GET OUT: Holmes Cave
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The first time I arrived at Holmes Cave, I couldn’t find it. My GPS gave the little tone it does when I’m within 100 yards of an important waypoint and all I saw was open meadow. My two dogs were pinballling from chiseler hole to chiseler hole like they had been doing for most of the 4.5 miles we covered to get there.
I stared at the blasted GPS and circled and circled. Meanwhile, my border collie had dug a hole so deep looking for a chipmunk that she flat out disappeared! I walked over to investigate. It wasn’t a hole she had dug. It was a little creek running down into a hole that seemed to be bottomless. The dog popped back out and the GPS went bonkers with chirps and whistles. This was it!
I had been looking for a cave. I mean a real cave. Like Bruce Wayne’s Bat Cave, or the Tiki Cave that the Brady Bunch found the taboo idol in, or the cave that Andy Griffith got trapped in with Helen Crump. But Holmes Cave isn’t like that at all. Never mind stalactites, just pack your wetsuit and a flashlight.
Finding the trailhead for this hike also was very difficult at one time. When I first went in 2003, there was no sign to get you started in the right direction. Now there is. Five miles west of Togwotee Pass, a short dirt road pull-off the Forest Service calls #30042 heads up to a broken down cabin called Range Rider Cabin. Park it there and start hoofin’.
Elevation is so gradual for the first 2.5 miles you will hardly notice you are pulling up and over a pass between Angle Mountain on the left and the breathtaking Breccia Cliffs on the right. Open meadows along with stands of whitebark pine and subalpine fir mark your way until you top out on the ridge. At this point the Breccias literally tower over you.
You will drop down into an even more open meadow. To your left, just the other side of those jagged peaks, you will see the Lower Pendergraft/Terrace meadows of the South Fork of the Buffalo River. To the right is little Holmes Cave Creek, which feeds the larger Cub Creek. Straight ahead from here on your pilot knob is the Simpson Peaks. You can’t miss ’em.
This high meadow is actually a glacially carved hanging valley at 9,600 feet above sea level. I always think I will see bears here but I never do. There’s one more little hump to climb to get out of this hanging valley. At four miles exactly, you’ll notice a little pond on your left. Hop in for a cool-off if you need it. The last half-mile is a slight downhill and you will pop back out into another small open meadow which is actually a large sink. Look for the only rock outcropping here. That’s your cave.
E. B. Holmes and friends first found this hole-in-the-ground cave in 1889. It was officially mapped in September 1905. A photocopy of that map can be seen in the Jackson Hole Historical Museum in Jackson. A later exploration found the cave system to be much more extensive than ever imagined. To date, no one has spelunked it to its end.
Noted archeologist J.D. Love explored the cave in the early ’70s and reported he had found tropical swamp debris in one of the chambers that he determined to be 50-million-years old.