Sooner or later, every tourist takes at least one cave tour.
Hundreds of natural caves are commercially operated as tourist attractions. From New England to California, artificially lit passageways and stair-carved sinkholes pock America's face like acne vulgaris from an age before dermatology.
Caves endure as attractions, and apparently enough travelers visit their second or third cave, not bothered by similarities in both natural wonders and tour guide shtick. Try out too many caves, like we do, and the challenge becomes distinguishing one Frozen Niagara from the next....
Cascade Caverns, west of San Antonio, contains all the standard ingredients for an enjoyable 45-minute stroll through the underworld. Its constant 68 F degree climate is an enticing escape from the Texas heat.
What makes it stand out from a half dozen other caves in the Lone Star State?
First, it's "Texas' only show cave with a 100 ft. waterfall!" according to the brochure, where a gaudily lit waterfall cascades down a rock face (Note: the recent regional drought has severely reduced water flow). And it possesses a dinosaur that appeared in a forgotten Patrick Swayze film. And it was completely underwater in a flash flood scant weeks before our visit.
That rates a couple of stars even before we arrive.
Cascade Caverns sits below a 105-acre property of scrubby, Texas Hill Country trees, picnic tables and barbecue pits, inhabited by a lot of feral cats and an occasional peacock. There are scattered remnants of past glory -- rusting rides from an old amusement park, a weathered float once pulled in parades, its paper mache stalagmites and stalactites slowly crumbling.
Near the gift shop/ticket office stands the dinosaur. According to the accompanying sign, it's a "Tyrannosaurus Rex used as one of the props at Cascade Caverns in the making of Father Hood." The 1993 comedy starred Patrick Swayze ("He's America's Most Wanted .... Dad!") and this bright green, blockheaded version of a Thunder Lizard. It's a nice family photo op.
Signed up for the next tour, we headed down a cement path curving out to the cave entrance, passing over a slow stream. After mid-summer downpours, the stream had turned into a swollen torrent, submerging the cave (the owners shut down tours long before dangerous conditions developed). Caves are usually soggy places, formed by water action, so Cascade Caverns rebounded quickly after the deluge receded.
The management at Cascade is safety-minded, if cautioning signs are any measure. "Watch Your Step." "Do Not Lean on Fence." "Do not feed Animals." "Do not touch formations or put Hands in Lakes." We obey.
The tour starts near a small stone building -- the attraction's gift shop when it originally opened. Mason, our 20-something tour guide, said Cascade Caverns was "voted the number one attraction in America" in 1970. The Cascade Caverns operation included a dance hall and a mini-amusement park. It was a retreat for vacationers. By 1980, it looked the way it does today, keeping the lights on with revenue from the cave tours and related merchandise.
Mason knew the facts and lore of Cascade Caverns. The cave's early history has a familiar ring -- used by vaguely identified primitive people, then Indians, and finally "discovered" by the White Man when a cow fell into a sink hole. Steps led down into the cave past a rock shelf where a hermit lived in the 19th century. "You see that hole up there?" Mason pointed. "He immigrated from Germany, and actually lived in a cave for the rest of his life. He died when he was 45, I think. He wrote a book while he lived there. There's a copy in the library. After he died, they found his bones."
Mason led us to a spot where two mastodon bones were excavated. His flashlight zeroed in on a cluster of pale cave crickets a few feet above our heads. He dutifully reported the name of every significant formation along the cave corridor, such as the Giant Molar.
In the last publicly accessible chamber, our tour reached the waterfall. In the atmospheric, dimly lit room, it was more audible than visible. A pump chugged away, keeping up with water accumulation at this low point in the cave.
Dinosaur. Cave. Waterfall. Check it out.
2013 Update: The liquid fortunes of Cascade Caverns have shifted as the continuing drought has reduced water flow to the waterfall. If you visit and the waterfall isn't working, don't complain.