We are back on the Indiana Cave Trail, this time driving up to the town of Bedford to visit Bluespring Caverns! I’ve previously toured Indiana Caverns and done both tours in Marengo Cave; The Crystal Palace and Dripstone Tour. This part of the midwest following along the Ohio River Valley is famous for its abundance of caves thanks to our karst landscape. The same porous limestone that filters out rainwater which gives bourbon its iconic characteristics, easily erodes creating large underground chambers over millions of years, which today we get to enjoy exploring.
Tours depart from the visitors center every 30 minutes from 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. and usually sell out quickly so its a good idea to arrive early. In our case we had to wait an hour and a half for our tour as everything was sold out up until that point. Thankfully, theres another attraction here above ground, the largest sinkhole in the state of Indiana. The 0.5 mile trail within the Bolton Natural Area explores the unique terrain formed by and contributing to the development of Bluespring Caverns.
Grabbing a guide from the trailhead, we headed off through several beautiful meadows filled with blooming aster and eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies fluttering about. Entering the forest surrounding the sinkhole is like stepping through a time capsule. Due to the steep slopes surrounding this 10 acre sized sinkhole, much of the surrounding area has never been logged. Early settlers arriving in Lawrence County would have seen a very similar forest.
The short winding path eventually leads to a roped off ridge overlooking a steep valley. This is the sinkhole. I’ve visited the sinkhole directly over the main chamber in Mammoth Cave National Park, and this is 10 times bigger. It literally looks as if the ground sank into itself. Near there very bottom of the sinkhole is the Bolton Entrance to Bluespring Caverns. Although to o small for people to use, the opening allows rainwater to drain into the underground river and provides nutrients for the wildlife living in the caves.
After a quick lunch break, it was time to gather for the beginning of our tour. Stepping through the wood fence next to the parking lot, we were led through a tunnel underneath the visitors center and onto the ramp going into the cave. The area we are standing in just in front of the opening, on the face of a steep cliff, was once the bottom of a deep pond. As the story goes, one morning after a horrendous storm, George Colglazier came to this very spot on his farm to discover the pond that once covered the area had vanished, creating a large sinkhole.
The opening at the bottom of the sinkhole created the present day entrance into Bluespring Caverns. Once inside, a steep ramp leads 400' down onto a dock on the aptly named Myst’ry River. Just behind the dock, the river empties over a cascading waterfall into a deeper portion of whats known to be the 3rd longest cave in Indiana. Unlike other caves that offer short spurts on underground rivers, this entire trip consists of an hour long, round trip voyage, traveling through 600 ft of underground caverns.
Water depth can vary greatly, from 3 ft deep near the dock to 20 ft deep in other areas. The first landmark on our voyage is a group of stalactites named after their appearance, Elephant Head and swimming Pterodactyl. Just past that is the rock of many names, named so because its common for people to bump their heads on it along tours, cursing the rock. This particular rock was once part of a floor to ceiling column, stretching down into the water. Rumor has it that on opening day, the previous cave operators, realizing that the boats were too large to pass through or around the column, had to blow it out in order to commence their first tour.
Several smaller entrances to the cavern allow just enough room for critters to enter, not knowing what they’re getting themselves into. Its not uncommon for staff to encounter raccoon, possums, or even pet iguanas stranded on the muddy banks along the river. Occasionally, bats enter the cave to rest and can be seen hanging from the ceiling on some of the taller sections of the cave.
The roof of the cave is white, while the rest of it reaching down into the water is brown. This is due to the mud and silt carried down from the surface, as the original color of limestone is actually white. The white sections act as a water level, marking the highest point the water line has ever reached.
The staff take great caution to monitor the rivers water level to ensure the safety of every trip, carefully tracking precipitation as far as 15 miles north from here. One afternoon during Hurricane Katrina, the ensuing storm dumped so much rain in this region that the water level rose 15 ft in a matter of 10 minutes. Had they not taken the precautions to cancel tours that day, it would have meant certain death for anyone caught on the river. Our guide explained that if the waters clear appearance suddenly begins to swirl with brown muddy water, thats a sign that they need to exit the cave immediately, as he demonstrated by churning up some mud into the water.
Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar area, we make a stop at a massive boulder named The Rock of Gibraltar. 20,000 years ago, this large rock fell from the ceiling, plunging into the river, blocking off access to the rest of the cave. In 2002, workers blasted a small passageway through the rock in order to pass through and explore deeper within the cave. The passage is so tight that the boat rattles as it scrapes against the walls while we pass into the last chamber.
At this point we are 180 ft underground. If we were to get stuck down here, we would go blind in a matter of 2 weeks. Within that period of time, our eyes would stop producing the cells in the retinas that allow you to see. If you were to make it out back onto the surface, the initial blast of sunlight would completely burn your retinas altogether, rendering you blind as well. The water here is so cold, that if you were to tumble out of the boat and into the water, it would only take you 10 minutes to go into hypothermia.
During this last part of the tour, our guide Dylan gave us a demonstration of cave thunder. Lifting one of the soft seat cushions from the boat over his head, he swiftly slammed it against the belly of the steel boat, sending a load crashing sound thundering through the cave. Its so loud, that the sound can be heard 20 miles away, on the other end of Bluespring Caverns.
As we headed back to the dock, I leaned over to my children and asked what they thought about this tour. All things taken into consideration, they agreed that this was their absolute favorite cave tour thus far. Whats not to love about a boat ride on an underground river in near pitch black, right? If you happen to be visiting Southern Indiana or are a fan of caving, make sure to come by and take a tour on the longest navigable underground river in the United States here at Bluespring Caverns!