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Cavern in a New Light

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NEW BRAUNFELS • Fifty years ago, a group of students from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio made a discovery that would change Texas tourism forever: a series of majestic caverns beneath a natural limestone formation in the shape of a bridge.

Today, Natural Bridge Caverns—located between San Antonio and New Braunfels— is a “jewel in the crown of Texas’ attractions” according to former Governor John Connally, attracting enthusiastic visitors from far and wide.

In addition to regular tours—the Discovery tour which winds through the northern “Discovery Passages” of the cavern, the Illuminations tour located in the southern “Hidden Passages” portion, and the Adventure tour in which participants rappel up and down the steep walls and belly crawl through the narrow tunnels of either the Discovery or Hidden Passages—Natural Bridge Caverns is now offering the Lantern Tour which started in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the cave’s discovery.

Available all summer, the Lantern Tour is based on the original Discovery Tour, but with a slight twist: no interior cavern lighting is used. Instead, guests light their way with small handheld LED lanterns to recreate the experience of the cave’s first discovery in 1960. It takes about 75 minutes to walk three-quarters of a mile on the Lantern Tour, the entire journey along user-friendly paved walkways with hand railings, which make it easily accessible to children and older guests. No bulky caving gear is required—just shoes with good traction.

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The tour winds through massive caverns, each bigger than the next, and each featuring spectacular and unique geological formations such as the ones found in the Hall of the Mountain King, Sherwood Forest, and Grendel’s Lair, which look just as mythical as they sound.

The lowest point of the tour is 180 feet below the surface across a narrow pass (with a handrail) that passes over Purgatory Creek. All features of the tour are designed with safety in mind, while still retaining a sense of adventure.

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While the Discovery tours make use of extensive electrical lighting laid across the floors of the caves that illuminates and highlights the breathtaking formations, the Lantern Tour allows a greater appreciation of the sheer size of the caverns as they were first experienced by the original explorers.

Lantern Tour guides take guests on a journey into the past chock-full of information about each and every portion of the years-long discovery and excavation process, indicating points of interest and telling thrilling and sometimes amusing tales of the trials and tribulations the original explorers faced.

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There’s even a demonstration of the operation of the calcium carbide lamp used by the caverns’ discoverers, which can be both dim and unreliable in comparison to the LED lanterns with which guests are provided, creating a renewed appreciation for the fortitude with which the original explorers faced their seemingly insurmountable challenge.

Since the discovery of the caverns, the Wuest family—which has owned the land in which the caverns reside for more than 120 years—have kept maintenance and preservation a family business.

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The cave is still remarkably alive and growing; the 70-degree internal temperature with 90 percent humidity is a testament to that. Water is everywhere, dripping from the living rock and pooling into emerald-colored ponds, making the caverns themselves magically glitter.

Natural Bridge Caverns has a little bit of everything. Looking for a challenge? Find it in the Adventure Tours. A family-friendly sight-seeing opportunity is yours on the Discovery tour, and those looking to experience a little history will love the Lantern Tour. For a little post-tour fun, Natural Bridge offers a Watchtower Challenge with a climbing wall and a zip line and a mining activity in which guests can purchase bags of sand and pan for particles of precious gems—including sapphires, rubies, topaz, emeralds, crystal and quartz —to identify and keep. Natural Bridge Caverns is also located right next to Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch.

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FYI • Natural Bridge Caverns is located 30 minutes north of downtown San Antonio, eight miles west of Interstate 35 at exit #175, Natural Bridge Caverns Road.

Story © Hill Country Sun, used by permission