Exploring Arizona's Peppersauce Cave in the Coronado National Forest
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
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
We met our daughter's friend at the Starbucks in the Casas Adobes Plaza then headed out with them leading and the four of us following in our car.
Upon arriving at the outskirts of Oracle we turned off on the South Mt. Lemon Road which soon became an uphill dirt road.
Our destination - 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.
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.
At the cave itself the only available parking 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is dotted with many caves, few of which are known beyond 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 popular.
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 today, no insects inhabit the 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.
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.
For Me The Experience was Great—But One Visit is Enough
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
Road from town of Oracle, Arizona to Peppersauce Cave
Location of Peppersauce Cave in the Coronado National Forest section of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Links to More Information On Peppersauce Cave
- Desert Magazine 1948 February
Article about Peppersauce Cave is on page 4 of this issue of the magazine.
- It is cool, shady in Peppersauce Canyon - Tucson Citizen Morgue, Part 1 (2006-2009)
© 2012 Chuck Nugent