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Gate squashes illicit access to Hubbard Cave

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By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff

My first trip to Hubbard Cave could probably stand in for most visits over the last hundred odd years.

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I was maybe 6 years old when my family piled into whichever SUV my dad happened to be driving and made our way up a four-wheel-drive track to the rim of the Glenwood Canyon. Whether the cave was our actual destination or not I’m not sure, but we ended up taking the narrow trail to the mouth of one entrance with one flashlight among us. I’d like to say it made an instant caver out of me, but in truth I barely made it past the drip line before fear of getting lost like Tom Sawyer drove me back.

It would be a couple of years before the Fairy Caves reopened and a couple of decades before I’d have a chance to go beyond the tour and take to caving (spelunking, while fun to say, has negative connotations these days). By then, white nose syndrome had decimated bat populations across the east and prompted cave closures throughout the country. While many have since reopened on a seasonal basis, Hubbard is not among them. That’s because, as White River National Forest wildlife biologist Phil Nyland explained, “it’s the largest known hibernacula in Colorado on public land.”

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Last month, I had a chance to accompany Nyland up to the cave, where a gate has been installed to give the closure some teeth. He discouraged me from taking my Grand Cherokee, so I signed a waiver and took the copilot position in a beefed-up golf cart of an OHV. The prison crew that did the construction had used a full sized vehicle as well, he told me, and had had to chain up a few times to get out.

We found the road as rough as I remembered it, with little evidence of use aside from a set of bike tracks with what we inferred to be the prints of a faithful hound following behind (or else a mountain lion was providing some major motivation). I probably would have driven right by the start of the trail, marked by a somewhat dated and defaced sign with cave closure information.

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That didn’t stop several groups of people from continuing on during the month work was taking place, Nyland informed me. None of them were cavers with proper gear, which is both comforting because it means National Speleological Society Members are obeying the rules and concerning with respect to safety.

The hike, with several views almost straight down on Interstate 70 and the sound of rafters on the Colorado River echoing up from below, reminded me that I was probably a bit on edge before I ever made it to the cave as a child.

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According to veteran caver and author Richard Rhinehart — who is, incidentally as soft spoken as they come in person but scathing in some of his letters to government offices — the cave was “discovered” by William Henry Hubbard and his brother-in-law, Griffith Jones, during a prospecting expedition in 1892. They were far from the first visitors, however, as they found an array of fire pits, projectile points and other artifacts of regular Ute occupation. The subsequent years have added some graffiti, steps, a rough stone wall and, now, three sturdy metal grates.

Designed to Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety Standards, they sport concrete footers to prevent digging around and bars wide enough for bats but too narrow for even the most skilled and skinny caver.

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“We’ve put a lot of thought into a design that minimizes impacts,” Nyland explained. “We tried to really learn some lessons from the input we got on Spring Cave.”

That’s another popular amateur caving destination near Meeker, which had a gate installed for seasonal closures last year — drawing some flack from cavers. Securing three large entrances on Hubbard proved to be an even bigger process, particularly compared to older gates like the one on Groaning — the longest set of passages in the state — which blocks a squeeze a short distance into the cave itself.

There’s also the matter of helping folks who have been visiting the cave for years understand why it’s suddenly covered with a mesh of vertical and horizontal bars. Nyland hopes an interpretive panel will do the trick.

“We want to share our story and the science behind it,” he said. “Putting in the gate was our best way of addressing the potential for human to bat transmission.”

The closure will give the Forest Service, Parks and Wildlife and Colorado State University a chance to study things in a controlled environment. Before I get my hopes up for something more than a quick nip beyond the gate to snap a picture, he warns me that recreation won’t be on the table anytime soon, if ever.

“The science and the monitoring are still evolving, and we need to take a longer view on management,” he said. “If people want an answer now, the answer is no. But that doesn’t mean it’s the final answer.”

“There are dozens of other caves that are accessible through the permit process,” he added.

He’s right, of course. White River National Forest is home to some of the biggest and prettiest caves in the state, and until white nose syndrome rears its ugly head here, I plan to discover them as safely and responsibly as I can through the local grottos (caving clubs through the NSS — visit www.nssio.org/find_grotto.cfm to get in touch with one).

And maybe someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll have a chance to actually explore the depths of Hubbard Cave. Third time’s the charm, right?

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