Cave experts and opponents of RMR Industrial’s quarry expansion made a surprising discovery in October: A previously unknown cave in the proposed footprint of the Mid-Continent limestone quarry.
The surprising discovery of Witches’ Pantry — more on the name later — came after studying a geological survey of underground geological features that RMR paid for.
The seismograph survey, commissioned to prepare for RMR’s hydrology study, found a number of cave-like features, but concluded they were probably loose rock underground, not cave passageways.
Grand Junction caver Richard Rhinehart, however, thought the report indicated that caves were underground even though there were no known entrances.
“With that (report), we looked at areas that were more prone to having caves than elsewhere,” Rhinehart said in an interview.
Rhinehart and Rifle resident Rob McFarland, both members of the Colorado Cave Survey, went hiking in late October around the areas identified in the cave report, and made the surprising discovery.
“The discovery of this cave was particularly unusual given its location close to Glenwood Springs,” Rhinehart said.
“I was honestly surprised to see it there, because anyone walking along there would find it, and yet no one seemingly has,” Rhinehart said.
Descending into the pantry
The name Witches’ Pantry was McFarland’s idea, inspired by the animal bones at the bottom of the hole. Plus, the cave was found shortly before Halloween, so the name stuck.
The cave entrance is about 6 feet wide and 10 feet long, and descends like a chute into the ground. At the bottom, Rhinehart and McFarland found numerous animal bones, likely from animals falling into the hole in years past.
The cavers thought that if a few rocks were cleared out of the way, it would lead to a deeper passage, so they gathered some of the bones to share with a paleontologist, and resolved to come back with more people.
A second visit to the cave confirmed their suspicions. A small, 10-inch crawlway led to a room with ceilings about 15 feet high.
Rhinehart didn’t go through the crawlway, but those who did took pictures of stalactites and other formations.
There also were other passageways, some of them too small to access.
“Clearly, no one has ever been in that part before. With wind blowing from one of the passageways, we’re fairly certain that there are probably substantial amounts of additional cave to be found,” Rhinehart said.
But there’s not much more exploration that can be done without some minor excavation, which would require a Bureau of Land Management permit, Rhinehart said.
Most of the bones found in the cave were from sheep, Rhinehart said, but there were other small animals and even a bone from a bear.
Those were just the bones on the surface. Depending on how long ago the hole opened in the earth, there could be bones of more ancient mammals buried below the sediment at the cave floor.
Rhinehart said it’s possible the cave was known to native Americans in the area, but that no signs of human activity have been discovered in the caves so far.
A significant find
The cave bears some resemblance to the Fairy Caves at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, Rhinehart said.
When those caves were first discovered, there was only a very small entrance, and it took multiple excavations to reveal the cavernous rooms known today.
With at least 150 feet of cave discovered, Witches’ Pantry is the most significant cave north of Glenwood Springs after the Fairy Caves.
The last time a cave was discovered in the area was on the eastern rim of Oasis Creek in 1985, according to Rhinehart.
Rhinehart sent the BLM a report of the cave discovery Dec. 6, and plans to ask that it be designated a significant cave.
That designation alone may not have any weight to stop a mining operation, Rhinehart said.
Using GPS, Rhinehart determined that the cave entrance is a few hundred feet inside the proposed expansion area.
RMR is in the process of seeking BLM approval to expand the existing limestone quarry from about 20 acres to nearly 450 acres and excavate rock from the surface.
The newly discovered cave would be a casualty of the expansion, according to Rhinehart.
“This cave will be completely missing, because it’s in the limestone that (RMR) wants to quarry away. It’s definitely a reason to be concerned,” Rhinehart said.