Resurgence Cave, Upana Caves, BC
By Kimberly Walker
Winding roads often lead to the best destinations, and Highway 28 heading west from Campbell River is no exception. Beyond Strathcona Provincial Park and even beyond Gold River, lies a little gem called Upana Caves. Operating as a self-guided day-use site by Recreation Sites and Trails BC, Upana Caves provides novice cave explorers the opportunity to get down, and probably dirty, on their own without previous caving experience.
Pick up a cave guide in Gold River before departing on the Head Bay Forest Service Road, following signs for Tahsis. After about 20 minutes of gravel road, follow the Rec Site signage into the small parking area. Here a kiosk provides a bit more information about the cave structures as well as a map of the area.
The Upana Caves area is what is known as Karst and a distinguishing feature of this type of landscape is the presence of a subterranean drainage system: caves. Over the course of thousands and thousands, if not millions, of years, rainwater, glaciation, and stream erosion have all infiltrated the cracks in the rock in this area and created a series of caves with around 500 metres of underground galleries and passages.
For present-day visitors, a well-maintained trail leads you through the site with a variety of caves to explore at every comfort level. The first cave you come to, the Insect Cave, was the most difficult cave to initially enter, as it requires some scrambling over rocks and a bit of a down climb. Once inside, however, it makes an excellent first introduction to being inside a cave. Just outside the entrance, a map shows the recommended route through the cave and as it is quite small it can easily be explored in five to ten minutes. For those who might be nervous about caving, the Insect Cave is perfect as daylight is visible the whole time and the recommended route is a short counter clockwise circle of the cave. True to its name, the Insect Cave was where we spotted a cricket and those with a keen eye should take their time to shine their light into all the nooks and crannies where cave critters may be hiding!
Once you emerge back into the daylight, continue down the trail towards the Main Cave. Just outside the gaping mouth of the Main Cave, a limestone tube known as The Keyhole makes a perfect photo-op. When entering the Main Cave, follow the stone stairs downward and to the left. There are plenty of passages to explore here, and most circle back to the main entrance. For the main route, stay to your left, and clamber through the increasingly tight passage until you hear the sound of rushing water. A little more downhill and everything opens up again and you will emerge at the Upana River Siphon. Here the river disappears underground before re-emerging 30 metres downstream at the aptly named Resurgence Cave.
When we visited, the Tunnel Cave, the next stop on the self guided tour, was partially flooded, and not wanting to be completely mucky we skipped this one, but in drier conditions I would have loved to explore this longer version of The Keyhole. Just past the Tunnel Cave entrance the Waterfall Viewpoint gives you a birds-eye view of the Upana River Siphon area you were just exploring and it is a real reminder that while each cave can feel isolated while you are in it, in reality the area is all quite close together and interconnected.
The next cave on the map, the Corner-Slither Cave, was my favourite. For this cave you definitely need a couple of lights, as once you venture past the main entrance you are completely in the dark. This cave is an incredible downward spiral and as you descend the walls close in tighter and tighter until you are squeezing your way through the rock formations. The benefit of this cave, described on the information sign outside as for the “more adventurous,” is that at any point you can just turn around and head back the way you came. We called it quits at the crawling-on-hands-and-knees point in order to save ourselves from the mud but the cave continued and I would definitely go back and explore it further if I was in the area again. A must-do in this cave is to turn off all your lights, stand still, and soak in the pure blackness of your surroundings.
The final destination on the self-guided tour is the previously mentioned Resurgence Cave where the Upana River once again comes above ground. At this location, a staircase takes you down into the cave area. Here we stayed mostly outside, enjoying the wide-open feeling of the cave mouth with the river flowing out of it. The most unique features of this area are the smooth white chunks of marble dotting the landscape and the cave walls and I could happily spend time poking around and enjoying a picnic in this area on a sunny summer day.
Vancouver Island is well known for its many caves and excellent pre-packaged caving tours are available at places like Horne Lake Caves. Upana Caves, on the other hand, provides a much more rustic experience where only you are responsible for yourself. Those wishing to venture into the caves should wear sturdy footwear for climbing over rocks and down slopes (keep in mind your shoes may also get wet), bring warmer clothes than you need for above ground as it is always cool in the caves, and bring a light or two for navigating the uneven ground and searching for critters in the dark.
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Despite the relatively remote location, Upana Caves are easily accessible and there is a cave for every level of interest and comfort. From wide-open cave mouths to squeezing through tight passages, exploring Upana Caves is well worth the time it takes to get there.
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Published: September 3, 2020
Kimberly is a Special Education, Elementary School teacher in Hope, BC. Previously having worked ten years at the Hope Visitor Centre & Museum promoting tourism in Hope and British Columbia, Kimberly worked on many local history projects in the museum as well as researching and writing articles for the local newspaper. Kimberly loves travelling with her husband Dale and their dog Alpine. In the fall of 2014, they spent the first 78 days of married life travelling and camping their way across Canada - just the two of them and the dog - travelling in a Hyundai Elantra! Kimberly loves various outdoor recreation types and exploring our beautiful province.