The Loop in Pettyjohn Cave
When taking someone new to Pettyjohn Cave in north Georgia, I enjoy taking them on the Loop tour. It is great because the only part of the cave that the route crossed twice is about 250 feet of cave near the entrance. The round trip will take about four hours and involves tight squeezes, moderate climbs and some mud, but not the real mud. If the group really wants a challenge, add in the Flat Room and the Z-bends.
Side trips can also be made to the Over N Under Room or the Echo Room for an even longer trip. The Loop route consists of the Pancake Squeeze or Z-Bends, choose one or split the group up with half going through each. (Smaller cavers take the Z-Bends). Next is the Raccoon room, The Freeway, and then the Bridge Room. Leaving the Bridge Room, crawl into the Mason – Dixon Passage and onto the Volcano Room, then back to the Main Entrance Room.
As one slides down into the entrance of Pettyjohn, you cannot help but notice the smooth weathered rock slide that thousands of cavers have slid down before. If it is raining or wet muddy cavers exited just before your party does, the last few feet of the cave can be quite challenging and it will require most of your climbing skills just to exit the cave. A quick turn to the left and down then back to the right and the cave opens up into a huge cavern. Until your eyes adjust to the dark take care climbing down into the large Entrance Room. The floor may be slippery, so while your eyes adjust, try to take in the large formations on each side of the room.
The room is about 30 feet high and 20 feet wide. About 200 feet into the cave is the first junction room and a climb. Down through the floor in the first junction room is the route to the Signature Room, a good trip for first time cavers, with plenty of good sticky mud. The well-worn path up the rock to the left is difficult to climb, but easy to come down on the way out. There is a sloping rock in the center of the passage that will have a distinct crack for a foot step followed by another sloping rock with one small worn formation in the center that provides another foot step to the top of the climb. A few more steps and you are looking down a steep climb down with a large overhanging boulder on the right and the vertical wall on the left.
Slowly work your way down along the right side under the overhang to the bottom of the second junction room. This is where we start the Loop route and it is also the most traveled route to the large water fall at the lower level. There will be two holes at the bottom of the second junction room. The most obvious one is a drop that I would not recommend. After checking it out turn back away from the left wall and climb down through the breakdown, feet first, until you are under the hole. You can then see that there are no foot or hand holds to use if you came through the first hole.
Continue to climb down under the left wall of the Entrance Room, the cave will open up sloping steeply away from the Main Entrance Room. This is maybe the most confusing area on our tour. On a recent trip I spent almost an hour here trying to find the way on. I keep forgetting that there is another level to descend before climbing up again into a short water passage that leads to the Pancake Squeeze.
Climb down to the right over a steep ledge until you can go no deeper. Then turn back to the left and look up for hidden 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 more to the right. Through a low wide room called the Flat Room. Near the end of this room look for a vertical crack to squeeze into and follow it until it opens up. This is the Z-Bends, the taller you are the harder it will be to get through. For the group that went up over the ledge take the first side passage through water about 8 inches deep to the end. Duck under the ledge on the right and crawl into the Pancake Squeeze.
The Pancake Squeeze is tricky, try and look ahead for the highest part and stay sightly to the left. If the squeeze starts to get tight try moving more to the left. You may have to remove your hard hat in order to get through. There is plenty of room on each side, so crawling is not a problem. When you drop off the Pancake into standing room you should come into contact with the group that took the Z-Bends. Make sure that everyone is 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 feet first to the rock floor below. A better route is along the left side between a stalactite and the left wall, where you can hold on to the stalactite and lower yourself down to the floor. Continue along the right wall for another 50 feet and the left side will start to fall away. Stay high along the right side of the passage. If you climb down through a muddy hole on the left wall to the stream level, you will be on the tourist route to the water fall.
Above this hole high on the right is the Raccoon Room. This is a dangerous climb and there may be a hand line there, but do not put your trust in it as it has been there for years. Climb up and over the ledge to the right. Cross the Raccoon Room on the right side to the back of the room. Avoid the dead end crawl and stay to the right crawling over several mud walls until you reach a canyon junction. The large walking passage to the right will dead end after several turns.
