Fantastic Pit

Fantastic Pit of Ellison’s Cave for the Cover of National Geographic Magazine

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Fantastic Pit is the deepest free fall pit in the United States. It is 586 feet deep.

I photographed Fantastic Pit for National Geographic Magazine during a story that I produced on TAG, the region in the United States that Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia touch. The area is known to cavers as TAG. It is my home and a region with more than 15,000 caves. Cavers are discovering and exploring new ones constantly (TAG story here).

The idea behind the story was that you don’t have to travel across the world to explore, sometimes you can do it in your own backyard. In the proposal I said -truthfully- “people are leaving suburban Atlanta on Friday afternoon after work, driving less than 2 hours, finding and mapping caves that have never been seen by human beings before and are home for dinner Sunday night.”

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A single frame of John Benson in Fantastic Pit that was blended into the the overall photograph.

To photograph the cave I entered with my friend John Benson. We made our way through the cave and to the main drop where we rigged a 600 foot rope. I descended first and once on the bottom set up a camera looking back up the pit. I had a colleague shine a very bright light down the top of the pit so I could begin to see where the camera was pointed.

On the way down the rope I placed clothes pins every 100 feet or so to mark distances. John rappelled down to the first marker. I opened the digital camera and he fired a flash. I closed the camera and John descended to the next position. We continued that process until he arrived at the bottom then repeated it while he climbed the rope back out.

All in all it was an exhausting 12 hour day in the cave.

Back in the office I assembled 6 of the photographs into one blended composition that shows the entire depth of Fantastic Pit.

I was thrilled at how the image came out and doubly excited to have it on the cover of the July 2023 National Geographic Magazine. In the 30 years I have been shooting for National Geographic this is my first US cover!

-Stephen Alvarez

January 2024


The July 2023 of National Geographic Magazine