Visiting Horne Lake Caves has got to be one of my most unique sightseeing experiences and it’s right in my own backyard.
There is something to say when you can combine geology, slides, “sacrifice room”, climbing, a bit of claustrophobia and several minutes of total darkness in a single outing.
The caves, located 26 kilometers west of Qualicum Beach, are natural formations, with no lighting, no paved walkways or railings. Inside are calcite crystal formations, fossils, large chambers, and plenty of places to climb and sneak.
My tour explored both the Riverbend Cave, which is 384 meters long, and the Main Cave (136 meters long).
Our small group started by crossing a suspension bridge over the Qualicum River and a short but scenic hike, climbing a bit in elevation to reach Riverbend Cave, which takes about an hour and 45 minutes to cross.
We descended metal stairs to the closed cave entrance, before descending into our subterranean mini-adventure. I was lucky to have TJ and Chloe as my guides, as well as the Forsyth family on vacation (no relation that we know of).
One of the first things I learned was not to touch the calcite formations, as tempting as that might be. They looked like huge melted marshmallows. Unfortunately, they can, and many have been, damaged very easily by the oils in our skin. They take a very long time to recover, so they are banned.
Which brings me to the “Sacrifice Room”.
I was relieved to learn that this room is sacrificial in that it houses a large piece of calcite that we were allowed to touch.
Once we all got that out of our system, we were on our way.
I think one of the best things about the experience is that you can feel the danger, but deep down you know you’re okay. I found myself weaving through narrow, rocky corridors, guided only by the light of my helmet.
I have to admit I was more than happy to stay at the back of the group whenever I had the chance, dodging the cave crickets every now and then (OK not really, but I have some saw one and it was pretty big. But far from the biggest my guides had seen.)
The part that tested my comfort level the most was several minutes of total darkness. We all gathered in a small alcove, sat down and turned off our headlamps. Now there’s darkness, then there’s total darkness, like you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Actually it depends. Some people see nothing, while other brains create a phantom hand in front of their eyes.
Enough time in total darkness can even cause real hallucinations (beyond the phantom hand), as the brain struggles with a lack of visual stimuli. Fortunately, it takes hours, not minutes, for this to happen.
This is probably a good time for me to point out that if someone is uncomfortable, they were asked to turn on their headlamp (preferably not directly into someone’s eyes).
Likewise, there are different options for navigating your way through tighter or intimidating places, so if you don’t want to squeeze through a tight passage or climb something, there’s usually a less intimidating alternative.
We even got a mini science lesson, as TJ demonstrated a process known as triboluminescence by rubbing two quartz crystals together, creating energy with the friction.
I enjoyed learning about the caves’ many stalagmites and stalactites, mineral formations that form from the floors and ceilings of a cave.
We separated from the Forsyth family at this point and TJ, Chloe and I headed to Main Cave, a short walk away.
A number of these aforementioned mineral mounds, as well as calcite formations, were destroyed in the park’s main cave, just after it was closed in the 1980s. It is a mystery how this person, who also hand painted bomb several parts of the cave, was able to get in, but I guess that’s not a big surprise – sometimes people stink.
There is still quite a bit of adventure to do, including climbing a small waterfall (it was dry when I visited), then venturing through a tunnel, all while following a few signs and directions from my guides.
There’s also a slide in the cave, which looks a bit intimidating, although it’s actually quite slow, depending on how frisky your clothes are.
TJ is a master at propelling himself on it, but of course he has practiced a lot.
My very first caving experience ended with a squeeze through a narrow gap. When I looked out the gap I was skeptical of my place, but my guides assured me that much taller people had managed to squeeze through, so it would be fine. It is also a good place for a photo shoot.
I would recommend a rain jacket or other waterproof clothing, as well as shoes with good grip and gloves, when visiting the caves. Dress in layers and wear clothes that you don’t mind getting a little dirty.
There’s a good reason why Trip Advisor named the Horne Lake Caves as the #1 thing to do in the Qualicum Beach area. It’s a fun way to push some of your limits in a safe environment.
Recently, longtime guide and operations manager Myles Fullmer took over, with his company Hidden Realm Adventures, as park manager and operator of the Horne Lake caves. He hopes to continue mapping and exploring the caves with the team.
There are also plans to eventually add visits to other local caves and even a canyoning excursion.
The tour I went on is called the Multi-Cave Experience and tickets are $79. Other options include the Riverbend Cave Explorer ($54) and the more difficult Achilles Challenge ($139) and Max Depth Adventure ($199). Hours and availability may vary depending on the time of year, so be sure to check online or call ahead (250-248-7829) for more information. You can also contact us via [email protected]
The cave system, home to over 1,000 caves, is under the jurisdiction of the provincial government, which incorporated the area into a provincial park in 1971.
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