Updated date:

Exploring Arizona's Peppersauce Cave in the Coronado National Forest

As long time residents of AZ we love to get out and explore Arizona's rugged and beautiful landscape by car, on foot, on skis or by kayak.

Thoughts on Visiting Caves

Caves can be interesting places to visit.

Some, like Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, are not only large and spacious but have marked paths and handrails in place.

One simply strolls through that cave, which has among its amenities electric lighting. Carlsbad is a cave that one walks, rather than crawls, through.

Colossal Cave in Tucson, Arizona where I live, is another cave where one walks, rather than crawls. The path inside the cave is narrower but lit and marked. Unlike at Carlsbad, where individuals can stroll through on their own, guides take people through in small groups.

Peppersauce Cave—A Different Caving Experience

Stalactites inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ

Stalactites inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ

Visiting Peppersauce Cave is a Totally Different Experience

Then there is Peppersauce Cave, which is also located in Arizona just north of Tucson.

Unlike Carlsbad Caverns or Colossal Cave, Peppersauce is not for casual tourists, people who don’t like crawling in mud and dirt, or people who are claustrophobic and don’t like being in small, tight spaces.

I have heard about Peppersauce Cave but hadn’t had the opportunity to check it out it until our daughter and son-in-law came down from Washington State recently for a visit. One of our daughter’s friends in Tucson is an avid spelunker and this friend and her boyfriend offered to guide the four of us on a tour of the cave.

Our Route to Peppersauce Cave

Cave is Located in a Wilderness Area on North Side of Mt. Lemon

Peppersauce Cave is located in the Catalina Mountains on the back slope of Mt. Lemon. It lies within the Coronado National Forest, but facilities are less than minimal.

Access is via a minimally maintained dirt road that, if followed all the way, takes one up to the top of Mt. Lemon where it intersects with the main paved road that goes up to Mt. Lemon on the Tucson side of that peak.

Narrow Dirt Road Leading to Peppersauce Cave

Dirt road leading up to Peppersauce Cave in Coronado National Forest.

Dirt road leading up to Peppersauce Cave in Coronado National Forest.

A Campground With Few Amenities is Located a Half Mile from Peppersauce Cave

There is a primitive campground about a half-mile or so before reaching the cave. It has a brick outhouse-style bathroom along with a few outdoor faucets for water and picnic tables, but I didn’t notice any hookups or other services.

When we made a stop on our return to use the restrooms, all of the campers seemed to be using tents rather than RVs.

Campground Near Peppersauce Cave

Campground in Peppersauce Canyon a half mile from Peppersauce Cave in Arizona's Coronado National Forest.

Campground in Peppersauce Canyon a half mile from Peppersauce Cave in Arizona's Coronado National Forest.

Entrance to Peppersauce Cave is a Small Hole in the Side of a Mountain

At the cave the only available place to park your car is along the side of the road. The cave itself is in the side of a hill the base of which is a short two or three minute hike from the road.

There are a couple of graffiti-covered information signs at the base of the hill.

Graffiti Covered Sign Welcomes Visitors to Peppersauce Cave

Graffiti covered sign at entrance to Peppersauce Cave in Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, AZ

Graffiti covered sign at entrance to Peppersauce Cave in Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, AZ

Narrow Trail Leads Uphill to Cave Entrance

Trail leading to entrance of Peppersauce Cave in Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, AZ

Trail leading to entrance of Peppersauce Cave in Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, AZ

Entrance to Peppersauce Cave is a Small Hole in the Side of a Mountain

The entrance to the cave is via a small hole in the rocky hillside and, once in it is totally dark except for that emitted by each individual’s flashlight. Spare batteries are a good idea.

Small Hole in Side of Mountain is Only Entrance to Peppersauce Cave

Entrance to Peppersauce Cave near Tucson, AZ

Entrance to Peppersauce Cave near Tucson, AZ

There is some graffiti on the walls along with a few arrows giving directions.

Much of the cave is dry and covered with a layer of dust. What looks like bubbles in some of my pictures are actually dust on my camera lens and in the surrounding air. The lighting in these photos is from my camera’s flash.

