but I was determined.
Slaughter Canyon Trail
From the visitor center, we drive out to the trailhead of Slaughter Canyon Trail. The trail up to the cave entrance is what can make this cave hike a bit strenuous, especially in summer when the temperatures can reach into the 100s. In half a mile, we gain 500 feet in altitude, which calculates to an average grade of 15%. I’m told by the rangers, that trail is considered “difficult to very difficult” due to the harsh environment. I do my best and I’m thankful for my Black Diamond trekking poles and Camelback. Despite being slow myself, as a group, we still make short work of the trail. I guess there’s a real advantage to having a small group; less people to move from point A to point B. I do remember being winded, but it was not as heart-rending as the Rocky Mountains.
At the Entrance
When we reach the Slaughter Canyon Cave entrance, we take a rest, have some water, leave our backpacks and sticks behind, and gear up with helmets, headlamps, and gloves. As I looked down into the cave from the entrance, the natural light casting foreboding shadows and mysterious shapes. The light pouring in through the main entrance only penetrates about 20 feet, and beyond that, there is only inky darkness. The deeper inside, the cave is devoid of any light save the ones we brought ourselves. As we wait in the twilight area, I’m struck by the coolness of the cave; such a drastic change when compared to the outside. I later learned that the average temperature is around 56° F all year round.
Tom Tucker’s Room
We head down a mildly steep but slick trail and into Tom Tucker Room, supposedly where Tom found his animals loitering in the dark. Here we focused our bright lights on the walls to spot the layers of an ancient sea bed. I take a quick glance spinning in place and gasp at great columns, which seem to hold the ceiling up. Some look like tree trunks covered in moss, but I know all are made of limestone set here by water dripping and pouring over millions of years.
Bat Poop is Good
We hike deeper into the cave, where the trail turns into hard pack guano. Here there are deep trenches and tracks left by machines and tractors. We also find wires, broken glass, tin cans, magnesium flare handles, and old light bulbs. We stand in the remains of a bat guano mining operation. I don’t think I would last long digging around in bat poop, no matter how cool bats are.
We step into a trench and examine the layers of bat guano and earth. Within the layers of dirt, there are millions of tiny white slivers of bat bones protruding at all different angles. Nearer to the cave walls the reddish guano layers are covered by a dark soil. According to our guide, Slaughter Canyon Cave was flooded several times, leaving a layer of sediment throughout the cave. Just before 2015, the cave was blocked off and no visitors allowed inside due to flood waters.
King Solomon’s Mine
As we move past two majestic giant limestone columns, our guide goes on to tell us about “King Solomon’s Mine,” a movie filmed in the caves back in 1950, which was very loosely based off the Alan Quatermain book of the same title. At one point our ranger points out a location on the cave wall with a smudged reddish mark. Supposedly, after the filming was done the leading lady kissed part of the cave and left her lipstick. Our ranger then leads us to another wall, where Native Americans have left pictographs. Sadly, we don’t know who left them here, just that they match ones found outside the cave in another location. I think I like the pictographs better than the lipstick smudge.
Watch Sig climb off a flowstone slope.
Wall of China
Our group then descends down into a larger cavern, where our lights barely reach the ceiling and walls. Upon the floor is an ankle high rimstone formation which winds along the floor. The pools that once helped form the stones are now long gone, leaving a stone dam. They call it Great Wall of China since this delicate formation looks to be contiguous. I crouch down and closely examine the rimstone closely, I guess it kind of looks like a diorama of sorts. They should just rename it Tiny Wall of China.
At this point, our ranger decides to give us the extra special tour. Normally he would have skipped some areas of the cave but decides to make an exception since there is only seven people in our group. We then trek to a steep and slick flowstone path. Our guide then grabs a knotted rope and shakes it loose from its hiding spot. After a quick primer on how to climb the path using the rope, we all form a line. One by one, we climb carefully down that slick flowstone path. On the other side, we get to see an amazing site: a gigantic stalagmite glimmering against the light of headlamps. This formation is called the Klansmen, due to the fact the layers of rock have formed a kind of hood. I suggest they rename it Skeletor from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
The Christmas Tree
We carefully make our way top another flowstone floor and are delighted by the sight of a column called The Christmas Tree. Even in the dim light, there’s a glittering crystal covering this formation. It looks a bit greenish with an ivory cream coat. Behind us is a huge column which bulges out in the middle, giving it a kind of teardrop shape, which is why they probably called it The Tear Drop. I love that we took a moment to sit on the flowstone floor and listen to water drops echoing throughout the chamber.
Our guide makes motions toward where we came from, and I secretly wish we could stay longer. To exit this area we have to climb down that flowstone path using the rope. Now practiced at the rope use, all of us make it to the other side in no time. We are then taken to another rope and flowstone trail. Following the same procedure as before, we quickly gather on the other side. Here we get to view the Monarch, a large 89-foot limestone column formation. I thought the columns near the entrance and within Tom Tucker Room were big, but this one takes the cake. I wished we could linger here longer, but our tour is almost up and we have to head back out.
We slowly backtracked through the cave. We gather our things at the entrance and begin our descent down the trail. At the cars, we hand over our helmets and gloves. We bid our guides a hearty handshake and thank you. Inside our truck, the cab is sweltering hot and the AC kicks into overdrive, frantically cooling us. I take a quick glance at the clock and we’re both amazed that we’ve spent 5 hours within the cave. Without daylight or any other indicators, time seemed to just fly by. Now that’s a quality cave tour.
How to visit Slaughter Canyon Cave
After speaking with the rangers, I learned that in the summer Slaughter Canyon Cave tour group fills up pretty fast, and to the maximum 20 slots. Having taken the tour in October, our group size was small by comparison. In the winter season, they stop giving tours and resume in April. You can make reservations by calling 877.444.6777 or visit Recreation.gov.
What to Bring:
- 4 AA batteries
- Hiking boots required
- Water, but it must be left at cave entrance
- Sun protection, such as hat and sunscreen
- Walking sticks are allowed on the trail, but not in the cave.
- No food or water inside the cave
- No bathrooms in the cave
- No backpacks or purses while in the cave (Okay while on the trail leading to cave)
- Minimum age is 8 years old
- Anyone under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult
- Adult: $15.00
- Youth (Ages 8-15): $7.50
- Discounts for Senior and Access Pass holders.