A bit of history, a WILD cave, some amateur spelunking, and a fiery hot lunch washed down with local craft beer – life is good!
This is a rather long post, so If my rambling annoys you…
- Just click here for Oracle, Arizona
- Just click here for Oracle State Park
- Just click here for Peppersauce Cave
- Just click here for the Ore House Hilltop Tavern, home of the fiery hot and delicious Bun Burner!
Otherwise, read on…
The other day, we took a drive to check out the other side of the hill for future playdates on our way to Peppersauce Cave. By hill, I mean the Santa Catalina Mountains, bordering the east side of Tucson, Arizona. We were staying at the lovely Rincon Country East RV Resort in southeast Tucson and getting way too comfortable. Too much of this and I’d soon outgrow my minimalist wardrobe! Living a life on wheels doesn’t afford enough room for a closet full of multiple-sized clothing.
It was time for a mini-adventure! I’d heard there was a lot of fun to be had over around Oracle, Arizona on the northern end of the Catalinas; rockhounding, history, old mines, off-road trails, hiking, mtn biking, ziplining, camping, and even spelunking. Spelunking simply means caving, usually as a hobbyist.
With a little research, I discovered a “wild cave” called Peppersauce Cave, in the Coronado National Forest, and off we went. We planned to drive to the cave and then stop in Oracle for lunch afterward. We had never been to the area and were looking forward to checking it out!
Our route to Peppersauce Cave took us through the quirky little town of Oracle.
Oracle is a 36-mile drive north from downtown Tucson, through Oro Valley, on Highway 77 to the Mount Lemmon Hwy. It is a census-designated place with a population under 4,000. It lies at an elevation of 4,500 feet in the foothills that rise from the desert to become the Santa Catalina Mountains, topping out at Mount Lemmon ( 9,157 feet). The area has a history rich in ranching, mining, and as a destination for those ailing from “consumption” (Tuberculosis) back in the 1800s.
It is said that the community was named after one of its first mines. Prospector, Albert Weldon came to the area in search of gold and silver. He and his partners opened one of the early mines naming it “The Oracle” after a ship Albert had once sailed upon. When the post office opened in 1880, the community needed a name and chose Oracle.
Oracle has had their fair share of famous residents and visitors. Buffalo Bill Cody owned the High Jinks Gold Mine in Oracle briefly and, in 1911, appeared as “Santa” for a group of local children. The community is the location of the Biosphere 2 experiment and was the postal address for author Edward Abbey, who never lived in the town but visited often. The dude ranches began to replace the “sanatoriums” or TB health resorts in the 1920s. As westerns became popular, Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth, Gary Cooper, and Tom Mix came to Oracle.
According to the Oracle Visitors Center, “Today Oracle is the home of six guest ranches, great local eateries & shops, Oracle State Park, the Arizona Trail, Arizona Zipline Adventures, Triangle L Ranch Sculpture Park, the Biosphere 2, Life Under the Oaks Lavender Farm & Store, and Titan Power Rentals (Off-road rental & service needs).” Visit Oracle.org – the Oracle Visitors Center, 1470 West American Avenue, Oracle, (520) 896-3300
Oracle State Park
Just 2 ½ miles beyond Oracle, on your way to the cave, you’ll pass Oracle State Park, a worthwhile destination on its own. The park is a 4,000-acre wildlife refuge offering day-use picnic areas, over 15 miles of trails for use by hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians, including a section of the Arizona Trail. The park is dog friendly (on leash); of the 17 trails listed on their trail map brochure, only 2 prohibit dogs and that’s because they are wildlife corridors.
The park also includes a unique Mediterranean and Moorish style ranch house, The Kannally Ranch House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The ranch house is a 4-level adobe structure with patio gardens on each level. I fell absolutely in love with it! The Kannally family has an interesting history as well. The family consisted of three brothers and two sisters, moving west to the Oracle area due to TB back in the 1800s. None of the siblings ever had children and the last sister passed away in the 1970s. The ranch house was built without bedrooms. The brothers lived in a small ranch house on the property and the sisters lived in cottages of their own.
One of the brothers, Leonard L. “Lee” Kannally was a self-taught western artist, whose works have been compared to Ted DeGrazia’s work. Kannally suffered from nerve gas poisoning and had to lay the canvas on his bed and kneel on the floor, bending over it to paint.
Oracle State Park deserves more than just a quick visit. Check it out when you have time to tour the ranch house and hike some trails!
