I could write many stories about Pettyjohn’s cave, however I would like to explain here why this great cave is my favorite. For a horizontal spelunker like myself, Pettyjohn has a lot to offer. Good climbs, challenging passages, waterfalls, formations, intriguing passages, extremely hard to reach places, most of which I haven’t seen, possibilities for new discoveries, and good mud.
For some looking for climbing challenges, the entrance hall has a lot to offer. Over 500 feet long and averaging 50 feet wide with 30 foot high ceilings, this long room takes two easy climbs just to get to the back. Near the entrance is a good climb up to an upper formation room that connects to the main entrance room at roof level. Most visitors rush through this area to get to the back of the room or to the main waterfall.
To get to the creek levels there are challenging climbs if you avoid the ropes left there by previous cavers. Some of these strings have been in place for a long time and should not be used. An especially challenging climb is to reach the Racoon Room, this large room in the middle level of the cave gives access to most of the middle levels of the cave. Pettyjohn Cave is divided into three levels, the entrance room which is high and mostly dry, the middle levels which are dry passages which make up about 1/3 of the known cave and reach below the mountain to the north. A difficult climb from this northern section is to the Echo Room, the largest room in the cave. A 100 by 200 foot room with high ceilings. And the lower stream passages that make up the largest portions of the cave.
The ascent to the waterfall leads to a second waterfall that is much easier to climb and to an upstream passage called Schreiber’s Extension that has yet to be fully explored.
From the main entrance room there are many ways to enter the cave and at the beginning of each of these passages you will have a challenge. The pancake squeeze on the way to the waterfall, some tight squeezes or hard climbs, depending on which route you choose, to get to the Volcano Room. Each route from the main room is like a cave of its own. If you like mazes, try The Labyrinth in the lower southeast level of Pettyjohn. If you’re looking for a real adventure, explore the far northwest section called The Outer Limits. And for some good technical climbing, explore the rooms above the Double Echo Domes.
If you like underground waterfalls, Pettyjohn’s cave will enchant you. There are two good size waterfalls on the way to Schreiber’s Extension. A strong waterfall about 4 feet high just beyond the Slide and on the way to the Outer Limits. And another for which you have to climb to enter the Labyrinth.
The formations are scattered throughout the cave. The entrance room contains the largest of the cave. It is worth seeing the signature room and the passage to it along the formations. And there is a beautiful formation room just before you reach the Volcano Room. Other beautiful formations will surprise you along the routes towards the many sections of the cave.
The Worm Tube is a long 150 foot run that is very narrow and leads to the Echo Room and beyond. The Z-Bends are an interesting alternative to the Pancake Squeeze when you go to the waterfall or the Racoon Room. There is a downslope squeeze that is a real challenge to get back up when visiting the East Stream Passage and Crowell Domes. The little hole that goes from the Bridge Room to the Mason-Dixon Passage is clean. And the creek canyon pass on the way to the waterfall is fun.
Extreme locations are for cavers who like fourteen hour trips and want to be pushed to the limit. Pettyjohn Cave offers four of these areas. The Labyrinth, of which I have only visited the beginning.
The Discovery Room above the Emerald Pool that you have to use the existing old rope or do a hard technical climb. An extension pole was first used to reach this area. And I understand that there is much to discover beyond the Emerald Pond.
The Outer Limits, which I’m not even sure what level you get to. I have explored the stream passage to narrow muddy squeezes that eventually turned me back and high dry passages that might as well be the trail. They were ten-hour trips and he hadn’t found the Outer Limits yet. I met Richard Schreiber once when he was coming out of the cave and he was excited to be back under the mountain and I think he meant the outer limits. I have a copy of most of his survey notes, but I think I’m missing one that describes how to get there.
Schreiber’s Extension is a long stream passage with many tracks and climbing spots along the way. The end is an undercurrent passage that has been excavated and pushed into a second low room blocked by another undercurrent drag. This passage continues around the edge of the mountain and takes water from the mountainside. The cave is still lower than the valley but below the edge of the mountain.
Possibilities of new discoveries
The most promising area that I think could be developed is the east. There are many sinkholes along the mountain to the east of the entrance and the Crowell Domes are the easternmost part of the cave with the exception of Labyrinth and Screech Owl Cave. There is a possible Echo Room track that I would like to push someday, but it would require a bit of rock removal. There is also a large sink on top of the mountain to the east of Pettyjohn that I believe the water has been traced to the sump below the entrance hall in Pettyjohn. Pettyjohn provides drainage for most of this side of Pigeon Mountain until reaching Ellison Cave, which drains the north end of the mountain. Recent discoveries have been made in the Schreiber’s Extension, the Discovery Room, and the Anamatosis Room. I have plotted 36,117 feet of level survey, almost seven miles (6,935 miles) and a total survey length of 7,127 miles.
Pettyjohn Cave is known for its mud. There are some places where you will lose your shoes on the sticky stuff. Navigate roads where you just slide in the mud with two knee grooves from all traffic. I have seen the lower level flood with water receding from the creek canyon pass, which is narrow and can restrict water flow. Always check the weather forecast before going to the main waterfall. You can read about cavers getting lost in the waterfall area for days and explore parts of the cave by clicking on the pictures inside the cave by visiting my website. I also have other links to stories about Pettyjohn on the front page.