Caving on Northern Vancouver Island
Cavers' all over the world are aware of the potential Vancouver Island possesses for exploring karst (limestone) cave systems. With over 1000 known cave entrances on the North Island. Many of these sometimes massive labyrinths of passages are largely unexplored.
Scores of the known cave systems are very near the Campbell River region, in the Memekay Valley, the White Ridge, Patterson Lake and the Iron River which are less than an hour’s drive from the city. Presenting many challenges, the cave systems on Vancouver Island may display several entrances in one small area and each one of them will be located on land that is managed or owned by a separate government agency or private forest company. To complicate the exploration of these caves further, there is no standard management systems in place for protection for our karst systems in the province at this time.
Karst Creek Caves; a mere 5 minute walk from the trailhead in Strathcona Park off Highway 28 is a great example of the multitude of systems on the island.
Weathering is clearly apparent and during the wet season when the creek is running, you may observe the water as it appears and disappears at intervals along the short trail system. Other caves of mention are the Quatsino Limestone Formations, the Devil’s Bath, the Eternal Fountain and the Disappearing River.
The longest known cave on Vancouver Island is the Thanksgiving Cave with a mapped length of 7.6 kilometers.
Karst formations encompass the most sensitive eco-systems of any other natural geographic feature. Minute traces of oil from your hands may halt the growth of a stalagmite that may be 100's of thousands or millions of years old. It is of up-most importance when considering even casual caving to gain knowledge of the systems as well as safety and protection measures are to be put into place and understood before beginning.
There are four significant systems that are open to the public to view either through a commercial tour or a self tour, the Artlish System near the town of Zeballos is spectacular with its large underground river system, the Horne Lake Caves, situated in Horne Lake Provincial Park with self guided tours and interpretive tours, the Upana Caves near the town of Gold River, which offers self guided tours only and the Little Husum Caves 9 kilometers north of the town of Woss off Highway 19, which is a series of interesting and picturesque small caves that mostly have water running through them.
What to Wear
- Rubber boots with tread are preferred; although running shoes with good tread work also.
- Warm cloths; layers with fleece are best with a windbreaker, even in summer.
- Gloves; not only to protect you but to protect the cave formations.
- Loose fitting track pants; however be prepared to get real dirty.
- Head lamps are best; flashlights as a backup are a must.
- Hard Hat or helmet.
- A full change of clothing to be left at the car.
What to Expect
- If you are claustrophobic do not venture into a cave, while some caverns can be quite large, it is not unusual to be tucked into a small corner or slithering through narrow passageways.
- Do not bring small children, it is recommended that children should be 6 years old or older, the ground is rocky and can be slippery and you don’t want to spend all your time correcting the stance of your little one.
- You need to be in fairly good shape, many of the cave systems require a hike to the entrance and often that is uphill or downhill. You will also be doing a lot of crouching, kneeling bending and climbing.
- Expect to have a great time and what is more; expect to feel really good when you emerge from a cave, there is something magical about the accumulation of ozone in caves that increases the oxygen content of your breathable air that in turn rejuvenates your body.
How are caves formed?
Very briefly, limestone solution caves are formed by the action of water which has combined with carbon dioxide to produce a weak solution of carbonic acid. This acid, upon entering the underground, slowly dissolves the limestone to form passageways.
What is the longest known cave?
The longest cave on Vancouver Island is the Thanksgiving Cave with a mapped length of 7.6 km (4.7 miles). Several other island caves exceed 2 km (1.2 miles) in length and many are yet to be fully explored.
What living things are found in caves?
There are a number of animals which can spend part of their lives in caves. Salamanders, frogs, crickets, and harvestmen (daddy-long legs) spikders are examples.
How many caves are known?
There are about 1,050 known cave entrances on Northern Vancouver Island. Most of these caves are found in the Quatsino Formation Limestone deposits.
What is a spelunker?
The term spelunker is often used in the United States to describe a recreational cave explorer. The term comes from the Latin word “spelunca”, which means cave. Canadian cave explorers are known as caver's.
All caves owe their existence to the action of ground water seeping into limestone rock and combining with carbon dioxide to produce a weak solution of carbonic acid. This acid acts slowly to dissolve the limestone and to form underground caverns passageways and over time other fascinating formations including stalactites and stalagmites.
This 234 hectare true wilderness park incorporates a major river system. This park is not regularly serviced and there are no facilities available so be prepared for a true wilderness experience. Located 9 km northwest of the village of
Zeballos, the most popular access is at the west side of the park through Canadian Forest Products TFL 37. The road is accessed via the Zeballos Forest Service road off Highway 19 just north of Woss. Proceed with extreme caution as the chance of encountering loaded logging trucks is high.
