It’s true, readers; gored deep into the core of Prince of Wales Island sits a marvel of geology and anthropology just waiting for older children to explore as part of a southeast Alaska family vacation. El Capitan Cave Interpretive Site is a 13,000-foot wormhole of rock – the largest known cave in Alaska, and one of the longest-mapped caves in the Americas. Rugged, remote, and best suited to those families with a keen interest in Alaska’s geology, natural history, and hiking, El Capitan Cave is a fantastic opportunity to explore the truly unique landscape of this region.
“El Cap” was our first stop along the 7-day itinerary of our Inner Sea Discoveries cruise, and a brilliant place to capture the power of mother nature’s past. Managed by the Tongass National Forest and open to visitors May-September, the site welcomes visitors to explore the dank interior, but with a host of guidelines in place for safety and success.
Find El Capitan by visiting the Tongass NF website. Get directions, make arrangements for guided tours, peruse a map, and determine if this is indeed a good fit for your kids. Recommended age for exploration of El Cap is 7, and after visiting with AK Kid, I concur. NO babies or toddlers in backpacks are allowed, and a jog stroller is simply inappropriate for terrain both getting to, and within, the cave area. This is a “big kid” adventure. Secure a guide by calling the Tongass NF/Thorne Bay District office at 907-828-3304 at least 2 days in advance of arrival to ensure a ranger will be available, and then, make sure group size does not exceed 6. Tours are free (of course, if sailing with Inner Sea Discoveries, all this is arranged ahead of time).
The cave site actually encompasses a wider swath of land than the actual hunk of rock. Visitors can take advantage of a picnic shelter, bathrooms, dock, and guide station at the site’s trailhead (also parking for those who drive). One may camp along the nearby forest road or along the shoreline, a lovely area and the perfect spot to throw in a kayak or canoe.
El Capitan’s trail is steep but short; 367 steps lead almost straight up toward the platform at its entrance. Kids must be able to ambulate themselves up and down and follow directions so as not to slip off the narrow, wooden boardwalk areas. Watch for interesting signs of wildlife and flora, especially huckleberries in mid-summer.
Preparing for an El Cap visit means loading up on flashlights and/or headlamps, adding extra batteries (believe me, getting stuck with no light in a cave is bad news, indeed), and dressing everyone in warm, waterproof gear. Layer up in preparation for a steep hike to the cave itself and then for interior temperatures of 40 degrees F. Footwear must be of the rugged, waterproof variety, and my XtraTufs proved their worth. Guided trips offer headlamps. We added a pair of work gloves with rubber palms/fingers to our kit, and I’m glad we did; they proved valuable for gripping wet rocks.
The best way to explore El Capitan Cave is with a Forest Service guide. While anyone can visit the cave and peek inside for the first 200 feet, an additional segment is available for those accompanying Ranger With a Key. A heavy metal gate, fashioned so resident bats can fly in and out as daylight/darkness permits, swings open with a groan and visitors accompany their guide into a world so surreal, so un-Alaskan, that it feels almost wrong. Darkness is deep here, even with a lamp, and the dripping walls seem to immediately close in around the body.
Climbing around and over the enormous rocks, it’s easy to forget about looking anywhere but down. Remember, however, that caves hold wonderful treasures along their ceilings and and sides, including incredible formations of mineral deposits. A riot of color greets visitors, surprising in its richness and texture.
Another advantage of traveling the cave with a guide is the accompanying history lesson, from both a geologic and anthropologic perspective. In the 1990’s, our ranger explained, a geologist discovered several black bear skeletons, suggesting that perhaps at that time, the valley was ice-free, instead of still consumed by a glacier. Had time played a trick on us? People, too, have used the cave for a variety of reasons, not all of which are yet understood by us, but critical to further research.
“Awesome! Soooo cool! This was the best part!” Accolades flew from the lips of kids in our group, and they continued to chatter with our ranger-guide the entire stairway descent. Who found the cave, first? Has anyone spent the night inside? Would their cell phones work inside the rocky walls? Critical thinking on the side of a mountain – love it.
The creepiest-coolest part? Before our party left the cave’s belly, ranger-guide Blaise told us to gather together. Then, he asked us, one by one, to turn off our headlamps. In the blink of an eye, we became nothing more than part of the space. Nothing to see, not our hands, not our partners, not.a.thing. We could, however, hear the drip, drip of water, and feel a slight rush of wind through some unknown outlet. It was a sensory experience like none other, and everyone, from kid to grownup, knew it.