When I bring a new person to Pettyjohn Cave in northern Georgia, I like to take them on the Loop tour. It’s nice because the only part of the cave that the trail crossed twice is about 250 feet of cave near the entrance. The long journey will take about four hours and will involve tight climbs, moderate climbs and some mud, but not real mud. If the group really wants a challenge, add in the Flat Camera and the Z-curves. Side trips can also be made to Over ‘N Under Room or the Echo Room for an even longer trip.
The Loop path consists of the Pancake Squeeze or Z-Bends, choose one or divide the group with half through each. (Smaller caves take the Z Curves). Next up is the Raccoon Room, The Highway, and then the Camera Bridge. Leaving the Bridge Room, climb into the Mason – Dixon Pass and into the Volcano Room, then back to the Main Entrance Room.
As one flashes into Pettyjohn’s entrance, one can’t help but notice the smooth, weathered rock slide that thousands of speleologists have slipped before. If it rains or you get muddy cavers just before your party, the last few meters of the cave can be quite challenging and will require most of your climbing skills just to get out of the cave. A quick turn to the left and down then back to the right and the cave opens into a huge cave. Until your eyes adjust to the darkness make sure to step down into the large Entrance Hall. The floor can be slippery, so as long as your eyes are adjusting, try to take in the large shapes from either side of the room. The room is about 30 meters high and 20 meters wide. About 200 meters into the cave is the first junction room and a hall.
Across the floor in the first junction room is the path to the Signature Room, a good ride for first time cavers, with plenty of well-applied mud. The well-worn path in the rock on the left is difficult to climb, but easy to descend to the exit. There is a sloping rock in the center of the passage that will have a distinct crevice for one foot step followed by another sloping rock with a small worn formation in the center that provides another foot step to the top of the room. A few more steps and you are looking down a steep downhill slope with a large projecting mass on the right and the vertical wall on the left.
Slowly lower yourself along the right side below the overhang to the bottom of the second junction room. This is where we start the Loop route and it is also the longest route to the large waterfall at the lower level. There will be two holes in the bottom of the second junction room. The most obvious is a drop that I don’t want to recommend. After checking, move away from the left wall and go down for the partition, feet first, until you are under the hole. You can then see that there are no feet or hands to hold on to if you are coming for the first time.
Continuing to descend under the left wall of the Entrance Hall, the cave will open sloping away from the Main Entrance Hall. This is perhaps the most confusing area of our tour. On a recent trip I spent almost an hour here trying to find my way. I always forgot that there is another level to fall down before climbing back into a short passage of water that leads to the Pancake Squeeze. Climb to the right on a steep ledge until you can go no deeper. Then turn left and look for a flat passage over a small ledge. If the group chooses to take the Z-Bends, then stay low and continue in the same general direction but further to the right. Through a large low room called the Flat Room. Near the end of this room look for a vertical crack to squeeze and follow until it opens. This is the Z-Bends, the higher the site the harder it will be to get through.
For the group that climbed on the frame take the first side passage through the water to about 8 inches deep until the end. Duck under the ledge on the right and crawl into the Pancake Squeeze. The Squeeze Pancake is complicated, try to look forward to the top and stay on the left. If the squeeze starts to tighten try moving it further to the left. You may have to take off your hat to go through it. There is a lot of space on each side, so stretching is not a problem. When you leave the Pancake and are in a permanent room you should get in touch with the group that picked up the Z-Bends. Make sure everyone gets back together before continuing.
The next challenge will be a short drop of about 6 feet. If you are tall, you can just slide over your feet first to the rock floor below. A better path is along the left side between a stalactite and the left wall, where you can hold the stalactite and lower yourself to the floor. Continue along the right wall for another 50 feet and the left side will begin to fall. Stand high along the right side of the passage. If you descend through a muddy hole on the left wall to the level of the stream, you will be on the tourist route to the waterfall. Above this forum at the top right is the Raccoon Room. This is a dangerous climb and there may be a line of hand here, but don’t put your trust in it as it has been for years. Climb up and over the ledge to the right.
