A look at Fulford Cave near Eagle | VailDaily.com

A look at Fulford Cave near Eagle

Sarah Mausolf
Vail CO, Colorado

HL cave 1 KA 09-03-08

EAGLE, Colorado ” Colorado is home to hundreds of caves that only the local caving clubs know about.

Fulford Cave is different.

Located about 15 miles southeast of Eagle in the White River National Forest, the cave has been a popular destination for spelunkers of all skill levels since its discovery in the 1800s.

Though it lacks a gift shop at the entrance like some commercialized caves, Fulford has seen its share of foot traffic. Visitors have slowly eroded the stalactites and stalagmites, while vandals have made off with brilliant rock formations.

“It’s like the sacrificial cave of Colorado,” said Dan Wray, vice chairman of the Colorado Grotto, a Denver-based caving club. “A million people go through there.”

Despite the damage to the cave, it remains a dazzling sight for spelunkers. The 12th longest known cave in Colorado, Fulford is an underground world complete with a creek and 80-foot ceilings in some rooms.

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Remnants of the once-plentiful stalactites and stalagmites encrust the walls, while draperies of flowstone look like frozen waterfalls.

“To get to the really pristine stuff, you have to get clear to the back of the cave, where most of the yahoos don’t normally go,” said Jason Connor, president of the Red Canyon Grotto, a caving club based in Canon City.

Formed by a melting glacier, Fulford Cave borrows its name from the nearby town of Fulford.

Evidence suggests that a group of explorers lead by Ferdinand Hayden discovered the cave in 1874, said Rick Rhinehart, editor of the Rocky Mountain Caving magazine.

A man named Captain Nolan Smith laid claim on discovering the cave in 1890, according to the 1970s book “Caves of Colorado” by Lloyd Parris. Two years later, a man named Maxwell filed a mining claim on the area surrounding Fulford Cave.

Intent on accessing silver ore he claimed awaited inside the cave, Maxwell dug a pit entrance to the cave and most likely left behind mine tunnels along the trail to the cave, the book said.

At one time, the owners of the cave considered commercializing it and “even went so far as to negotiate with the Colorado Midland Railroad to extend a spur line north from Thomasville, Colorado, to the cave,” the book said.

In 1952, the Colorado Grotto conducted the first mapping of the cave, Parris wrote. Today, researchers believe the cave sprawls across just over a mile of passageways. A map claims it has seven rooms, along with unique features a rock that looks like an elephant’s backside.

It is a sunny afternoon above ground on a recent Wednesday, but perpetual night lingers inside Fulford Cave.

Clad in helmets and headlamps, a group of 30-something men have been exploring the rooms for hours.

The spelunkers ” Silverthorne residents Evan Bach, Cole Forbes and Ryan Wilshire ” spent most of their trip locked in arguments about which room they were in.

For Wilshire, the highlight of the trip happened when his friends catapulted him onto a rock ledge so he could explore “the attic,” the top level of the cave.

Bach was impressed by the spot where the creek spews through the cave wall.

He and Wilshire first ventured into the cave as teenagers. Those early experiences took the boys out of their comfort zones.

“You’re out of your element completely,” Bach said. “Your distance perception, your depth perception, all sense of how much time you’re in there, is skewed.”

A popular destination for causal explorers, Fulford also attracts experienced spelunkers. Members of caving groups said they make regular pilgrimages to Fulford because it’s a good place to take beginners.

Rick Speaect, president of the Colorado Grotto, said he snowshoed to the cave one November about four years ago. Magnificent ice formations greeted him inside the first room.

“It’s a really fun cave,” he said. “There’s some really cool spots in the cave, as long as you know where to find them.”

Fulford Cave may be a good place for beginners to ease into spelunking, but it certainly has its dangers.

Temperatures hover in the 40s, so hypothermia is a concern.

“Something as mundane as a sprained ankle could actually kill you because you’re not exercising and your body temperature starts plummeting immediately,” said Fred Luiszer, a research associate with the department of geological sciences at the University of Colorado.

Pitch black and coated in slippery mud, the cave can make for tricky navigating.

One man spent almost 24 hours lost in total darkness in Fulford Cave before he was rescued, according to “Caves of Colorado.”

That’s why experts suggest coming to the cave prepared.

Speaect said hiking boots, a helmet and three sources of light are mandatory gear, while warm clothes and knee pads are highly recommended.

Not everyone dresses for the occasion.

Speaect said he saw a group of college girls attempt the cave in bikinis. Other people spelunk in resort wear.

“I’m surprised there aren’t more injuries in there because of all the yahoos that go in,” Wray said. “You see them coming up in their Tevas and their shorts with a flashlight in their teeth.”

The proliferation of “yahoos” at caves underscore why club members are hesitant to reveal cave locations.

About 90 percent of the roughly 700 caves in Colorado remain off the public radar, one club member estimated. The clubs keep private libraries of cave maps and publications, and have even gone so far as to place gates on sensitive caves to protect them.

When the book “Caves of Colorado” came out in the ’70s, some members of the caving community were furious. In more recent years, debates have swirled around whether spelunkers should reveal the locations of caves on the Internet.

“We don’t want to divert anybody from getting into caving but at the same time, we want to make sure the caves are preserved for future generations,” Connor said.

Although caves sustain damage from visitors of any kind, explorers who lack ethics can cause serious problems. A few years ago, people broke through a gate on a cave in the Williams Canyon area and graffitied the inside, Wray said.

“There are all these destructors in the world,” he said. “I don’t understand that mentality.”

Although an 1890s newspaper article about Fulford Cave tells of “Stalactite and Stalagmite Formations That Dazzle the Eye and Bewilder One with Beauty,” tourists and mineral collectors have stolen all but traces of those early formations.

As for the future of Fulford Cave, Speaect said the brunt of the damage has already been done.

“I would be surprised if we saw a significant increase in damage,” he said. “The formations that would normally have been damaged have already been damaged.”

High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.