Peppersauce Cave is located in Nugget Canyon within the Santa Catalina Ranger District of the Coronado National Forest, almost 11 miles south of Oracle and about 9 miles beyond Oracle State Park on the Mt. Lemmon Highway. The “Highway” is paved becoming a well-graded gravel road outside town limits, eventually transitioning into a rough and rocky dirt road just before reaching Peppersauce Campground en route to the cave. The cave is another 2.2 miles beyond Peppersauce Campground and although it’s a rough drive, it is possible to drive by passenger vehicle. Just watch out for ATVs and horseback riders in the roadway.
The Coronado National Forest operates Peppersauce Campground which has 17 developed campsites beneath enormous old sycamore trees alongside a small creek. We saw mostly tents in the campground when we drove by. Trailers are discouraged and there is a trailer restriction of 22 feet or less. Picnic tables, toilets, and drinking water are available but there are no RV hookups.
Finding the Cave
There isn’t a parking lot or any signage on the road indicating that you have arrived at Peppersauce Cave. There is, however, a wide shoulder on the highway near the cave where one can park. The GPS coordinates for Peppersauce Cave are 32.5243° N, -110.7074° W, or use the map below to map your route to the cave.
The entrance to the cave is just a short walk across the road, down into a creek bed, up the creek a short way, and then a brief climb up the hillside to the entrance. A signboard has been erected just below the cave entrance with information and a map of the cave. Approximately one mile of the cave is mapped, indicating a lake and other pools of water.
The Cave – what kind of cave is it anyway?
This is a great cave for beginning spelunkers. Mr. RR and I ran into a family with two young daughters quite a distance into the cave. They were on the adventure of their little lives. It is so rare to have places such as this available to explore on our own. Anyone in good hiking shape with the ability to squeeze through tight spaces and devoid of claustrophobia should be capable of venturing into Peppersauce Cave. It is quite the experience!
Peppersauce is a wild cave of the sacrifice type. A wild cave is an undeveloped cave where modifications have not been made to make it easier for the public to visit. Peppersauce is sacrificial in the fact that it is publicly known and experiences unsupervised exploration by the public. Peppersauce receives between 15,000 and 23,000 visitors a year. Unsupervised, the cave has experienced significant vandalism and littering over the years. I was quite happy not to see much litter. However, we did see a small amount of graffiti.
In response to the discovery of E. coli and coliform bacteria in the cave’s lakes, the Peppersauce Cave Conservation Project (PCCP) was established in 2001. With the assistance of a grant from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), the PCCP removed garbage and graffiti and completely cleaned the cave, eradicating the bacteria (that doesn’t mean the water is free of bacteria now – the water in the cave is NOT safe to drink) in 2003. The removal of graffiti and trash has been an ongoing effort by volunteers of the Central Arizona Grotto (CAG), the National Speleological Society (NSS), Arizona State University’s Outdoor Club, and southern Arizona grottos. Please read and follow the Forest Service Cave Ethics recommendations later in this post.
Peppersauce is geologically a Karst formation cave, meaning it was created by the dissolution of soluble bedrock, in this case, limestone, by water containing carbon dioxide. At one time Peppersauce Cave contained the carbonate formations typical of limestone caves such as stalactites, stalagmites, helictite, and flowstones. Though remnants remain, much of these formations have been stolen or destroyed by previous visitors. As I once heard a National Park Rangers say, “If every Visitor were to pick up a rock and take it home with them, eventually Capitol Reef National Park would just be a barren desert plain.” The same with caves, visitors did take natural features from the cave and now very few to none remain. It takes tens of thousands of years for these formations to come to be and only a moment for them to disappear at the hands of vandals. Make every attempt not to touch the walls, existing formations, or formations just beginning to take shape.
Okay, so how’d it get its name? Well, the story has it that a prospector named Alex McKay camped in the area in 1880. Ole McKay liked peppersauce and carried it with him everywhere he went (sounds a bit like Mr. RR and his Tabasco sauce). One day McKay’s peppersauce came up missing when he stopped for lunch in what is now called Peppersauce Canyon. Maybe he misplaced it or maybe someone took it! Funny thing is, the cave is in Nugget Canyon, not Peppersauce Canyon. But oh well, that is how “they” say it got its name.
Bring two (2) lights apiece! Make sure to have a light source and a back-up such as a flashlight, lantern, or headlamp. You do not want to have to find your way out of the cave in the dark! The cave goes from dry and dusty, coating every surface with a fine white powder one minute to wet, slippery, and muddy the next. The limestone within the cave has become smooth and slippery from years of human traffic. It is a balmy 70°F inside the cave and it doesn’t take long to work up a sweat. With all that said, dress accordingly, wear slip-resistant shoes, long pants, a hard hat, and dress in layers.
