If you've been following our travels for some time now, you might already know that I'm kind of on a cave kick. As much as I enjoy going on a 20 mile hike, its nice to mix things up here and there, plus I've been trying to involve my 2 young kids in some of my adventures. Seeing as they're 8 and 4 years old, their stamina and attention span are interconnected. If we can see enough different and exciting things in one trip, they'll stay energized and hopefully take something away from the experience besides saying..."this is boring... when can we watch a movie?"
So you're probably thinking, whats the whole theme park attractions thing about here? Let me tell you that this small 5 mile cave is PACKED with enough variety to fill.. well.. a theme park, including an unbelievable upside down wishing well!
Marengo Cave is nestled in the knobs of Southern Indiana surrounded by rolling hills and sandstone cliffs. It has the honor of being a part of the Indiana Cave Trail along with Indiana Caverns which we visited a few weeks back, as well as a registered U.S. National Landmark. Discovered in September of 1883 by a pair of young siblings, the landowners wasted no time in turning this into one of the regions first full blown travel attractions, creating The Marengo Cave Company in 1900.
When we visited we had the option of choosing between the Crystal Palace Tour and the Dripstone Tour, although for a discounted price you can chose to do both. Doing my very best to gauge the impression on my children's faces when I asked what they would prefer, I opted for the longer Dripstone Tour as a compromised between doing the whole shebang. We met up with our guide Larry and the rest of the group behind the gift shop and he went over some of the usual ground rules: no touching, no stealing, the grease on your skin will kill the formations, etc.
Our group was led down a woodland path where we encountered a friendly black rat snake sun bathing in the only spot of sunshine on the whole trail. The entrance to the Dripstone Trail is guarded by two sets of thick steel doors within a man made cavern entrance. Our guide Larrys' father worked on the crew that originally blasted the hole into this hill creating the entrance, and in the process discovered a rare calcite flower in the ceiling of the blast hole. (This is the part where I show you a picture, but some things are better seen in person). Calcite is a common constituent of limestone, much of which is formed from the shells of dead marine organisms.
After squeezing through the two tight passages leading into the cave, we entered into the first of several humongous underground chambers in the section known as Cave Hill Cemetery. This area was formed by an underground river that flowed through the cavern for thousands of years. The water eventually continued to find its way beneath the stone, wearing it down and collapsing the river bed, making the cavern larger over time. The air is so dense with condensation that stalactite drape over every inch of ceiling space available.
Passing through into Sherwood Forest, we encounter stalagmite "totem poles" crowding the floor. The formations resemble wax candles that have melted onto themselves growing taller and taller throughout the years until reaching the cave ceiling. Larry explained that every inch of growth on these towers represents 1,000 years. Areas of the ceiling where the stalagmite and stalactite met to create a tower were 7 feet high and as wide as a defensive lineman, thats 84,000 years of nature at work!
Shallow ponds of crystal clear water edged most of our path, so clear in fact that it was hard to discern how deep they really were. If we weren't impressed by the formations by this point then we were about to have our minds blown. Upon reaching a dark bend along our path, Larry flicked the lights on to reveal a rimstone dam that resembled, with uncanny detail, The Great Wall of China. Rimstone dams form where there is some gradient, and hence flow, over the edge of a pool within a cave. The flowing edge of the dam has taken on an image of a stone wall built over rolling hills. It really doesn't take much imagination to see the resemblance.
As I gaze around, taking note of the different rock formations, rubble from thousand year old cave-ins, and the crystal clear reflections from underground ponds, I can't help but to think that this is the type of cave that gets people excited about underground exploration. Every inch of space here is simply exciting to wander through, not unlike other caves such as Mammoth Cave.
We make our way through low passage ways where I'm forced to duck several inches down, while my 4-year-old daughter simply walks straight through, barely noticing anyone else's inconvenience. Upon reaching a bend in the path showcasing Crystal Springs, we notice what look to be old vintage cups sitting on a ledge. Apparently these cups, remnants of the early 1900's, were used by early cave tourists to drink water from the underground spring during breaks in the tours. Back then with people being used to drinking spring water from man made wells, it was no big deal. Now a days, we know that drinking "raw water", possibly containing unsafe levels of arsenic, bacteria, viruses, and fungi could result in a quick trip to the hospital, or at the very least getting stuck on the toilet with a bad case of the #2.
Looking around at the oddly shaped stalagmite, you can make out the shapes of random objects much like you would starring at the clouds. Beside the spring, I can make out something that looks like the shipwreck of an old ocean liner. Near my feet, an erupting volcano.
At this point we reach the Prison Bars. Here, over the course of tens of thousands of years, stalagmite and stalactite formations have formed connecting columns from floor to ceiling, creating the appearance of a prison bar cell. A small staircase leads you through the only gap in the formation. An oval shaved cavern, reminiscent of an ancient European wine cellar leads us to a darkened cave, lit simply by the flickering of electric lanterns, meant to recreate the experience of early cave tours.
It is here that Larry turns off all the lights and we become engulfed by complete, utter darkness. In many cases, early explorers who wandered the cave in search of passageways did so with a limited amount of kerosene in their lamps. If they couldn't find their way out in time, they would have to trace their steps back in this total darkness. How anyone could manage such a perilous task is beyond my imagination. I still find comfort in the glow of streetlights pouring into my bedroom at night, my version of an adult nightlight.
Lights restored, we walk into an arching cavern with a glistening, sparkling ceiling. This is the upside down wishing well named Penny Ceiling. Here you can make a wish and flick a coin up to the ceiling, if it sticks, your wish may be granted and yeah most of the coins thrown up stuck to the ceiling! As the story goes, a woman touring the cave, thinking that penny ceiling was a mere hoax, flicked her diamond wedding ring towards the ceiling, only to find herself shocked in disbelief as it stuck to the grooves besides all of the other change.
The next two cavernous sections have seen many uses throughout their shared history. Trying to find ways to monetize the cave, this room was used as a dance hall, hosting as many as 300 people during festivals. In a far corner, a large sloping rock was converted into a stage for Shakespearean theatrical performances. With a depth of 200 feet below the surface, it was even used as a bomb shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At present, large groups can reserve an underground sleepover or wedding reception here. As Larry pointed out, any marriage can only go up from here!
We pass through Signature Hall, littered with the names of early tourists to the cave whom were allowed to sign their names using the soot of their torches. Majestic Halls claim to fame is its use as a church in the 1920's. A preacher would gather his congregation here and recite scripture from the top of a rock in the shape of a podium. If you shine a flashlight to the podium, angled towards the ceiling, the shadow casted has an uncanny resemblance to the shape of George Washingtons' head.
Nearing the end of the Dripstone trail we cross several small channels to confront a series of dripping stalactite in the shape of a sleeping mummy. If you focus in on the center of the mummy, it can also look like an elephants head with its ears stretched out and trunk curled forward. Like a lot of other places, for a small fee, you can have your official Marengo Cave Tour picture taken here and purchased in the gift shop.
In this last stretch of cave we walk past crystalline pools of water, the source being a small waterfall fed by an underground spring. Its accumulation forming an elongated, eggplant shaped body of water named Mirror Lake. The reflection is so clear, you could unknowingly mistake it as a view into a lower cavern. Its at this point, that those who chose to also go on the Crystal Palace Tour, would continue their exploration.
For us this was the end of our time here at Marengo Cave. A hidden staircase curving behind a rock formation, leads us into a trap door inside the gift shop. The lingering feeling of regret that I didn't include the Crystal Palace Tour was tempered by the clear skies and sunshine outside. What a gorgeous day to drive through the craggy knobs of southern Indiana!
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