Established in 1996, the aim was to protect some of Vancouver Island’s last remaining undisturbed karst units, particularly this one that incorporates a major river cave which has runs of coho, Chinook, sockeye and pink salmon. This system is spectacular, with cathedral like rooms and small, crystal clear lakes, waterfalls and ledges.
For more information on the Artlish Cave system contact BC Parks:
Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park Headquarters
Phone: 250 – 248 – 7829
Located along the Qualicum River, a 40 minute drive south of Campbell River on Highway 19, the well marked right hand turn puts you onto Horne Lake Road, a 14 km drive on gravel road, with well marked signage. Situated at the west end of Horne Lake this 158 hectare park which encompasses seven undeveloped caves are an impressive aspect of Vancouver Island’s natural heritage. Four caves are open to the public; anyone planning to enter should be in good physical condition, well equipped and familiar with cave exploration, safety and procedures. Regular tours through River Bend Cave are conducted by experienced guides.
Discovered in 1964 by a party of spelunkers headed by longshoreman Jim Johnson and his wife Delores, the Riverbend caves’ main entrance was subsequently sealed until it was rediscovered again in 1969. The cave is now under the jurisdiction of the Provincial government which incorporated the area into a Provincial Park in 1971.
Much like all Vancouver Island caves the Horne Lake system is largely undeveloped, floors are rocky and uneven, the only stairs are for the main entrance and there is no structure for lighting. With an estimated 4,000 feet of tunnels it is believed that the Horne Lake system contains more than 100 caves or passages.
In the interest of protection; the Riverbend Cave offers guided tours only, but it is not to be missed. While on route in this cave, save a prayer for Buddha one of the main features of this interesting and challenging course.
The Regional District of Mount Waddington Parks System
Phone: 250 – 956 – 3301
Park Size: 4.9 hectares
Elevation: 75 meters
Link to Cave Map
Location/Access: Located in Little Huson Cave Regional Park a 1 hour and 15 minute drive north of Campbell River and a 15 minute drive off Highway 19 towards the town of Zeballos. The turnoff for Zeballos creeps up on you on the left hand side of the road 5 to 10 minutes north as you pass the well marked signage for the village of Woss.
Keep close watch and follow the signs directing you down a series of gravel roads for 9 kilometers, the route is a little convoluted so take notice of where you are going. The road surface deteriorates in spots and although you do not need a 4 wheel drive, good tires are in order and it is recommended that you drive slowly to avoid a flat tire.
Wilderness Camping: None
Day use: No picnic tables are provided
Toilets: Pit toilets at the trailhead
Activities: Caving, Swimming
Boat Launch: None
Notes: There is a short trail through a stand of second growth timber from the well marked parking lot to a platform that looks down on the river and a natural rock bridge. Walk the trail to search out the limestone arches and rock platforms, and then take a stroll by the lake to view the cave formations. There are two caves that are exceptional in this park, The Vanishing River Cave and the Eternal Foundation Cave.
Vancouver Island, especially the North Island is an area rich with karst topography. Little Huson Lake Cave Park offers a unique opportunity to introduce people to caves and other Karst features because of its superficial rock formations within the Atluck Creek Canyon. A great spot for the inexperienced caver, no special equipment is necessary and there are no delicate features that can be destroyed by an un-knowledgeable visitor.
An area of spectacular natural beauty containing exposed bed rock is Quatsino Formation limestone, which occurs to a depth of 300 meters at this location. The limestone bed has a gentle grade of 10 to 15 degrees in slope to the northeast.
The form of local karst character is dictated by the slope of the limestone itself. This type of Karst development is referred to as “bedding controlled”, as caves are apt to be formed along the bedding plane rather than in joints or cracks. This form of cave tends to be flat. The little Huson zone has a number of joint-controlled passages extending off from the core canyon and cave system.
The Atluck River canyon itself was most likely formed by a down-cutting shallow stream which then, as now, flowed underground only for a brief period of time. Substantial limestone boulders surrounding the entrance to the underground river cave signify that the cave has given way. The collapsed portico and bridge were formed by eddies where the stream meandered, ultimately boring through the rock face. As the stream cut further into the highly soluble limestone, one rock “bridge” was left above water.
Many of the 15 additional cave entrances in the area are joint-controlled features formed by groundwater in a method unrelated to stream action.
The park has a number of other minor karst features which are of interest to visitors; for example “grykes” shallow cracks in the ground and the “scallops,” rippled rock surfaces created by high pressure water flow.