Do not litter, urinate or defecate in the cave!
Take care of your elimination issues before entering the cave or after departing – and take your trash with you! If I were ever to become a vigilante, it would be the litterers of the world I’d be after. It just doesn’t make sense.
The Coronado National Forest encourages the following responsible cave ethics:
Caves are non-renewable resources, fragile and easily impacted. Every entry into a cave creates disturbances, the cumulative effects of which can dramatically alter cave environments. Coronado National Forest staff encourage visitors to the cave to practice responsible use and cave conservation ethics:
- Move carefully through a cave to avoid damaging cave features.
- Pack it in, pack it out. Anything brought into a cave and left behind is out of place. Remove everything taken into the cave, including human waste.
- Leave what you find, never remove natural or historic features from a cave.
- Respect wildlife, avoid disturbing cave wildlife.
- Never tolerate intentional damage, defacing or artifact theft from caves. If you see something, report it.
For safe caving trips, Forest staff recommend that you plan ahead, be prepared, and know what to expect from the cave you are visiting. Let others know of your plans, and your anticipated schedule. Choose appropriate clothing, equipment, and safety gear, and pack more food and water than you plan on using.
Entering the Cave
Mr. RR and Patty posing before theWRONG cave entrance!
Do not make the mistake I did! The main cave entrance is to the left of the signboard, not the right! However, there is also what appears to be a trail leading to a hole in the canyon wall on the right-hand side of the sign. I mistook this for the cave entrance and slithered my way in quite a way before Mr. RR took another look at the cave map and hollered into the mouth of the quasi-cave that I had contortioned my body in to, informing me that I was in the wrong hole (twss).
The Correct Entrance
Again, the main entrance to the cave is to the left-hand side of the signboard and a short climb up the canyon wall. Be careful on the well-worn and slippery limestone on the climb up to and throughout the cave.
The main entrance to Peppersauce Cave lies behind a large boulder and is initially of standing height. A short way into the cave one must crawl and/or slither through a short tunnel to proceed, less than 3-4 feet in distance. After that, most of the cave is of standing height. There are some narrow cracks you’ll have to pass sideways through, some areas you may have to duck or crawl through, and some areas accessed by ladders already situated in the cave for your use. The surface is at times dusty and dry, wet and muddy, or slippery well-worn limestone. Watch your step and take it slow.
We had not planned on fully exploring the cave on this trip and only spent about an hour and a half, making it to a large room in which was a box containing a register. Be sure to sign the register. Even though most of the cave formations are gone, the cave is beautiful and a lot of fun to explore. There are highly reflective arrows placed throughout the cave to point to the easiest exit of the cave. We looked back over our shoulder a time or two on the way in to make sure we were on the correct route. By the way, this is a good habit when hiking as well. The route can look different going in the opposite direction. Take a moment now and then to glance over your shoulder at the route behind you, looking for identifiable landmarks (or in this case “cavemarks”).
We met a group of four and a couple on our way in and a family of four on our way out on a Friday afternoon. We look forward to returning to venture deeper, hopefully making it as far as the lake at the back of the cave.
Ore House Hilltop Tavern
Following our spelunking adventure, we stopped at the Ore House Hilltop Tavern on our way back through Oracle. What a great stop for lunch! They had a large outdoor patio dining area with a lot of old mining paraphernalia, metal sculptures, and a big hand holding a giant foaming glass of beer. The building itself with indoor dining and a bar was decorated in a rough-hewn wooden western décor. They had 16 beers on tap, comprised of mostly local craft brews in addition to your old standards. Mr. RR had a citrusy “Forbes” IPA from 1912 Brewing, Tucson and I had a pleasantly bitter IPA from Ranch House Brewing, Saddlebrook Ranch, Oracle.
Before ordering our lunch, we noticed customers at a table near ours commenting to the waitress that their meals had been almost too spicy. A woman at the table next to us was guzzling water and attempting to wipe the heat off her tongue with wet napkins! Don and I looked at one another and knew we had to have whatever they’d had! It turned out to be a “Bun Burner”, which is a bacon cheeseburger with hot fiery chipotle mayo, jalapenos, whole chiles, pepper jack cheese, and jalapeno bacon on a toasted bun. We split one of those and the daily special, smoked chicken tacos.
Oh man, was that one good lunch!
We didn’t need no stink’n Peppersauce!