As much as I love traveling to the farthest corners of North America, it never seizes to amaze me at how much there is to see near my own hometown. It brings me great joy to visit and write about these local destinations in the hopes that more people will discover them for themselves. This past weekend I found myself rediscovering the Cave Trail of Southern Indiana.
Southern Indiana is known for being a Karst Region. This type of region is characterized by underlying limestone and other soluble rock. When water is introduced into these regions, it becomes a recipe for:
- Disappearing Streams
My first stop on this tour was non other than Indiana Caverns. The caverns are a showpiece of the much larger Binkley Cave System, of which it is a part of. With the help of the Indiana Speleological Survey, exploration of the caverns have unearthed around thirty five miles of underground passageways. This makes it the longest cave system in the state and one of the longest in the country. A visit to the caverns consist of a 1 hour and 30 minute tour, descending 110 feet below the surface.
Following an interesting twenty five minute video explaining the history of the caverns, we were led down a slopping corridor towards the opening of the cave. This is a man made entrance as the closest natural opening is a four mile hike through thick forest. Upon reaching the end of a narrow cave corridor, you arrive at the marvelous grand gallery. The nearly four story waterfall, pouring in from the ceiling, and draping over the limestone ledges is a show stopper.
At this high vantage point one can look across at all of the beautiful stalactite and stalagmite draping every rocky surface. For those not familiar with all of the cave lingo; Stalactite, "to drip", is a type of formation that hangs from the ceilings of caves. Stalagmite, "dripping", is a type of rock formation that rises from the floor of a cave. As our guide joked, "An easy way to remember the difference is that you might kick a stalagmite." Using our imaginations, our guide pointed to stalactite and rock formations that resembled; a dragon and eggs nest, spongebob and patrick, and sheets of crispy bacon.
After descending down a narrow spiral staircase, of which there a several, you end up just below the water fall. Here our guide pointed out the original entrance that explorers used to first explore the cave and the various chambers that led into subterranean portions below where we were standing. The blue spotlight highlighted the entrance.
It was hard not to notice how comfortable and dry the environment felt. The caverns remain a constant 56 degrees year round. Due to the consistent ambiance, not much has changed in the cave in the last 15,000 years since the entrance closed. Prehistoric peccary claw marks can still be seen in stones where they unsuccessfully tried to climb out of the cave.
One of my favorite features was the prehistoric bear skull. It was discovered in what is believed to be the den it created just before hibernating one last time. We also spotted small, white obligate northern cave dwelling crayfish. Some of the largest of its type were found within the Binkley Cave System. Nearby we found 2 small baby salamanders wading in the cave stream. Although they are born in the cave and spend their first 2 years living in the stream, these salamanders will eventually find their way back to the surface to live out their lives.
Reaching the end of the first section you reach Bone Mountain. Looking up you notice the pile of car sized boulders strewn about as if they were falling from the ceiling. This was the original prehistoric entrance to the cave during the Ice Age. During this period, prehistoric creatures looking for safety would wander into the cave. Due to the pitch black conditions, they would mistakenly take the steep tumble over jagged boulders some thirty feet down to certain death.
When explorers first discovered this room, they were shocked to find mountains of bones piled in the area below the original entrance. Some of the bones have been dated from as far as 38,000 to 42,000 years old. Several of the remains were identified to belong to prehistoric bison, bear, and peccary. Indiana State paleontologists make annual trips to the caves in hopes of unearthing more skeletons hidden beneath thousands of years of sediment.
Once we crossed through a lowered portion of the cave, we arrived at an earthen, man made dam and the boats! This meandering underground stream is naturally only ankle deep. At some point the cave owners decided to dam it in order to create the depth necessary to accommodate flat bottomed pontoon boats. I'm not going to lie, I was as giddy as a school boy when I saw the boats and could not wait to hop in.
With the boat fully loaded, we cast off on our voyage through caverns with blue lit water and spotlight accented rock formations. The silent hum of the electric motor was barely noticeable above the waves. Our 25 minute boat ride felt like a fine art museum tour as we passed rock shelters and cave overhangs lit in a way that resembled artwork. With a slight haze hanging just over the water, lit by blue spotlights, this section of the cave had a thrilling and mysterious air to it.
This cavern was a ton of fun to explore, especially with the help of our informative and comedic guide. I recommend anyone passing through Corydon, Indiana take the time to visit this special place. Those planning to be in the area for several days can book the Epic Caving and Kayaking Adventure. This exploration will take you on a 200 ft descent into darkness where you will climb, crawl, and splash your way through the underground cave while also kayaking upstream! Stay tuned as we visit the other caverns on the Indiana Cave Trail throughout the next few months.
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