Exploring the wild, magical Horne Lake Caves of Vancouver Island, BC

Horne Lake 2Nestled at the foot of the spectacular limestone cliffs of Mt. Mark, with willows and grasses edging the riparian areas while elsewhere spruce, cedars, pines, and arbutus–peeling their unique layers of red and green bark– offer shelter to deer, waterfowl, cottages, and campers, Horne Lake is an idyllic spot.  It offers picnics, kayaking, swimming, camping, and hiking through lovely forested trails.

trail route enroute
The tour starts with a lovely hike up several switchbacks, to reach the cave

But what is truly special about this regional park is the plethora of wild caves to crawl and scramble around in, all rife with glittering limestone stalactites, crystals, and cave dew.limestone gloryLocated approximately 30 minutes north of Qualicum Beach airport, the caves of Horne Lake are largely undeveloped.  There is no lighting in their dank depths and the floors are an uneven tumble of damp, often loose, rock.  leaving the caveOverhangs wait to decapitate the unwary and strictures remind one of one’s perhaps-too-heroic girth.  Spelunking helmets with lights are crucial, as is good footwear, a sense of wonder and adventure, and warm clothes (the caves are a constant nippy 8 degrees Celsius).

first glimpse of cave we'll descend intojpg
Yes, this is the entrance, and yes, that’s what you descend into!

David and I opted to take the `easiest’ tour on offer, the 2 hour Riverbend Explorer.  The word `easy’ is used very loosely.

the sacrificial stonejpg
The Sacrificial Stone, named thus because it is the only limestone formation in the cave that visitors can touch

Throughout the fantastic tour, we were scrabbling about like drunken spiders, sliding down on our bums, and often walking like half-blinded gibbons as we followed our guide through the crystal formations of the cave.  calcium aliens It was challenging and magical and–I stress this–the easiest cave tour available.  Signs make it clear that self-guided exploration is permitted in two of the caves, but that said caves are much more rugged than the 1, 2, and 3 hour guided tours.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to attempt it without a guide!

calcium straws
Cave Straws

Much more adventurous tours are also offered, such hair-raising excursions as rappelling down a seven story waterfall inside a cave; scampering around a subterranean playground of ladders, swooshing down Canada’s only in-cave slide, and belly-crawling through squeezy-tight underground rock formations.

little limestone buddha
Baby Buddha overlooking a tiny pool, in the caves

For every tour, reservations are highly recommended http://www.hornelake.com (read: crucial.  The tours sell out each and every day because they’re limited to small groups for each tour).

the limestone cowboy
Our tour guide, with “The Limestone Cowboy”, en-route to our spelunking adventure

To get here from downtown Vancouver, a ferry ride to Nanaimo is necessary, and then a 1.3 hour drive (or ferry to Victoria and 2.5 hour drive) click here for BC Ferries Schedules   Or, fly into Qualicum Beach via KD Air    click here for KD Air schedule   or Orca Airclick here for Orca Air Schedules and rent a car from Parksville Budget Rent-A-Car.

Suspension bridge
Suspension bridge at the beginning (and end) of your journey

Note: Parksville Budget Rent-A-Car needs reservations in advance and we strongly recommend you call them at least 30 minutes before your expected arrival at the airport, so that you’re not waiting 1 hour for them (they move on `Island Time’).

squeeze entrance
Yes, the crack to the right is what you go down (the crack to the left is what you come up, at the end of it all!)

Here’s a wonderful video of our mini-adventure: Horne Lake Caves video.

If you’re a private pilot, consider flying in for this fantastic spelunking adventure.  Here’s how we did it:

  • 11am: We landed at Qualicum Beach airport (CAT4  traffic 122.80)
  • 12noon: Our Budget-Rent-A-Car arrived at CAT4 (if you’re a Budget Fast Track member, arrange with them to leave the car for you at the airport and the keys with Orca air.  If you’re not a member, they’ll pick you up and take you into town to fill out all the paperwork, but be forewarned: this adds another hour to your trip).
  • Noon to 12:40pm: We drove along Highway 19 (Inland Hwy–speed limit 120km which is great) to exit #75, drove 20 minutes along a winding dirt/gravel forestry road to the clearly marked  Visitor’s Centre (not to be confused with the Regional Park, which is 1 km before the Visitor’s Centre).
  • 1:00pm: We took the memorable tour, $42per person, helmets and headlights included.
  • 3pm: After the end of the tour, we popped down the beautiful lake for photos.
  • 4:40pm: back at CAT4, after returning the car to Parksville (they gave a shuttle ride to the airport).
  • Cost of car: $34/day for a compact vehicle (4wheeldrive isn’t necessary for the trip) and an additional $44 if you buy insurance off of them.  We put in about $9 of gas to top up the car tank upon return.

 

For more info on Qualicum airport, click here

 

 

 

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