Awakening to another dark and gloomy winter day, I mulled over my options for getting a bit of adventure into my system. Although days like today are a perfect opportunity to delve into a good book snuggled up on the couch, I still find myself starring out my living room window, itching to go out and explore. Going over photos of some recent trips, editing and organizing them, I stumbled onto the Marengo Cave archive and it hit me, I had yet to see the Crystal Palace Tour at Marengo Cave!
With a thermos full of coffee, I hopped in the car, excited to leave the city behind. Crossing the border from Kentucky over the Ohio River into Indiana, the sky began to clear and sunshine rained down over the hilly knobs blanketing the region. I took it as a sign that today was going in the right direction.
You may recall that I visited Marengo Cave several months back to view the Dripstone Trail Tour, leaving amazed by the incredible formations and expansive rooms throughout the one mile underground hike. I needed to see the Crystal Palace in order to cross Marengo off the Indiana Cave Trail.
Earlier this summer I was thrilled to take the underground boat ride in Indiana Caverns, but I still need to visit Squire Boone Caverns and Blue Spring Caverns to complete the trail. Our soon to be cave guide assured us that even though located within the same underground system, both the Crystal Palace and Dripstone Trail could not be any more different.
The tour began in the back of the gift shop, through the man made entrance constructed in 1910, which also doubles as the exit for the Dripstone Trail. We begin our journey climbing down a steep ramp alongside a rushing stream of water, cascading over a 10 foot drop into Mirror Lake. The last several weeks have seen record setting rain in the Kentuckiana Region and its effect is apparent as the cave is particularly wet today, with the sounds of trickling and rushing water everywhere.
Taking the route past Mirror Lake, we come across one of the first major stalagmite formations, Mount Vesuvius. Standing at nearly 5 feet tall and almost double that in width, this upside down, cone shaped formation, at a distance, resembles an erupting volcano with a plume of smoke rising from its peak.
This area is so moist with condensation that the entire ceiling of the cavern is covered in stalactites. The criss crossing grid of stalactites, with its varying heights resemble the New York City Skyline upside down. Another formation nearby, almost 4 feet tall by 6 feet wide, has an uncanny resemblance to a USS Aircraft Carrier.
The shallow ponds created by water seeping through surface cracks, working its way into the cave, are a popular breeding ground for cave salamanders. Although I failed to capture an image of it, the one we found looked similar to a tadpole. Not all cave salamanders spend their entire lives underground, devoid of pigment and blind due to the black out conditions. The particular species that live here in southern Indiana will some day leave the cave for a life above ground, returning to the same cave only to lay its eggs.
Looking down, taking note of each step so as to not slip and fall, I notice water streaming around my shoe as if I were walking through a creek. The source is an overflowing 5 gallon bucket catching rainwater as it pours out of cracks in the stone above us.
The porous limestone, of which the cave is mostly made of, was created 100 million+ years ago when this area of the U.S. was covered by the vast Mississippian Sea. As small cracks would form on the seafloor, water would slowly trickle in until the gap was large enough for small rivers to form underground, carving away the rock to form the chambers on our trail. Not the most scientific explanation, but I think you get the idea.
Continuing through the caverns, we made our way to the point that started it all, Discovery Falls. This marvelous waterfall, falling from a large gap in the ceiling, conceals the original entrance to Marengo Cave, discovered in the mid 1800’s by two young siblings.
For the first several years of cave tours, visitors had to crawl their way into the cave just behind this point, until the original land owner came up with the idea of constructing a 156 step, wooden ladder to ease the journey.
Mountains of moist stalagmites in different shades of brown, red, and black appear to ooze onto floor here. The color differences are due to the varying mineral content makeup of the rocks. As the glaciers that once dominated the region retreated north, minerals in the melted ice water found their way into the cave.
White streaks are a sign of a high calcite content and the black is due to manganese. Layers of red are caused by a dense clay content. Some of the formations have swirls of all three colors, natures idea of a trippy tie dye shirt!
Ducking and squeezing through a tight corridor of stalactite columns, we found ourselves surrounded by cave bacon, a term used to describe draping, layered stalactites. A few of the backlit rocks took on a hot red glow, further enhancing my hunger for a crispy BLT sandwich.
Stooped down low, trying to avoid the rocks in this short corridor, I scraped my leg against what looked to be wires coming out of the rocks. Turns out that those were actually tree roots! We’ve somehow hiked up in elevation to the point where were only 20 feet below the surface. So close in fact that I could feel a gust of wind blowing against my face.
Making our way to the halfway point of the tour we reach the Queens Palace, an area named for the large chandelier shaped rocks that appear to hang from the ceiling. Catch it at the right angle with a flashlight and the chandelier will sparkle due to the high mineral deposits present in the rock.
Just around a corner, passing through the Pillared Palaces floor to ceiling columns, is the source of the wind gust, Blowing Bat Crawl. This 3 mile long passage was discovered in 1992, after cave explorers witnessing bats coming in through the opening, bravely ventured into it. They discovered that the passage actually led further underground into the lower levels of Marengo Cave, debunking the theory that it would lead to a new opening on the surface.
The ceiling in this particular section is barren, unlike most in the cavern, due to a lack of knowledge in cave ecology by one of the original landowners. During the early days of the cave tours, visitors were allowed to break stalactite pillars off of the ceiling and take them home as souvenirs.
Little did they know that those foot long pillars of stone, had taken hundreds of thousands of years to form and would never regrow. Heck, they would probably find it hard to believe that a simple swipe of our oily fingers would essentially kill any rock formation they briskly touch. A few of the rare and irreplaceable formations found along our path are Cave Shields. These shields consist of two round or oval parallel plates with a thin medial crack between them.
With a half mile trek under our belts we finally reach the cavern for which the tour is named after, The Crystal Palace! Theres a lot going on here, as each corner resembles a different room within a vast palace. The Rock of Ages, with its enormous flowing formations, covered in black, white, and brown stripes is thought to be a million years old.
The enormity of it, standing at least 40 feet high baffles the imagination, with some of the pillars resembling a giant melting wedding cake.
The crystal palace itself is famous for its sparkling ceiling. The millions of deposited minerals attached to the ceiling sparkle like diamonds and light up the large room almost like a disco ball above a dance floor.
On the far end of this room stands a wall of floor to ceiling stalagmite columns, some of which resemble unsheathed swords. An early tour guide once tested out a theory that the columns could be played like a pipe organ by individually taping the columns and matching the varying tones into a rhythm.
This soon turned into a scheduled event where each tour would stop in the now named, Pipe Organs Room, to watch as a guide would tap the columns to the beat of a popular song of the times. Although the pipe organ performance has long been retired, our guide demonstrated the musical qualities of the stone by using a rubber mallet to pound various parts of a limestone ledge like a xylophone.
Upon leaving the Crystal Palace, our guide jokingly informed us that the room we had just left was 150 feet below the cemetery adjacent to the gift shop. From here we began our hike back towards Mirror Lake to make our exit. This was a last chance to take in the views, without a camera or notepad to take down notes.
Its an important part of life that more often than not, we forget to just appreciate the present moment. Being mindful as opposed to mind-full takes daily practice. Even for someone who regularly travels to some spectacular places, its easy to take the beauty in life for granted. Do yourself a favor and the next time you finish that painstaking hike to the summit of a mountain or arrive to a national park after a grueling 28 hour drive, take a moment to just sit there and savor the experience!