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 also have marked paths and handrails in places.

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

Colossal Cave in Tucson, Arizona where I live, is another cave that one can walk through. The path inside the cave is narrower but lit and marked.

Unlike Carlsbad, where individuals can stroll through on their own, Colossal cave has guides take people through in small groups. However, like Carlsbad Caverns, one walks, rather than crawls, in this cave.

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 the casual tourist, 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.

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.

Our Route to Peppersauce Cave

show route and directions
A markerStarbucks in Casas Adobes Shopping Plaza -
7151 N Oracle Rd, Casa Adobes Shopping Plaza, Tucson, AZ 85704, USA
[get directions]

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.

B markerTown of Oracle, AZ -
Oracle, AZ 85623, USA
[get directions]

Upon arriving at the outskirts of Oracle we turned off on the the South Mt. Lemon Road which soon became an uphill dirt road.

C markerPeppersauce Cave with coordinants 32°31′28″N 110°42′26″W -
S Mt Lemmon Rd, Coronado National Forest, Oracle, AZ 85623, USA
[get directions]

Our destination - Peppersauce Cave

No Facilities at the Cave

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.

Cave is Not Totally Dry

However, 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 the rock slide shown in the video above. 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.

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

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.

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 | Source

Why the name Peppersauce?

There is no question as to where the cave’s name comes from as it 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.

After starting the article with the phrase The name is somewhat of a mystery, 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.

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 | Source

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

show route and directions
A markerOracle Arizona -
Oracle, AZ 85623, USA
[get directions]

Road from town of Oracle, Arizona to Peppersauce Cave

B markerPeppersauce Cave coordinants 32°31′28″N 110°42′26″W -
Peppersauce Cave on S Mt Lemmon Rd, Coronado National Forest, Oracle, AZ 85623, USA
[get directions]

Location of Peppersauce Cave in the Coronado National Forest section of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Entrance to Peppersauce Cave near Tucson, AZ
Entrance to Peppersauce Cave near Tucson, AZ | Source
In one of the bigger areas inside Peppersauce Cave, Arizona
In one of the bigger areas inside Peppersauce Cave, Arizona | Source
Making our way through one of the narrower passages inside Peppersauce Cave.
Making our way through one of the narrower passages inside Peppersauce Cave. | Source
Stalactites inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ
Stalactites inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ | Source
Making our way down a narrow passage in Peppersauce Cave, AZ
Making our way down a narrow passage in Peppersauce Cave, AZ | Source
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 | Source
Climbing down the 15 foot ladder inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ
Climbing down the 15 foot ladder inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ | Source
Deep inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ
Deep inside Peppersauce Cave, AZ | Source
Exiting Peppersauce Cave via the same narrow passage we entered through.
Exiting Peppersauce Cave via the same narrow passage we entered through. | Source
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. | Source
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. | Source
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. | Source

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Comments 5 comments

Chuck profile image

Chuck 4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

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.


shiningirisheyes profile image

shiningirisheyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

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 profile image

Chuck 4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed this Hub.


Lipnancy profile image

Lipnancy 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

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


Marsei profile image

Marsei 4 years ago from New Orleans

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

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