Village of Gold River
Phone: 250 – 283 – 7334
Link to Cave Map
The Upana Caves are located 17 km northwest of Gold River on the Head Bay Forest Road (to Tahsis) Driving time is 25 minutes.
A written account of the discovery of Upana Caves has not been found.
The first systematic exploration and mapping of the Upana Caves was undertaken by recreational cavers in 1975. Cavers named the system for the river that flows through one of the caves. Since 1975 the Upana Caves have attracted thousands of visitors. The underground sequences of the television series, Huckleberry Finn and His Friends, were filmed at these caves.
The Upana Caves are actually comprised of several caves within one group. There are fifteen known entrances within the system. The combined length of cave passages is approximately 450 meters (1,476) feet. The cave interiors remain in a relatively wild, undeveloped state. This means that they are without the comforts and conveniences of major North American show caves.
The individual caves vary in size from single rooms to branching passages of considerable length. The overall passage and room dimensions are comparable with those of other Vancouver Island caves.
To safely explore the caves you should carry a reliable source of light. While in the caves watch for low ceilings and slippery conditions, a hard hat and sturdy boots with rubber soles are recommended. For the more adventurous hands and knees visitors, additional protective clothing is also recommended.
The Upana Caves are a year-round experience. No matter what the weather is outside the temperature inside the caves averages a chilly 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit) so bring a sweater or jacket!
Code of conduct
While on a self-guiding tour follow these basic rules and the appearance of the caves can be maintained for future visitors:
Keep to the established trails and underground routes.
Do not litter or mark the caves.
Do not disturb crickets, spiders, or other forms of cave life.
Do not touch delicate cave formations.
Refrain from smoking and lighting fires.
By following this guide, a tour of the caves takes about one hour.
1. Are we there yet – turn off the Head Bay Forest Road onto Branch Road H-27 to the parking area? When driving to and from the Upana Caves, be prepared to pull over to let industrial traffic go past.
2. Parking and preparations – car headlights off? Caving headlights work? Don’t forget your spare light, hard hat, flash camera and warm clothing if you plan to go underground.
3. An old Forest – leaving the road you walk down the trail through an old growth forest of western white pine, western hemlock and yellow cedar. Many of these trees are over 200 years old even though their height and diameter may make you think otherwise.
4. New directions? At this view point both the trail and the Upana River take sudden changes in direction. The river turns right following a fault in the rock. We go left.
5. A young Forest – this area was harvested in 1980 and planted in 1981 with over 6,800 western hemlock, amabilis (balsam) fir and yellow cedar seedlings.
6. Dry Gully – for all the rain and snow that falls here, (over 2500 mm per year) you won’t find water in the gully on your right. You are entering a landscape where sinking streams, caves and sinkholes have developed through the action of water on the limestone bedrock. This is called karst topography.
7. Insect Cave – don’t be put off by the name to try out your first cave! Crickets and spiders much prefer the cool, wet darkness of the cave to your collar or pants, anyway! The crickets spend part of their life cycle underground – From November to June.
8. The Keyhole – at the bottom of the hill, head left through this limestone tube into the large entrance room of Main Cave.
9. Main Cave - There are numerous passages to explore here if you are well equipped. Remember, this is basically a wild cave like all the rest so you are on your own.
10. Disappearing Water – if you’ve followed the main underground route you’re now looking at the Upana River siphon. Swimming is not recommended and the water is really cold anyway! Here the river follows an underground course for thirty (30) metes before reappearing in the Resurgence Cave.
Now return back through the Keyhole to the main trail.
11. Tunnel Cave – this large tubeis a longer version of the keyhole, called a phreatic tube, it was formed when water filled the entire passage and dissolved the limestone in all directions. If you enter, notice the karst window in the ceiling.
12. Waterfall Viewpoint – this sunken area is best viewed during a typical west coast downpour. At one time the river may have flowed along the surface to where you are now standing.
13. Corner Cave – a side trail takes you to this cave which, if when you’re prepared is fun to explore.
14. How old are these Trees? This area was harvested in 1971. The western hemlock and amabilis (balsam) fir naturally seeded the area so planting was not necessary. Count the branch whoris to estimate their age.
15. Canyon Viewpoint – here the Upana River reappears below the ten (10) meter high entrance of Resurgence Cave. At one time the river was underground for the full length of this canyon before the passage collapsed and dissolved.
16. Resurgence Cave – down the stairs and just inside the cave entrance brings you to the last stop of the tour. Here; heat and pressure have transformed the limestone into a smooth, white marble.
We trust your visit will be an interesting, enjoyable and safe one.