El Capitan Cave is the longest mapped cave in Alaska. Cavers mapped over two miles of passage from the main entrance. The only way to see this magnificent cave is during the summer months, when visitors can take advantage of a no cost guided tour given by Forest Service employees. A locked gate guards the cave's entrance to protect against vandalism and possible damage from otherwise well-meaning individuals, as well as to keep inexperienced cavers safe from its hazards. The tour meets near the parking lot and outhouses and leads visitors on a somewhat strenuous 1,100 foot (335 m) hike up a long, steep stairway to an elevation of 250 feet and a platform at the mouth of the cave. The tour then proceeds inside the cave for approximately 500 feet and includes information about cave (karst) geology and archeological discoveries. The tour lasts approximately 2 hours. To reserve a cave tour call the Thorne Bay Ranger District at (907) 828-3304 at least 2 days in advance. Tour groups are limited in size to six people. Babies in packs or carriers are not allowed, nor are children under seven years of age. Precautions: The trail to the cave is strenuous and steep, with 367 stairs. There are no trails or lighting in the cave. Hazards include low ceilings, pits, and slippery, uneven ground. Footing is very uneven and only those with very sure footing and good agility should attempt the tour. What to bring: At least one flashlight per person, extra batteries, and sturdy footwear. Hard hats are required and are provided by the Forest Service at the site. Wear warm clothing as the cave temperature is a constant 40 degrees. Wet and muddy conditions are the norm.
At a Glance
Thursday - Sunday, tours at 9am, Noon, and 2:30pm. No walk-in tours conducted after noon on Sundays; walk-in tours available at Cave Guide's discretion during other normal cave tour times.
Reserve a tour by calling the Thorne Bay Ranger District at (907) 828-3304.
Naukati, Whale Pass
Vault Toilet (2)
El Capitan Cave can be reached by vehicle, boat, or plane. By road, follow Forest Service Road 20 to Forest Service Road 15 and take a left for about a mile (1.6 km) to the cave. Watch for signs. From both Thorne Bay and Craig is an estimated 3-hour drive. There is a Forest Service dock for use by boats and planes, but they should not be left unattended.
Accessibility: General Notes:
Road construction on Forest highway 43 may cause delays, however, from Carig and Thorne Bay, it is generally a 2 hour journey to the interpretive site.
From the standpoint of geology and prehistoric interest, the most compelling cave on Prince of Wales island is El Capitan Cave. With more than 13,000 feet of passageways, it is the largest known cave in Alaska and is one of the longest mapped caves in the Americas. Cave tours are provided FREE to the public from approximately Memorial Day to Labor Day. Tours are limited to six visitors and can be reserved by calling (907) 828-3304. Other access to the cave is restricted, except through Special Use Permit, to protect natural and cultural resources. Recent archeological discoveries in El Cap Cave, as the cave is called locally, have stimulated tremendous scientific interest. According to Jim Baichtal, Forest Geologist, in the early 1990s, black bear skeletons were excavated in a newly discovered passage and found to be almost 12,300 years old. These findings suggest that the El Capitan valley was ice-free by at least 12,300 years ago. It was previously believed that ice covered the land to the continent's margin with only peaks higher than 3,000 feet exposed. Discoveries in the caves have spawned subsequent extensive research into the prehistory and paleoecology of southern Southeast Alaska.
Join the Tongass National Forest Interpretive Guides on a spelunking tour of El Capitan Cave. Climb 370 stairs through the temperate rainforest to the cave opening. Then enter the world of underground karst, and listen as the interpretive guides explain the processes that formed the 2-miles of spongework passages within El Capitan Cave.
Intermediate to Difficult
At the foot of the steep stairway to El Capitan Cave, a picnic table is provided for those waiting for tours. Outhouses are also available.
No. of Sites
Boating - Non-Motorized
Canoeing or kayaking in El Capitan Passage offers excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing, fishing, crabbing, and paddling.
Boating - Motorized
Motorized Boating: a primitive small boat launch is accessible about 1 mi from the interpretive site at the old logging landing, which is signed and marked. Small boats up to about 16’ can launch from the gravel ramp into El Capitan passage and from there, access Dry Pass, Shakan Strait, Shipley Bay and other areas on the Northwest corner of the island.