Roadtripping through the Midwest, we kept stumbling across show caves in places where cornstalks otherwise covered the rolling landscape. First in Wisconsin, then Iowa. Arriving in Southern Indiana for a meeting at West Baden Springs, we spotted the signs for Bluespring Caverns en route. It was then and there we decided that walking through Indiana’s caverns would be next on our to-do list.
We’d planned to stop at state parks with caves, but a visit to Spring Mill State Park brought the white-nose syndrome problem to light. As we toured the extensive mill complex, an industrial village founded in the early 1800s, we asked our guide about the caves. The creek that fed the sluice to run the mill seemed to be coming right out of the hillside, from a cave.
“None of the Indiana state parks allow you to go in the caves anymore,” said our guide, to our disappointment. We’d learned about this disease at our other stops outside Indiana. It’s a fungus that causes bats to wake too early from hibernation, and they starve to death. At each of those caves, we were made to walk through a sanitizing solution to soak any possible carriers off our feet before we set foot in the caves. Sadly, we crossed our state park stops off the list, knowing there would be no cave exploration possible.
Bluespring Caverns, Mitchell
At an angle I couldn’t have dreamed possible, the path from the gift shop at Bluespring Caverns pitched headlong into a sinkhole. If I hadn’t clung to the rail on the way down, I might have done so as well. “That’s crazy steep!” I said, and my tour companions agreed.
We were relieved to alight on a terrace inside the cave mouth, looking down at the dark river below. This would be an exploration by boat on a waterway through the caverns. Formations were minimal, as the passageway had been carved by flowing water rather than dripping water.
Still, our guide kept us entertained, pointing out cave crickets moving across the masses of mud against the rock walls, and startling us with a sudden moment of darkness in one of the larger chambers as he demonstrated the echo effect of this rocky tunnel.
Marengo Cave, Marengo
“My grandmother square danced inside this cave,” said Shelby Wetzl, which let us know that she grew up knowing all about Marengo. Since the attraction offers two different cave tours, we decided to do both, and had her as our guide. Our group of seven adventurers swelled to 21 by the time Shelby led us down a trail through the woods to a tunnel bored for access into the cave. Beneath a very steamed-up piece of glass were calcite flowers. I saw smaller ones all across the roof of the cave, which has several levels to it. The path was gently sloped.
We turned right, entering the Graveyard, with its white stalagmite pillars. The tour route, carved deeply into the floor, wound us through forests of stalacitites and stalagmites at face level, working its way downhill past a pile of breakdown. A spotlight shone on a cluster of calcite crystals in a pocket across from glittering flowstone with several tin drinking cups set on the floor. When Shelby said that the water was used to quench visitor’s thirst on tours long ago, I couldn’t help but think of Pluto Water, a natural laxative! And indeed, this water, with its heavy mineral content, did the same.
We walked through broad passageways carved by underground streams. What they lacked in formations they made up for in historic grafitti, with one section lit by old fashioned lanterns. Past the dance hall, where the square dances were once held, was Penny Passage, where people once tossed coins at the ceiling and they stuck there. They twinkled overhead as we walked beneath them. Beyond a rock pulpit once used by a preacher, we entered a room with gorgeous helictites high up on the wall. Shelby played her flashlight across them to show a girl swinging. Curving around Mirror Lake to end the first tour, we ascended, unsurprisingly, into the gift shop. The Crystal Palace tour would be next.
In 1883, brother and sister Orris and Blanche Hiestand discovered the entrance to Marengo Cave through a sinkhole on a neighbor’s property. They kept their secret for a few days before finally telling the farmer at church. Samuel Stewart didn’t even know he had a sinkhole on his land, let alone a cave. The tour led us down into “what they found,” including a shimmering waterfall dropping through a hole in the cave ceiling, and flowstone domes coated with sparkling calcite crystals. We walked through a nook of formations and access to a cave passage from which a steady breeze blew in towards us. The Crystal Palace was the star of this tour, a big chamber with lots of formations.
After we left the caverns, we popped into the nearest restaurant, Van’s Country Table, for lunch. When we mentioned the tour to our waitress, she brought out a surprise for us. We did a double-take. Shelby’s twin worked in the kitchen! We chatted about their jobs for a few minutes before she went back to work.
Squire Boone Caverns, Corydon
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Squire Boone Caverns, taking in the village of shops that surrounded the parking area. The cave’s discovery was by Daniel Boone’s brother in the late 1700s. They’d both explored some of it. Squire built a gristmill which ran on water coming out of the cave, similar to the one we saw at Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell.
It was disappointing to arrive just after a tour had taken off, and the next one wouldn’t be for an hour. I hemmed and hawed before finally saying, “let’s wait.” We scrambled up to Squire’s grave in a cave along a footpath glittery and sparkly with cast-off minerals, especially quartz, from the gem panning sluice. All of the little cabins in the village were closed, so there wasn’t much to do but sit and wait until our guide, Josh, mustered the tour group.
I was surprised to learn that the cave didn’t open for tours until 1972. Its surreal entry is via a 62 foot spiral staircase, as if you were descending from the top of a lighthouse into the earth. Once you’re inside the cave, it has catwalks and stairs, since rushing water is everywhere, especially below. The formations aren’t as grand as the ones at Marengo Cave, but there are showy narrow passageways with rimstone shelves, one with rare cave mushrooms (a rock formation) on them.
Shattered soda straws lay beneath the ledges like coral on a Caribbean beach. Just footfalls from the main path, crevices gaped several stories deep. A steep staircase led us up above a waterfall that dropped several stories. One chamber holds the re-interred remains of Squire Boone, with a modern headstone. Since we’d visited his gravesite aboveground, I wasn’t clear on why this was here, unless it somehow connected with the pit cave above.
The deeper we walked into the cavern, the more fascinating it became. A waterfall flowed beneath the iron grate catwalk, and moments later, we came face-to-face with rimstone pools overflowing in continual cascades, a sight you’d expect to see in Cappodocia or Yellowstone, but not underground. Then, disappointment. We were barred from entering what looked to be an even more beautiful passage up ahead. The tour used to go there, but was closed now because part of the cave collapsed. “How recently?” I asked. Josh didn’t know. “They can’t afford to rebuild it,” he said, as we turned around to follow the catwalks back to the entrance.
When we planned to stop at all of Indiana’s show caves, we didn’t know there was an award for that. For visiting all three Indiana show caves, we got free t-shirts to commemorate our Indiana experience, which the folks at Squire Boone Caverns handed us before we left.
MORE TO EXPLORE
Last summer, America’s newest cave tour opened. Since 2010, cave explorers were looking for a connection to the 11th longest cave in the United States, the Binkley Cave System, which is more than 36 miles long. The 80-minute tours of Indiana Caverns include both a walking route and a boat trip.
For 2014, the Indiana Department of Environmental Resources has reopened select caves at Spring Mill State Park and Cave River Valley Natural Areafor public exploration. This is a pilot program, with the Indiana Karst Conservancy acting as stewards to teach visitors how to decontaminate before entering a wild cave so as not to spread white-nose syndrome. At McCormick’s Creek State Park , Wolf Cave also reopened, since bats do not roost there.
Visit Indiana’s Show Caves
The Indiana Cave Trail now includes four show caves: the three we visited and the new Indiana Caverns in Corydon. Details on this program can be found at the Indiana Cave Trail website.