A Narrow Passage Inside Peppersauce Cave

Making our way down a narrow passage in Peppersauce Cave, AZ

Making our way down a narrow passage in Peppersauce Cave, AZ

A Lake is Located within Peppersauce Cave

This is not a totally dry cave and crawling through some of the passages involves moving your body across muddy ground.

There is a lake on the route we followed and getting there involved climbing down a mud-covered fifteen-foot ladder to continue on the trail leading to the lake.

One of the Large Rooms Inside Peppersace Cave

In one of the bigger areas inside Peppersauce Cave, Arizona.  Brown spots are dust particles floating in the dry air inside the cave.

In one of the bigger areas inside Peppersauce Cave, Arizona. Brown spots are dust particles floating in the dry air inside the cave.

A Natural Rock Slide Offers Thrill for Those Daring to Try It

The lake itself lay at the bottom of a slippery, rocky slope which my wife and I prudently decided not to venture down. A little further on is a rock slide. Our two guides both slid down this while we watched.

Sliding down slippery rocks in near darkness with a solid rock wall at the end just didn’t seem that appealing to the four of us.

Especially, given the fact that the slide is about a mile inside the bowels of the cave, which itself is located in a wilderness area. Medical help could be a long time in coming.

Inside Peppersauce Cave is Dark - Flashlights a Must!

Deep inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ

Deep inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ

A Bit of History

As you can see from the photos, from the outside the cave is hard to detect on the side of the mountain. This, plus the fact that the cave is in a remote area, make learning its past history difficult.

The first public announcement about the cave seems to be a February 1948 article on page 4 of The Desert Magazine. In that article the author, John Priser, claims that two hunters, Charles Yerington and Dick Throp stumbled upon the cave while deer hunting in Peppersauce Canyon.

Following their return from hunting the two men told friends about the find thereby making the existence of the cave known to a few people in Tucson.

Among those who heard about the cave was a photographer named Herb Paustian who talked Priser and fellow photographer Bob Holmes into exploring and photographing the cave.

Arizona Has Many Caves but Only a Few are Known to General Public

Arizona is dotted with many caves, however most are known only to small groups of spelunkers who tend to keep the cave locations secret.

However, the Desert Magazine article and a 1951 article in The National Geographic Magazine which was inspired by the earlier 1948 article soon made Peppersauce Cave well known and a popular cave to visit despite its obscure location.

Insects No Longer Inhabit Peppersauce Cave

As a result of the articles the cave has been host to thousands of visitors per year with Wikipedia estimating current numbers at about 23,000 per year. The result has been a certain amount of graffiti, vandalism and littering inside the cave.

Volunteers do try to keep the cave litter free and when we visited I didn’t see any signs of litter although there was some graffiti. The heavy traffic and littering over the years has had an effect on the ecology of the cave.

In his 1948 article on the cave, John Priser states that he made an additional six trips back to the cave following his initial visit. On one trip he was accompanied by the head of the Department of Entomology at Harvard University, a Dr. Carpenter, who was visiting Tucson.

On that visit Dr. Carpenter captured between 50 and 60 insects to take home to study. He was surprised to find many of them living deep within the cave, as according to the article insects are generally found close to the entrance of caves. According to reports, no insects inhabit Peppersauce Cave today.

Some Passages are Narrow

Tight passages like this are why I have no desire to re-visit Peppersauce Cave

Tight passages like this are why I have no desire to re-visit Peppersauce Cave

According to Wikipedia, two cave divers from California attempted to explore the lake inside the cave in hopes of finding underwater passages to other rooms.

Equipment problems limited their search area and they never found a room to surface in.

However, they did see a wooden ladder propped against a wall in one of the underwater rooms indicating that the water level may have been lower in the past.

No other information was available about the ladder so one is left to wonder how long it was there and who put it there.

Making Our Way Through Narrow Passage in Peppersauce Cave

Making our way through one of the narrower passages inside Peppersauce Cave.

Making our way through one of the narrower passages inside Peppersauce Cave.

For Me The Experience was Great—But One Visit is Enough

Exiting Peppersauce Cave via the same narrow passage we entered through.

Exiting Peppersauce Cave via the same narrow passage we entered through.

Why the Name Peppersauce?

The cave is located in Peppersauce Canyon and not far from Peppersauce Creek.

