St. Beatus vs the Dragon

After several weeks of pretty spectacular sunny weather in our little Swiss valley, we knew our luck couldn’t hold out.  But we were still bummed when the sun fled with the arrival of our weekend, bearing gloomy gray skies and rain.  It was our roommate, Gintare’s, birthday weekend, and her husband had flown in from Lithuania to spend a day or two exploring Switzerland before heading off to Italy.  Despite the inclement weather, we wanted to do something active, something outdoors.  Where does one go hiking when the weather heads south?  Also “south” – underground to the cave of St. Beatus Höhlen.

First picking up Ana, a friend of Gintare’s, the five of us headed to St. Beatus just over an hour by car from Fribourg.  Passing through the picturesque little village of Thun, we wound our way slowly along the narrow, twisting highway bordering Thunersee (Thun Lake).

Our first glimpse of the cave complex was stunning.  Standing near the parking area at the lake’s edge, we angled our gaze up, up, and up to a steep mountainside.  Cascades of water festooned the slopes in waterfalls spilling from high above, marking the cave entrance.

Waterfalls spilling from the cave of St. Beatus
Cascades spill from the cave of St. Beatus high up on the mountainside above Thun Lake.

As we climbed the short trail up the hill, zigzagging with several switchbacks back and forth across the falls, the views grew ever more spectacular.

Rytis, Gintare, and Ana pose with the falls pounding behind them.

We passed a mischievous, grinning woodland gnome, then rounded one final turn that brought us adjacent to the cave entrance.

A mischievous, grinning woodland gnome greets visitors along the trail.

Just inches from where our feet were safely planted on the trail, the top of the falls roared out from the mountain behind us, spilling down the mossy slopes to the lake far below.

Waterfalls tumble beneath walkways on the trail and spill down the hill into Thun Lake below.

By the time we reached the top of the falls, the gray skies had given way to streaks of slightly more friendly white clouds and pockets of blue sky.  We poked around the cave entrance and then sat in the warm sun, soaking in the view over a plate of piping hot french fries and a “dark” Swiss beer that tasted suspiciously like Bud Light.  Our hungry bellies appeased, we finally ventured into the cavern’s black, gaping maw.

View of Thun Lake from the restaurant at the cave entrance of St. Beatus

The cave is named for Beatus, a saint of unknown origin who likely hailed from England, Ireland, or Scotland and traveled to Helvetia (Switzerland) to spread the gospel of Christianity in the early ADs. Local legends describe a fearsome, fire-breathing dragon that lived in the cave when St. Beatus arrived on the mountain.  Determined to defeat Ponzo, the affably named but evil dragon, St. Beatus raised his Holy Cross before the great beast inside the cave.  Vanquished, the fiery dragon flung himself into the lake in a rage, making it boil and seethe.  St. Beatus settled in his new mountain home, where he remained until death finally claimed him in his 90s – or at age 112 as one legend claims.

A gate at St. Beatus shows the saint defeating Ponzo the Dragon.
Ponzo the Dragon inside St. Beatus Cave
Ponzo the Dragon guards the cave entrance.
The cross pays homage to St. Beatus, whose remains have since been removed from this site.

As the light faded behind us, I expected the sound of the roaring water to fade as well.  We’ve hiked in caves before that offered tantalizing glimpses of subterranean streams, only to have them quickly disappear back into the darkness, leaving us with only the quiet drip, drip, drip of water droplets on the ceiling.  St. Beatus proved to be an entirely more spectacular beast with regards to subterranean water!

Quiet along this particular stretch, a subterranean stream flows beneath the trail.

Our entire hike never deviated far from the roar of water rushing near us between layers of rock and the crash of underground waterfalls.  At times, the sound of the water was so loud we had to shout to be heard above the racket.

This is one of many underground waterfalls inside St. Beatus Cave.

After being accompanied by the incessant pounding of water for quite some time, I was relieved when we were able to find reprieve in a quiet chamber away from the din.  I stood mesmerized by a limpid black pool perfectly mirroring the surrounding stalagmites without a single whisper of wind to break the stillness.

Not a breath of wind mars the lake surface in Castle Grotto at St. Beatus-Höhlen.

Entering a much larger chamber with an immense lake stretching into the shadows, we passed the roughly 40,000 year old Koh-i-Noor stalagmite.  Meaning “Mountain of Light”, the stalagmite is said to be named after the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was once the largest diamond in the world and is currently part of the British Crown Jewels.

The Koh-i-Noor stalagmite is perched above an underground lake in St. Beatus Cave.

Though the cave system is navigable for 12 kilometers, only the first kilometer is open to the public.  As we neared what would be for us the end of the trail, we entered a huge cavern with a giant waterfall cascading through a fissure in the rock.  Spaghetti stalactites dripped from the ceiling.  Two smaller waterfalls cascaded from an adjacent wall into a separate basin with no visible exit.

Inside the cave, the crash of water is deafening from so many waterfalls.

Continuing in a series of stairs past the falls and through the grotto to a vantage high above the ground, the trail allowed us superb views of the falls and formations.  Wending its way a short distance further, it abruptly ended in yet another spectacular cavern with huge sheets of flowstone, fascinating drapery, and impossibly thin stalagmites as tall as a person.

Stalagmites taller than any person jut from the cavern walls above us.
Sheets of orange, yellow, and green flowstone ooze from the cave walls.
The black blotches are silex nodules made of flint that has solidified on the ceiling.

We turned and headed back, taking nearly as much time on our return journey to admire the formations from a new angle.

Travis stares in fascination at the flowstone formations along the trail.

Briefly stopping to appreciate the columns and stalagmites reflected in another serene pool at Captain’s Grotto, we finally arrived at the cave exit very near where we had started.

Captain's Grotto, St Beatus-Höhlen, Switzerland
Captain’s Grotto, St Beatus-Höhlen, Switzerland

Blinking against the bright light of day, we merrily waved goodbye to Ponzo the Dragon, leaving him to stand guard over his cave as we headed back down the trail.


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PIN, Hiking the Caves of St. Beatus

Know Before You Go
  • An adult ticket for 2015 is 18 CHF.
  • Dogs are allowed in the cave for an additional 10 CHF.
  • The cave is generally open from March through October, daily from 0930 to 1700.  The cave museum on site is open daily from 1130 to 1730.
  • Parking is free on site in two different lots (see map below)
  • We recommend visiting St. Beatus in the spring when meltwater makes the water features at the cave particularly stunning.
  • How can you easily remember the difference between a stalagmite and stalactite?  Someone once told me that a stalactite grows down from the ceiling so it has to hold on “tite”, and a stalagmite grows from the ground, so you “mite” sit on it.
  • Despite their old age and tough appearance, cave formations can be quite fragile.  Touching them can leave an oily residue from your skin, preventing minerals from continuing to build up, essentially stopping the growth of cave structures.  Look but don’t touch!
  • Official website for St. Beatus-Höhlen (EN, FR, DE)
  • If you’re planning a visit, the following map of the complex may be useful.
Map of St. Beatus, Switzerland
Map of St. Beatus Cave, Switzerland
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