June 9, 2010

Timpanogos Cave

Yesterday was the perfect day for a hike. Temperatures were relatively mild, and a thin layer of high clouds prevented the otherwise direct sunlight from beating down too harshly. I had wanted to go back to Timpanogos Cave, one of my favorite childhood destinations, for a while. Though I hadn't been in years, my memories of the place are full of wonder.

After getting my usual routine out of the way, I filled my water bottle, put on a hat, and headed south to American Fork Canyon where the entrance to the cave system is located. Even before reaching the canyon, the drive is beautiful. After exiting I-15, I drove towards the eastern mountains and was treated to spectacular views of the still snow-packed Lone Peak, and Mount Timpanogos. It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road and I kept steeling glances of giant rocky fins that crest the still rising peaks of the Wasatch range.

We're currently experiencing the height of spring runoff as suddenly soaring temperatures have sent snowmelt gushing down from the highlands. The normally cheerful canyon creeks are now raging muddy torrents that have topped their banks and in a few cases caused some serious flooding. As I drove up the winding canyon road, I caught glimpses of the river and was shocked by the intensity of its flow.

Upon arrival at the monument I bought a ticket at the visitor's center and headed up the mountain. My tour was to start at 3:50 which gave me about 1 1/2 hours to hike the 1.5 mile trail--more than enough time to wander slowly and enjoy the sights along the way...and there are definitely sights worth stopping for!

The trail is a little steep in places, but paved for its entire length and has numerous benches along the way for those wanting to take a breather or enjoy a satisfying view. While ascending in such luxury, it's difficult to imagine what it must have been like for those who'd originally found the caves. The canyon walls are sheer cliffs and several areas along the trail are marked with a bright red line (left) as being at high risk for rock slides. When you purchase a ticket, you are cautioned to keep moving through these marked areas to minimize the risk that you could get clobbered by a falling boulder. It may sound a bit extreme, but there are in fact deaths that occur along this trail every couple of years--mostly after long falls from a steep unguarded edge.

There are three separate caves that make up the system we now collectively call Timpanogos. The first, Hansen cave, was discovered by Martin Hansen in 1887 after he followed the tracks of a mountain lion through the snow to its den, which was adjacent to the cave's opening. It must have been quite a chase up the nearly vertical rocky slopes! In 1915 a second cave was found by two teenagers exploring the area around Hansen's, and later a third was added to the collection by Hansen's own son and grandson when they spotted its opening through a pair of binoculars while hunting deer on the opposite side of the canyon. In the photo to the right you can see switchbacks leading up to the shelter at the entrance to the caves. Now try to picture finding your way up those slopes without a trail...whew!

As I neared the end of the trail, I was approached by a few fearless rodents undoubtedly investigating me as a possible source of handouts. I know it's against the rules to feed these cute little guys, but I do remember coming here as a kid and having chipmunks jump right up onto our picnic table to "politely" take food right out of my fingers.

Timp Cave is a popular destination for Utahns and out-of-towners alike and generally the trail is rather crowded. The tour group I ended up being with today was a full 20 people, but I was grateful that the trip up had not been too chaotic. We were taken through the caves by a ranger who regaled us with tales of the cave's history and evolution into the protected monument it is today. Despite the lack of easy access, when Hansen's Cave was found, people flocked to view (and loot) its beautiful calcite formations. In a very short period of time it had largely been destroyed. The touch of a single oily finger can permanently stain the sensitive surface of a cave formation and prevent any further growth. This means a lot when you understand that a formation only 2 inches in length may have taken about 400 years to grow (no kidding!). After the second two caves were found, they're discoverers took great pains to protect and preserve them for the enjoyment of many generations to come. The ranger said that if these caves had been more recently discovered, it's likely they'd be kept top secret and away from the public at all costs...it made me wonder if there had been other caves found nearby that they're still keeping under lock and key...

The decorated caverns inside the cave are spectacular. There are towering fountains of "chocolate" and "caramel" flowstone tinted by iron as they cascade over rocky outcroppings...intimate lakes of impeccably clear water that is yet so saturated with dissolved minerals that small stones can float atop their surfaces...translucent ivory stalactites and stalagmites reaching toward each other from ceiling to floor...curls of spindly helicites writhing wormlike over walls...the occasional piece of "cave bacon" cruelly beckoning to all hungry hikers...and possibly the most famous of Timpanogos' treasures: its enormous "heart". It is truly a wonderland! I wanted to photograph everything I saw--and certainly tried. Unfortunately, (and perhaps predictably) most of my pictures came out as dark blurs--which is why I don't have more of them featured here. Thinking back, I wish I had put away my camera entirely and allowed my eyes to feast uninterrupted on the riches surrounding me. There are much better pictures than I could ever take readily available online anyway. Now I feel I may have cheated myself out of a more authentic experience.

As our 1 hour tour ended, the ranger reminded us of how the choices of many different individuals had shaped the fate of the caves we'd just traveled through. He challenged us each to consider the impact our choices had on the earth, our fellow man, and our own personal history..."make it a good one". He said.

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