Free guided tours are offered during summer months to see and experience this magnificent cave. The cave site includes bathrooms, a picnic site, a dock for boaters or float plane arrivals, and a guide station where tour participants receive safety gear and begin their tour.
From the standpoint of geology and prehistoric interest, the most compelling cave on Prince of Wales island is El Capitan. 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.
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.
The cave site may be reached by vehicle, boat, or plane. By road, watch for signs to El Capitan Cave and follow Forest Road 20 to Forest Road 15 and take a left; follow this for a about a mile to the cave parking area. From Thorne Bay, it's an estimated three-hour drive. There is a Forest Service dock for use by boats and planes, but boats and/or planes cannot be left unattended.
The entrance is accessed by a somewhat strenuous 1,100-foot hike up a steep 367-step stairway to an elevation of 250 feet and a platform at the mouth of the cave. About 200 feet inside the cave a steel gate (with bat access) has been installed to prevent vandalism and inadvertent damage to cave features. Guided cave tours beyond the gate are available in summer months by reservation (contact Thorne Bay Ranger District 907-828-3304).