Story and photos by David Haynes
The numerous limestone caverns of Jackson County in northeast Alabama make this area one of the top destinations in the world for spelunking enthusiasts. Cave explorers often endure the discomforts of wet and cold underground chambers, tight passageways and near total darkness in exchange for the thrill of experiencing the majestic and magical grottos they find below.
But Stephens Gap Cave near Woodville is the exception to that rule. This spectacular 143-foot vertical pit cavern has two entrances, one of which allows visitors to shimmy down a side opening that’s large enough to illuminate the interior without the need to carry additional lighting, allowing even novice explorers to experience a cave without the usual investment in specialized gear and training.
Tom Whitehurst, one of three preserve managers for Stephens Gap, explains that the SCC acquired the 78 acres that includes the cave following almost a decade of negotiations with the property owner, Nancy Callahan, for whom the preserve is partially named. The Callahan property was purchased in the fall of 2014, but because it was landlocked, the group also purchased another 45 acres that includes the one-mile access trail and parking area.
Previously, anyone wanting to visit the cave had to obtain hit-or-miss verbal permission and the property was not accessible during hunting seasons. Now it is open year-round.
Today, those wanting to visit this unique cave can obtain a permit online by visiting the SCC website at http://www.scci.org/preserves/stephens-gap-callahan-cave-preserve/ and following the links to obtain necessary forms.
These include a clean caving questionnaire and liability release form that each visitor must fill out and sign (plus a parental consent form if any visitors are under the age of 19). Once completed, the forms can be emailed back to the SCC, which after review will issue a permit that is then emailed back to be printed out by the applicant. The printed permit is placed in the rear window of the visitor vehicle or vehicles on the scheduled day of the visit. There is no charge for the service.
During the first year of the new permitting system, February 2015 to February 2016, more than 1,100 visitors explored the cave with approximately 200 permits issued, Whitehurst says.
A pair of spelunkers from the Huntsville area first discovered Stephens Gap in the 1950s, although it was likely known to locals long before that. Beginning in the 1960s the cave saw increased visits from cavers as vertical rappelling techniques and equipment improved and its popularity grew by mostly word-of-mouth.
Today a visit begins at the parking area off Alabama Highway 35. From there, the trail leads upward to the two main openings for the cave. Once at the cave, the 20-foot-diameter vertical opening – which requires rappelling gear and expertise to descend – will likely have a waterfall careening down its face if there has been any recent rainfall. To the left and downhill from the vertical shaft is the larger side-shaft entrance. Entering this way requires climbing down a steep 200-foot incline over large boulders. The opening itself is probably 25-30 feet wide and provides ample light inside the cave to see during daylight hours.
Once inside, the visitor is at the midpoint of the vertical pit and can see a ledge extending back toward the main shaft. A large pedestal rock is situated just off this horizontal ledge that was the setting for at least one wedding ceremony in recent years. If the waterfall is running, it cascades down the far side of the vertical shaft and the entire cavern echoes with the sounds of crashing water.
Because the waterfalls often create misty or hazy conditions inside, sunbeams are transformed into magical shafts of light illuminating the interior in various directions depending on the time of year and time of day, ensuring that no two days inside this cave will look exactly the same for a visitor.
Whitehurst cautions, however, that although the cave and the trail to it are now open to the public, it remains in its “wild and natural state.” This means no guard rails or other safety provisions are present. The trail from the parking lot follows a stream bed and gets progressively steeper as visitors near the cave, with many rocky steps and ledges where footing can be treacherous, especially after a rain. A slip near the vertical shaft opening of the cave could be fatal as its depth is approximately 12 stories.
In fact, there have been fatalities at the cave. The most recent was in September 2015 when an 18-year-old man slipped off a mid-cave ledge and fell 45-50 feet to his death.
Whitehurst says the SCC is continuing to make improvements to the property with emphasis now on the parking area. He says the caving community and visitors alike have been generous with donations to help offset the $150,000 needed to properly operate and maintain the Preserve. One way that has proven popular among donors is to “buy” a piece of the cave (one-foot-wide strips of the entry portals, for example). Each donor will have his or her name shown permanently on the entrance map for the sliver of the cave they “buy.” These range from $50-$100 each. Other pricier options allow donors to “buy” a feature of the cave, having their name placed on the map adjacent that feature.