Cross the Raccoon Room to the right side at the bottom of the room. Avoid the no-slip lane and stay to the right by crawling over several mud walls until you reach a canyon junction. The great walkway to the right will be endless after several turns. At the crossroads there will be a beautiful pool with water dripping into a pool with stone dams around the edge of the pool. Follow the canyon to the left and take the Highway. The highway is an easily sloping walkway with long mud banks on each side. Cross three rooms about 75 feet each until you reach the Camera Bridge.
The Camera Bridge is a good place to take a break, hang your legs above the board and listen to the flow about 80 feet below. You can go up there and go to the waterfall. Crossing the bridge, which is a narrow muddy arch above the canyon, and continuing for a long trunk passage you can access the rear sections of the Pettyjohn Cave. To continue the Loop, do not cross the bridge, but follow the narrow mud path along the right wall of the grand canyon and stand at the same level near the soffit.
At the end of the Bridge Room look for a small hole near the soffit, this is the narrow strip in the Mason – Dixon Pass. If you descend at this point and duck under a frame, you can follow the passage of the lower stream to the well at the lower part of the cave, 235 feet below the entrance. Take out all your tools and push them into the hole in front of you, then pass them. After about 20 feet, it will start to open and you can slip into the passage on the left. This passage will start at about 4 feet high and then open on foot with a narrower strip about half way.
After about 500 feet there will be a large junction room. To the left is the Worm Tube that leads to the Echo Room, the largest room in the cave. The Worm Tube is 200 feet of very narrow passage and the climb into the Echo Room is very hard. But it’s worth the effort to see the big room. To the right in the junction room and above a rock frame and through a horizontal crack there is a small room on the way to the Volcano Room. Another horizontal crack and then climb up and onto the edge of the Volcano Room.
The Volcano Room has the shape of a large funnel with steep sides and leads up to the passage of the stream and the well. For years the only way out was to climb a vertical wall up to a small window above the Volcano Room. We usually used a cable ladder when we headed in the other direction. I freely climbed the wall, but it is very exposed. In the late ’80s someone dug a strip bypass down and around the vertical ladder all the way to the window. To enter this strip from the side of the Volcano Room enter head first, pushing the march. Work your way through the twists and turns as you go. Try to stay on your shoulders because you will have to bend at the end and if you are not on your shoulders you will not be able to bend or turn. If you are going for the next trip, you will want to go on foot before and on your back. Going down the hill is a little easier.
When you get out of the banner and wait for the others, it’s worth a visit to climb to the window and look out over the Volcano Room. There isn’t much space in the small vertical passage at the window so before it fills up it climbs into the larger room above. Climb into another room with walkway on the left and an ascent on the right. The left passage goes on endlessly. The climb along a narrow frame, first to the right then back to the left and into a large training room. On the far side of this room and above a lip is another room that descends. Stand to the left and crawl in front of the room. The scan mode will take a very strong right turn. The corner of the rock at the turn was broken to allow the extraction of a poor cave that fell from the window above the Volcano Room and broke a leg.
The easy scan continues upwards on a large distribution for a brief drop in a small room. When you’re in this passage, you can talk to anyone who may be in the Autograph Room above. If they are at the bottom of the Autograph Room, they should be only a few meters away from this passage. But no eye contact could be made. As you descend into the small room, turn right and drag your feet first into another small opening before going completely into the small room. Continue through this small dry, dusty vertical crack until level.
If you continue until the end of this step, there is a hard climb that long legs are necessary to reach the soles of your feet. Before reaching the end and shortly after the level, there is a climbing hole that leads to the passage above. The upper passage is about 4 feet high and wide. It will lead to the fall at the end of the passage below. Continue the passage, through a small window and into what appears to be a dead end. It is possible to climb through the partition and into the main entrance hall above, but it is very narrow and vertical. On the apparent dead end, stretch out to your side and slide under the wall, it’s about 12 inches high, but it opens up. Drag on a rock and into another small junction room.
To the left is a passageway to the east flow passage and Crowell Domes. Upstairs and to the right is a 20-foot staircase into the main entrance hall. One direction is the Autograph Room and the other direction is the second junction room where we climbed. Climb up to the bottom of the room and then back to the left side. At the top stand on the right and drag along the right wall into the first junction room. From here it is an easy walk to the entrance and a slippery climb out of the cave.