Even if you’ve climbed every route around Santa Fe, banked every turn on the trails at La Tierra and know the entire crew at Sangre de Cristo Mountain Works by their nicknames, you may not have heard of Buckman Cave. It doesn’t show up on most maps, and the locals who know it best keep it hush-hush to avoid attracting riff raff and inexperienced cavers. Unless you’re friends with the right people, you might not be aware there’s a refrigerated adventure waiting for you in the heat of the summer, a short drive from downtown, as long as you know what you’re doing.
Tucked into the volcanic rock of Caja del Rio Canyon, better known locally as Diablo Canyon, the cave at first looks like an unremarkable slot. Soon after you enter, the walls close in, the ceiling falls and it seems as if you’ve reached the end. Slither through a gap on the back wall near the floor and the ceiling lifts up into another chamber—which leads to other tunnels, which snake toward more rooms, deep underground. The air is cool, almost cold. A few small bats cling to the ceiling in places. Flick off your headlamp and you could be at the center of the earth. Now is a great time to treat your buddy with a surprise flash photo.
Despite sounding like a quaint way to spend a hot summer afternoon, Buckman Cave is no place for casual spelunkers. It’s dangerous, and not in a simple “watch your head” kind of way. Immediately inside the entrance is a doorway to a room that’s eerily dark. The reason is simple: It lacks a floor. The bottom of the darkness is 80-feet straight down. In the early 1980s, Adam Blum, a young Santa Fe man, slipped and fell to his death here while having a look around. In 2003 Lawrence Cassell came to explore the caveand brought along his four-month-old pit bull puppy. The dog quickly fell off the same cliff. It survived, with a broken leg and lacerated lung, but it took rescuers a full day to get the pooch out of the pit.
Elsewhere in the cave, there is a slippery section sloping over a 15-foot drop that’s best navigated with a rope. There are also loose rocks, disorienting turns through multiple chambers and a vertical shaft so tight it can act like a Chinese handcuff—dropping through it is easy, coming back up is only so if you’re on Atkins. If you mistake one of the funnel-shaped skylights above the cave for its entrance, it would be like stepping off the roof of the State Capitol building (without a big, puffy governor around to cushion your fall).
But if you know safe caving principals, Buckman Cave is an adventure unlike anything else in Santa Fe. The most important rule for exploring it safely is to go with a partner or two who know the cave quite well. There are currently no guides permitted to lead adventurers into the cave, according to the National Forest Service, so would-be visitors are forced to rely on friends and acquaintances to introduce them to the cave. The local caving club, the Pajarito Grotto of the National Speleological Society, can help connect you with a skilled partner, and invites prospective explorers to its biweekly meetings. The Los Alamos County Recreation Division offers caving instruction and visits to Buckman Cave as part of an adventure program for teens; adults are also welcome.
The second rule: Always bring three reliable sources of light—two headlamps and a flashlight, for example. Given the low ceilings and potential fall hazards, a helmet with a chin strap and rock climbing gear (a harness and a rope, and knowledge of how to use them) are essential. Always tell someone when you plan to return from the cave, so rescuers would know when and where to look for you. Warm, protective clothing, hiking boots, food and water and a first-aid kit are must-haves, and kneepads, gloves and a dust mask can make crawling around in the fine dirt more comfortable.
If you decide you’re ready for Buckman Cave, respect it. The cave has attracted partiers and vandals over the years, and their impact can be seen and smelt. Pack out all traces of your visit, even your own human waste (or better yet, think ahead and use the bathroom before setting out). And for everyone’s sake, please adhere strictly to the quota of only one Goonies joke per trip, or less. Most importantly, don’t even think about going unless you’re confident in your ability to explore the cave safely. Going in is the easy part. Don’t make coming out more of an adventure than it should be.
For information about safety and restrictions affecting the Buckman Cave area, call the
National Forest Service’s Española Ranger District, 505-753-7331.
For information on cave safety, caving etiquette and to meet experienced locals, contact the Pajarito Grotto of the National Speleological Society
To learn more about the Los Alamos County Recreation Division’s Adventure Edge programs in Buckman Cave, contact Garry Wolfe, 662-8173, firstname.lastname@example.org
For recommendations on equipment,
contact Sangre de Cristo Mountain Works,
For general information on caving, caving safety and techniques, visit the National Speleological Society
For informal advice from a local guide, contact Marc Beverly, 505-264-8364.