By Barry Zander
Shields, bacon, soda straws, drapery. Those are just some of the terms you learn when you descend into the depths beneath our world to go spelunking. While traveling throughout North America, we have been lured into the depths of the Earth by billboards that inform RVers that a cave or cavern lies just 120 miles down the road.
We have talked with folks sitting outside caverns while the family tours inside because they are claustrophobic; others are just scared to go in. In more than a dozen caves and caverns we’ve entered, we find most of them to be beautiful, educational, very spacious and safe. There’s a lot of explaining to do here if you haven’t “taken the plunge” yet.
First, the difference between a “cavern” and a “cave.” While the terms are used interchangeably, caverns are usually vast. Caves can be indents in a mountainside. Which is larger, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico or Mammoth Cave in Kentucky? Doesn’t matter. They are both huge with enormous rooms. Neither is classified as “living,” which means limestone features are no longer receiving the drips of water that has seeped through the rocks above for millions of years, drips that continue adding to the underground formations.
The words you probably learned in school are stalagmites and stalactites. I always remember that the “tites” hang from the top (they’ve got to hold on “tite!”). More interesting are the often delicate and intricate formations that form the unique geology of underground hollows. [Editor’s note: I’ve always remembered which is which because with the “g” they grow up from the ground, and with the “c” they hang down from the ceiling.]
SIDE NOTE: On half of our cave tours, we’ve heard someone ask the guide, “How much of the cave hasn’t been discovered yet?” The tolerant guides carefully dodge the question with, “Until more is discovered, they don’t know. We think there may be more.” Or “X-rays haven’t found any more, but there’s always a chance.”
The history of how each cave was discovered is always fascinating. Almost always an accident, the story of the first spelunkers (cave explorers) who accidentally fell into a hole impresses visitors, who can’t imagine how even very skinny men pushed themselves through narrow openings with only a candle to light up the pitch-black interior.
There are so many interesting aspects of caverns to amaze you, like temperature, history, formations, geology, and more. What I hope to do is to stimulate your interest in stopping by when you arrive at the destination that has been the subject of dozens of billboards you’ve been seeing for the past few hours.
Once the air-seal metal doors shut behind you, you’re in a different world, filled with beauty and wonder. No matter how long the tour, you probably won’t be in a hurry for the walk along carved and boardwalk trails to end.
We truly enjoyed Blanchard Springs Caverns near Mountain View and 56, Arkansas (yes, the town’s name is really 56). The caverns exist on 3 levels and the tours are fantastic. Mountain View describes itself as the “Folk Music Capital of the World.” Blanchard Springs is the only cavern owned by the U.S. Forest Service and the only one owned by the Federal government outside the National Park System (source Wikipedia).
I have been to both Mammoth and Carlsbad caverns within the last 25 years and remember both to be ‘living’. Most of Mammoth was dry but at the very end of the tour there was one room that was still ‘dripping’ and the ‘mites and ‘tites were still growing. Taking the Carlsbad tour from the natural opening all the way through to the elevator exit revealed several areas where dripping was still happening. Most of the tour was wet and you had to watch your step to keep from slipping. IMO, Carlsbad is the greatest cavern in the USA!