Hell Hole Cave: If You’re Claustrophobic, Don’t Try This One

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at www.caves.org or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Hell Hole, formerly known as IXL Cave, is a cave in Santa Cruz’s Wilder Ranch State Park. It is renowned for its claustrophobic tunnels and sheer drops to oblivion, many of which necessitate crawling on one’s belly or back.

The Hall of Faces, a clay area where visitors leave sculptures, is the main attraction for spelunkers who go to the freely accessible main cave known as Hell Hole. Visitors must first descend the 90-foot-high (27 meters) vertical known as “The Pit to reach the Hall of Faces.”

An image shows one of the faces at the "Hall of Faces" in Hell Hole Cave.

Periodically, barricades are set up in the caves to prohibit admission, but they are usually taken down again rather quickly. Location on coastal Highway 1, roughly 75 miles from San Francisco, makes this a convenient stopping point for anyone heading south from Frisco. Getting to the cave’s depths and back out will take a total of 2.5 hours, but if you want to see everything, expect it to take close to 8 hours.

The Cave’s Main Entrance

Even though it’s not far to get there, finding the entrance to Hell Hole Cave is challenging. Get out of the West Remote parking lot and head south on Heller Drive until you reach the traffic light at Empire Grade.

The route continues on the other side of Empire Grade, accessible via a gate. After a short distance, you’ll reach a fork in the road and a second gate on your right.

The path ought to drop to a watering hole. The route splits off to the left across the creek, and this split is the fainter of the two (south). The path should begin a gradual ascent towards a mossy rock outcrop. Among those boulders is the portal to the abyss.

Map to the Cave

Perhaps the most recently updated map is this one, created by “Binky the Wonder Dog” who can be contacted for more information through his email in the bottom left. An experienced caver, Binky created this map back in 1989, and frequently updated it over the years. If there’s any main expert on this cave, it might be him. It has been most recently updated in 2022.

A large map of Hell Hole Cave with some modern additions.

Make a mental note that YDS ratings are implemented. Although the YDS grading system is not made explicitly for caves, it is extensively used and therefore serves as the best approximation to a difficulty map that you have at present.

A Trip to Hell Hole Cave: What to Expect

The cave is barely ten feet deep; thus, sunlight can only illuminate the first few feet. After that point, you’d have to rely on your flashlight for guidance.

After making it past the narrow entrance, the cave’s interior began a steep decline. On average, the width and height of the tunnel are around 3 and 3 feet, respectively. The first challenge appears during the first five minutes of your entry.

An image shows the large pit of Hell Hole cave and an entrance to this area.

The ManTrap Chute

You’ll have to lay face down and slide your feet into the narrowing funnel ahead to squeeze through the opening, which was about 2 feet by 1.5 feet. A room measuring 10 by 20 feet (3.5 by 6.1 meters), known as the Party Room, is at the end of this chute. Among the few spots in the cave where you might be able to stand up, this is it.

You can reach The Attic through a narrow, steep staircase located on the opposite side of the Party Room. You won’t find anything interesting except some impressive cliff faces in the Attic. When leaving The Attic, the tunnel becomes noticeably smaller.

The Birthing Canal

You might remember the name “Birth Canal” from one of the more unpleasant caving stories on our site. But rest assured, this is not the same horror story with a tragic ending.

The Birthing Canal is the subsequent area after the ManTrap Chute. A slight bend, known as The Corkscrew, is the Birthing Canal’s narrowest section. An ecstatic way to spend a few minutes is by wriggling your way through The Corkscrew.

Two separate paths converge at the end of The Birthing Canal. The left branch leads to the spacious Main Hall, while the right branch leads to a 10-foot plunge with a stationary rope.

Another drop-off appears after some additional scurrying. This one goes down more than fifteen feet and had permanent ropes. To descend from here, cavers must rely only on the rope because of the lack of safe, natural supports on the walls.

Hall of Faces

You will need to do some more crawling before reaching the third roped drop-off. This cliff face is more than 20 feet (6.1m) in height, which would drop us right into the Hall of Faces. You’ll need to be careful not to fall through several enormous holes in the rock, but the natural grips make it considerably more manageable than the second drop-off.

In the Hall Of Faces, you’ll find a small, dark room that appears to be constructed entirely of damp mud. Large and small mud sculptures are sculpted and plastered to the walls. Even the register is completely drenched in water.

An image shows several sculptures that lie in the Hall of Faces of Hell Hole Cave in Santa Cruz.

Chickenhead Rock Formation

You can reverse your descent from the third drop-off and retrace your steps to the second drop-off to reach an alternative route. You’ll see more ropes above when the second drop-off concludes, and then you’ll climb the combined 40 feet to the summit of a rock formation called the Chickenhead.

It gets a little more spacious after the Chickenhead, but eventually, you run into a dead end and have to crawl up a slippery pit with no grips.

Once you pass the Chickenhead, the cave will partially open up, but you’ll be right back where you started! Hell Hole Cave tends to do this a bit.

After looking at it, you might see a small, thin tunnel directly under the Chickenhead; if so, you’ll enter it and travel for about 15 minutes before reaching your next objective. The bottom of the initial dip.

You can then go back through the Birthing Canal the way you came. The Corkscrew, a far more difficult obstacle, may stand out. It’s not unusual to get flat on your back and fit through a bit of opening.


If you get lost trying to find the Party Room, you could waste a lot of time. Some experienced this, climbing a long corridor to find that it ends in a dead end and descending to the ground level. Several glaring green arrows indicate that you should keep to the left to find your path. After waiting for around 15 minutes, you will emerge from the cave.


Hell Hole is a dangerous area. There’s steep cliffs and uneven rocks to begin with, but running water always complicates things.

From what I have read, there haven’t been any serious injuries or deaths inside the cave itself. However, at least one person has lost their life in the nearby area, due to a steep fall about 15 years ago. 16 year-old Kelly Cortesi had been climbing up one of the walls along one of the paths. It’s believed that because she had crossed the stream earlier, she may have underestimated the area and slipped, leading to her fatal injuries.

Knowing this, it’s still a place that lots of adventurous types like to explore in California. Just like with any cave, you don’t want to neglect the danger and feel too confident about the natural rocks and land around you. Wear a good quality caving helmet, some durable caving shoes, and above all, go with an experienced group! Stay safe out there.

For those who want a full experience of the way down and back up, check this video out:

What? You want more?

Curious to read more about what other cavers and would-be cavers had to say about Hell Hole Cave? We’ve added an even more detailed post about various personal accounts of this tricky cavern.

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