As to how the canyon came to be named "Peppersauce," that is somewhat of a mystery. The closest I can find is a June 16, 2007 article on Peppersauce Canyon by Bryan Lee in the now-defunct Tucson Citizen newspaper.

He ends the article by stating that according to local lore, a miner in the 1880s named Alex McKay, while prospecting in the canyon stopped to have lunch and left his bottle of pepper sauce behind when he resumed his prospecting. His prospecting buddies kept reminding him of his lost bottle of pepper sauce and soon began referring to the canyon as Peppersauce Canyon.

Dirty & Tired but Enjoyed the Experience of Exploring Peppersauce Cave

Me, dirty and tired after exiting Peppersauce Cave through the  small passage to my right.

Me, dirty and tired after exiting Peppersauce Cave through the small passage to my right.

My Wife Making Her Way Down After Exiting Peppersauce Cave

My wife climbing down from the ledge on the side of the hill where the cave entrance is located.

My wife climbing down from the ledge on the side of the hill where the cave entrance is located.

Let me conclude by saying that our approximately two and a half hour journey inside the cave made for both an enjoyable afternoon and a not-soon-to-be forgotten adventure. I’m glad we jumped at the chance to do this.

That being said, for me, once is enough. The thought of squeezing through the tiny hole, with arms stretched full forward because it was too tight to have them at my side, or propping me up in a crawl position, just past the entrance to get to the main room is one that I try not to dwell upon.

Another memory that I shudder at is having to walk sideways, with my stomach sucked in and arms held straight up, while wedging myself through other narrow passageways.

For me, once was enough, and in the future I will stick to visiting caves which can be visited in a normal walking position.

A Closer Look at Route from Oracle to Peppersauce Cave

Links to More Information On Peppersauce Cave

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Chuck Nugent

Comments

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on April 08, 2019:

Ray Keeler - thanks for both your comment and the work you and the 160 volunteers in your caving community did in cleaning up the graffiti in the cave. I could never understand why people like to vandalize, deface or destroy public or private property. Thanks also for the link to the report of your work on the PBS website. I will check it out and hope others will also.

Thanks again, Chuck

Brian StMarie on October 08, 2018:

Thanks for your exposure to Peppersauce caves Chuck. The caves have been a back country go to for a number of years. These caves are certainly a treasure. For people that are looking for a new experience outdoors, these caves can safely fill that void. There are challenges within the cave, but not something that will be a threat for any reason. Life is an adventure, take a chance and live.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on October 28, 2017:

seamus o'neil - Thanks for your comment and I am glad you enjoyed my Hub.

Despite the dirt and narrow passages Peppersauce Cave is an interesting adventure. Just make sure you have a good flashlight and go with someone who is familiar with the cave as it can be difficult to find your way around the pitch black darkness of the cave.

seamus o'neil on October 25, 2017:

visited peppersauce cave a while back, only got as far as the 1st room. cant wait for a return only to explore the entire portion of this exciting cave !!!!

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on October 06, 2012:

Shiningirisheyes - glad you enjoyed the Hub. While I am not as claustrophobic as you, as I was writing this there were times when I was trying to describe the experience that my hands got a little sweaty and I felt the room start to close in a bit around me.

The trip and the writing about it was a great experience that I don't regret. However, my feeling about caves, where you have to crawl through tiny crevices with only a flashlight for light and the realization that you are cut off from the world many feet underground, is Bern There, Done That, Wrote About It and HAVE NO DESIRE TO REPEAT THE EXPERIENCE!

Thanks for the comment.

Shining Irish Eyes from Upstate, New York on October 05, 2012:

Although I thoroughly enjoyed this hub, the photos and the outdoors, this makes my hands sweat and my heart race. I am extremely claustrophobic and would never make it!

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on October 02, 2012:

Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed this Hub.

Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on October 02, 2012:

I want to go the cave. What an awesome hub.

Sue Pratt from New Orleans on October 01, 2012:

OMG! I would never do this. I am claustrophobic and the very idea of some of those small spaces makes me shudder. It's a great hub, though, and a very thorough (and horrifying) idea of what to expect. I'm sure those with a sense of adventure and no fear of tight spaces will love it! I'm also fascinated with the number of orbs in your photos. I'm sure Parks will be too. Very interesting.

Voted up and more. Thanks for a good read!

marsei