Are you afraid of noisome holes with worm ends hanging out? This is not a nice dry hobbit hole. Oh no.
More than 20 of us gathered at our usual time to leave the Stage parking lot and caravan east on Highway 260 to Tonto Village to see a natural curiosity — an honest to goodness living cave.
Of course, we couldn’t just get out of the cars and walk into the cave. That wouldn’t be much of a hike at all. So after parking just past Tonto Village, we began our walk through the ponderosa pines to the cave. Weekend rain had left big puddles for us to skirt on the road, despite the bright, cool sunlight.
The forest here has had some clearing done, so much of our walk was through open forest. About a quarter mile into the hike, a branch of the road goes off to the left, we stayed to the right. To be honest, the approximately three-mile walk to the cave site is not very exciting, at least not in April. Later there will be flowers and perhaps in groups smaller than ours, wildlife could be spotted. One cool item was a downed tree trunk with insect tracks all through the surface of the wood.
After about three miles we reached a clearing with cairns on the right, uphill side. We looked up the hill to our right to see two large dead trees standing about 400 feet away. We bushwhacked uphill, aiming for the right-hand-most of the two large dead trees. There is a bit of a usage trail to follow. The entrance to the cave is in a small depression about 15 feet southwest (and slightly downhill from) the big dead tree.
The people who had decided to brave the cold and dark came prepared. They dug warm clothing, knee pads, head lamps, and head protection out of their packs and dressed for the descent. A handful of us, myself included, decided to stay outside in the sunshine.
The cavers entered the cave by either crawling or butt-scooting into the low opening. After about 20 feet, the slide down ends and the cave room opens up so that the caver has room to stand and explore. Several rooms have easy access, with a pool of water in the back of the cave. The cave does have stalagmites and stalactites though unfortunately many have been broken off, probably as a result of heedless and destructive hikers and cavers. The rock floors are muddy, slippery and wet. Gloves are a very good idea.
After the cavers came back into the light, they had a chance to eat their snack and warm up in the sun before we hiked back to the cars. One nice thing, on the road, just before going off up the hill to the cave, many of the C Group hikers in the past have found Payson Diamonds — really brilliant quartz crystals. We all kept an eye out and one of our group did find a small one.
While there were no worm-ends, we all had a good time on a lovely spring day.
Trailhead: From Payson, drive Highway 260 to mile marker 266.8 and turn left where the sign says Control Road & Tonto Village. Go 1.6 miles to dirt road on left, (just before yellow sign says: Curves Mountain Grades Next 12 Miles).
Distance: Approximately 6.3 miles round trip. Regular cars are OK. Recommend long pants for inside the cave.
Difficulty: Easy. Rocky road walk has long sloping hills.
Highlights: Pleasant, easy walk through the open forest then wet, muddy trip into a living cave.