At the junction there will be a nice stalactite with water dripping into a pool with rim stone dams around the edge of the pool. Follow the canyon to the left and climb up into The Freeway. The Freeway is easy stoop walking passage with mud banks along each side.
Cross through three rooms about 75 feet each until reaching the Bridge Room. The Bridge Room is a good place to take a break, hang your legs over the edge and listen for the stream about 80 feet below. You could climb down here and go to the water fall. By crossing over the bridge, which is a narrow muddy arch over the canyon, and continuing through a long trunk passage access can be had to the back sections of Pettyjohn Cave.
To continue the Loop, do not cross the bridge, but follow the narrow mud path along the right wall of the large canyon and stay at the same level near the ceiling. At the end of the Bridge Room look for a small hole near the ceiling, this is the tight crawl into the Mason – Dixon Passage. If you climb down at this point and duck under a ledge, you can follow the lower stream passage to the sump at the lowest part of the cave, 235 feet below the entrance.
Take off all your gear and shove it into the hole ahead of you, then squeeze through. After about 20 feet it will start to open and you can slide up into the passage on the left. This passage will start out about 4 foot high and then later open up into walking with one more tight crawl about half way through. After about 500 feet there will be a large junction room.
To the left is the Worm Tube leading to the Echo Room, the largest room in the cave. The Worm Tube is 200 feet of very tight passage and the climb up into the Echo Room is very tough. But it is well worth the effort to see the large room.
To the right in the junction room and over a rock ledge and through a horizontal crack is a small room on the way to the Volcano Room. One more horizontal crack and then climb out and onto the edge of the Volcano Room. The Volcano Room is shaped like a large funnel with steep sides and it leads down to the stream passage and the sump. For years the only way out was to climb up a vertical wall to a small window above the Volcano Room. We usually used a cable ladder when coming the other direction. I have free climbed the wall, but it is very exposed. In the late 80′s someone dug a bypass crawl under and around the vertical climb up to the window.
To enter this crawl from the Volcano Room side enter head first, pushing you gear. You work your way upwards twisting as you go. Try to stay on your back because you will have to bend up at the end and if you are not on your back you will not be able to bend up or turn over. If you are going the other way, you will want to go feet first and on your back. Going down hill is a little easer. When getting out of the crawl and waiting for the others, it is worth the view to go up to the window and look out over the Volcano Room. There is not much room in the small vertical passage at the window so before it fills with cavers, climb into the larger room above.
Climb up into another room with walking passage to the left and a climb up on the right. The left passage dead ends. The climb up along a narrow ledge, first right then back to the left and up into a large formation room. At the far side of this room and over a lip is another room going down.
Stay to the left and enter a crawl way before the room. The crawl way will have a very sharp turn to the right. The corner of the rock at the turn has been broken off to enable the extraction of a poor caver who fell from the window over the Volcano Room and broke a leg.
The easy crawl continues upward over a large breakdown to a short drop into a small room. When you are 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 must be only a few feet from this passage. But no visual contact could be made.
As you climb down into the small room, turn to the right and slide feet first into another small opening before going completely into the small room. Continue down this small vertical dry and dusty crack until it levels out. If you continue to the end of this passage, there is a hard climb up that long legs are needed to reach the foot holds.
Before you reach the end and shortly after it levels out there is a hole going up that leads to the passage above. The upper passage is about 4 foot high and wide. It will lead to the drop off at the end of the passage below.
Continue up the passage, through a small window and to what looks like a dead end. It is possible to climb up through the breakdown and into the Main Entrance Room above but it is very tight and vertical. At the apparent dead end, lay down on your side and slide under the wall, it is about 12 inches high, but opens up. Crawl over a rock and into another small junction room.
To the left is a passage to the east stream passage and Crowell Domes. Up and to the right is a 20 foot climb up into the Main Entrance Room. One direction is the Autograph Room and the other direction is the second junction room where we climbed down.
Climb down to the bottom of the room and then back up the left side. At the top stay to the right and slide down 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.