Underground hiking — cave tours

Underground hiking — cave tours

Many of the caves in national parks offer very challenging tours. If you don’t fit through a sample opening — like a segment of a small culvert — you can’t do the tour because you’ll get stuck. You have to be willing to crawl and contort yourself to wiggle through small spaces. You can do some of these challenging tours with only a candle to light the way, much like the first cave explorers used.

I don’t do those tours.

There are plenty of other options, where I get to see beautiful underground formations while strolling on a lighted, fairly level path, with a very knowledgeable ranger tour guide. Often, the most challenging part is the number of stair steps involved. Some caves, like Wind Cave and Jewel Cave in South Dakota, have elevators to minimize some of the stair steps. (I did have to wait three days to do a tour at Wind Cave because the elevators were down, but it was worth the wait.)

My advice: don’t be intimidated by the idea of a cave tour. Just choose a tour that fits your abilities and interests.

Kartchner Caverns State Park, Arizona

This is probably the prettiest cave tour I’ve done. Unfortunately, I have no photos because the park only allows photos on a handful of days each year, and I didn’t happen to be there on one of those days. The stalagmites and stalactites are amazing!

These caves were discovered relatively recently (1968 or thereabouts), and were protected before they were damaged, vandalized or marred with graffiti. Of course, they have been altered to add concrete walkways, lighting and airlocks, but all changes seem to have been made with the idea of protecting the caves. The Arizona State Parks system has done a remarkable job.

I managed to do two cave tours in one day and had some time for hiking the above-ground trails at the park. It’s a very nice place to spend a day.

The park is located about an hour’s drive south east of Tucson. If you happen to be in Tucson on a hot day, the cave tours are a cool option. I was there on an unusual cool, rainy day — about the same temperature out on the trails as in the caves. Both, very pleasant.

Lehman Caves at Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Great Basin is one of the least visited national parks. It’s kind of understandable. You really have to want to go to this park because it’s not on the way to any place else. It’s fairly isolated in northeast Nevada.

Rock formation at Great Basin
This is the ceiling in Lehman Caves — everything is interesting

But, it’s worth the hundreds of miles of driving to get there. The park itself is very diverse. Part is a desert. But, there are mountains and glaciers. It’s an excellent hiking park, with lots of interesting trails. And, there’s Lehman Caves. (Not sure why it’s plural, since it seems to be one cave.) The formations are elaborate and colorful.

Even though the park is remote, it’s a good idea to make a reservation for a cave tour. When I was there, the tours sold out early in the day, which is the case for most of the National Park cave tours. So, even if you get there early in the morning and get a ticket for a tour, the tour might not start until late afternoon. I like having a plan, so I tend to make reservations when possible.

The photo at the top of this post is from Lehman Caves.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

In all of the cave tours I’ve done, there are hundreds of miles of caves that have been explored and mapped. In each park, the rangers predict that there are also hundreds of miles of caves that have not yet been explored or mapped. The cave tours open to the public represent a tiny fraction of the cave system, with each tour usually being a couple miles or less.

This is certainly true of Mammoth Cave. It lives up to its name and is huge — one of the largest cave systems in the world. I did a couple tours, about a mile and a half each.

Mammoth Cave ceiling
Ceiling writing in Mammoth Cave

Unlike Kartchner Caverns, Mammoth Cave has a lengthy history of human visitation and use. Salt peter was mined and used in making ammunition. After commercial uses of the cave stopped, tourism or cave visiting became popular. And, one of the things that many people did at Mammoth Cave was to write their names, using smoke from candles, on the ceiling.

People also piled rocks to make pyramid-like formations. The photo to the right shows both writing on the ceiling and one of the man-made rock formations.

According to the ranger leading one of the tours I was on, there were many famous visitors to Mammoth Cave in its early tourism years. Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer, visited the cave. One of the natural formations in the cave looks like a chair. Again according to the ranger, that formation is named for Jenny Lind because she sat there when she visited the cave.

While the evidence of human use and visitation is abundant in the parts of Mammoth Cave included in the tours, one of the strongest impressions for me was the feeling of being in the bed of a subterranean river. A big, powerful river that carved its way through the rock underground. It felt like the water could rush in at any minute and fill the river bed. That won’t happen, so there’s no danger. (Nor is there a danger in any of the cave tours of rock falling on visitors; the park people are VERY safety conscious.) Of the various cave tours I’ve done, the force that created the cave seemed most apparent at Mammoth Cave.

An interesting thing I saw at Mammoth Cave was a cross-section of a stalagmite. Apparently, it had broken off, and the park service made a nice clean cut, so people could see what is inside of a stalagmite. The photo is below. I was very impressed, but obviously I’m crazy about “pretty” rocks!

rock formation
This is the cross-section of a stalagmite at Mammoth Cave. Don’t know if this is typical of all stalagmites — or of stalactites — but it’s very pretty

South Dakota caves: Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument

When I decided to go to the Badlands in July of 2018, I looked at the map to see what other National Park Service sites may be in the area. Have to admit I didn’t know about Wind Cave National Park, which is a short distance west of Badlands National Park.

And, I had no idea Jewel Cave National Monument was a short distance west of Wind Cave.

Jewel Cave had one tour that took reservations. So, I made a reservation. Couldn’t make reservations at Wind Cave, but I planned to camp there for a few nights, so getting to the visitor center early to sign up for a tour didn’t seem like a problem. Having a reservation at Jewel Cave was a real good idea. Cave tours sell out early in the day, and there’s no campground at the National Monument. Getting up early enough to get there super early in the day wouldn’t have been very attractive.

On the other hand, staying at Wind Cave for a few days worked out well. Both Wind and Jewel Caves have elevators, and the tours depend on being able to use the elevators. When I got to Wind Cave, the elevator was down. On the last day I was there, I finally got to do a tour. And, while standing in line for that tour, I met a great couple from Georgia — everything does seem to work out well!

Even though these two caves are close to each other, the cave experience is quite different. At Wind Cave, one of the most unusual formations is boxwork. Photos really don’t do it justice. It’s a fragile network of boxes that covers huge expanses of the cave walls. It’s one of the largest boxwork formations in the world. Not as dramatic as stalagmites and stalactites, but it’s very interesting!

Much of the interest at Jewel Cave comes from the sparkling formations — they look like jewels. Many of the formations are calcite crystals. They’re quite colorful. I’ve heard that some of the early, pre-Park Service interest in the park was spurred by the idea that the crystals could be mined and would have some commercial value. Fortunately, that was not correct. The calcite crystals have no commercial value, other than making for a beautiful cave experience.

These two caves offer an opportunity to mention bats and white nose syndrome. Earlier in 2018, a bat with white nose syndrome was found within the Jewel Cave National Monument, although I don’t think it was in the cave itself. It’s fatal to bats and can wipe out entire bat colonies. The Park Service is waging a brave battle against it. Due to the finding at Jewel Cave, the rangers at Wind Cave were strictly enforcing the rule that nothing that had been worn or taken into Jewel Cave could be brought into Wind Cave. That’s sort of a general rule: anything that has been worn or taken into a cave or mine should not be brought into another cave or mine. (On the other hand, the battle has been lost at Mammoth Cave, and minimal precautions are taken since the bat population has already been impacted by white nose syndrome.)

When I first thought about doing a cave tour, I was worried about bats. Not a critter I’d look forward to encountering. Turns out that’s not a worry. The Park Service is so adamant about protecting the bats, they don’t allow humans to possibly interact with the bats!




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