Vancouver Island is home to some of Canada’s longest and deepest cave systems. Horne Lake Caves is a provincial park dedicated to protecting and sharing the amazing underground world. This summer, we finally had the chance to explore the caves for ourselves. We were provided with a guide, helmets and headlamps for our taste of the caves here.
This review is entirely voluntary; I’ve received no compensation and all opinions expressed are my own.
Getting to Horne Lake Caves
Horne Lake Caves is located about an hour north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. We caught the ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo and then drove up Highway 19 to the provincial park. There were plenty of signs along the highway, making it easy to find out turn-off for Horne Lake and Horne Lake Caves.
The last portion of the road is a narrow, windy, gravel road that was well maintained. It curves around Horne Lake, which has numerous vacation homes and a small campground. Just past the campground, you’ve reached Horne Lake Caves. There’s a small parking lot, outhouses, and the visitor centre, where you can learn more about the caves and meet your guide for the tour.
I gave us lots of time to get there, so we had time to use the outhouses when we arrived, look at the map, and read about the caves. Inside the visitor centre, the kids watched a video about the different parts of the caves. There was also a table with a microscope and magnifying glass and some rocks for the kids to check out.
Learning about Horne Lake Caves
Fifteen minutes before our tour started, we took the short trail through the forest to the start of the hike. This trail took us through a gate where we scrubbed our feet to prevent the spread of white nose fungus to the bats in the cave. Then we went over a suspension bridge and arrived at the meeting point.
Here, we donned our helmets and headlights. You can also rent red coveralls here for use during your tour, but I made sure we were all wearing long pants, sturdy shoes, and our rain coats. We met our guide, TJ, and introduced ourselves. There were two other people on our tour as well.
From there, we started the short hike up to the caves. As we went, TJ talked about the local history and cave facts. We stopped at a few points along the trail to learn more about limestone rocks, cave formation, and the first settlers who arrived here. I joked this was a field trip and there’d be a quiz at the end of the tour.
We also learned that the Chipmunk Caves we explored last fall likely aren’t real caves. According to official caving rules, a real cave must be large enough for a 6′ tall adult to fit into, must be naturally formed, and must have one area of absolute darkness. Chipmunk Caves meets the first two requirements but doesn’t meet the last one (unless there was another area of the caves we didn’t explore).
Finally, we reached the cave entrance, which was surprisingly well hidden. We were doing the Riverbend Cave Tour (the shortest, easiest tour) and TJ explained that this is where the river turned and went underground. We climbed down into the dry riverbed and then followed that riverbed into the rocks.
Horne Lake Caves became a provincial park in 1971. At that time, a gate was added to the cave entrance to protect the entire cave system. Despite that, soon after the gate was added, someone broke the lock and vandalized the cave. There is still evidence of that vandalism over forty years later.
The change from the hot, summer afternoon outside the cave to the damp, coolness inside the cave was striking. Our group of eight cavers all had our headlamps on, so the cave was fairly well lit. TJ pointed out the best ways to climb down into the cave safely, and also pointed out formations of calcite that we were to avoid, as it is very fragile.
Our tour went only 80 meters into the cave. It felt entirely too short to me—a tiny taste of the amazing wonders that awaited us. TJ was a wealth of knowledge about the cave itself, the unique rock formations there, and more. We stopped several times just to look around us as he pointed out cave straws, calcite formations, “cave bacon,” water erosion, other tunnels, and more.
At our turn-around point, we all sat down and then turned off our headlights to experience “absolute darkness.” Unfortunately, Joey really did not like absolute darkness and refused to leave his headlamp off for longer than a minute. TJ quickly discussed various facts about dark caves and then we turned around and climbed back up to the cave entrance.
Book Your Own Underground Cave Tour
If you are planning a vacation on Vancouver Island, I highly recommend taking the time to visit Horne Lake Caves. We thoroughly enjoyed our brief experience there and would love to return for one of the longer caving tours.
Kids need to be ages 5+ to do any of the cave tours (which is one of the reasons we haven’t done this before—Joey just met the minimum age this year). There are two medium-length cave tours that are suitable for kids ages 8+ and then two longer tours with a minimum age of 13.
This was my kids’ first experience with caves (other than the very shallow Chipmunk Caves), so it was good to find out how they reacted to being underground before we tried anything longer and harder. As we do a lot of hiking as a family, they were fine with the walk to the cave and with navigating their way around the rocky trail inside the cave. The girls all thoroughly enjoyed the tour and Joey also did great except for being in complete darkness.
To learn more about Horne Lake Caves and book your own tour, drop by the website.
Have you ever gone caving before? What did you think of the experience?