Timpanogos Cave: a refuge for explorers past, present and future

Sep 29, 2023, 9:00 AM | Updated: 2:23 pm

WATCH: Get an inside look at the Timpanogos Cave National Monument

AMERICAN FORK CANYON, Utah — Timpanogos Cave National Monument recently celebrated its 100th birthday, but the beloved caves are much older than that. Sitting high up on the Wasatch Front, Timpanogos Cave has been silently forming dazzling displays since the days of Lake Bonneville.  

Cami McKinney, the program manager for visitors operations and science says there are three different caves that make up the monument.  And while they may be geologically related, each cave was discovered separately and holds its own special qualities.  

Martin Hansen discovered the namesake Hansen Cave, McKinney said, by following mountain lion tracks on the mountain.

“And he followed them up the cliffs until he found a cave in 1887. The next cave was not found until 1913. And that’s Timpanogos Cave. That’s the one that most people remember. It’s certainly the name that we use. And it was just a few teenage boys that were climbing around on a cliff face.

“Then Middle Cave was found in 1921. And it was found by the son and grandson of Martin Hansen, they had cave exploration in their blood,” McKinney said. 

Early stewardship of the Timpanogas Caves

According to the National Park Service, the Forest Service originally oversaw the caves but did not have the money to manage them. A group called the Timpanogos Cave Committee was founded and they raised money for lights and a trail. In Oct. 1922, President Warren G. Harding used the Antiquities Act to preserve the caves. The Timpanogos Cave Committee oversaw the maintenance and care until the NPS took over in 1944.  

During the Great Depression, The Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration provided Utahns jobs to make trails and blast tunnels to connect the caves. 

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“They were able to figure out the right techniques to blast their way carefully through the rock in order to create the tunnel without hurting the caves at all.” 

McKinney says the tours are much different now than when they started. 

“So, if you went on a Martin Hansen tour in 1887, the trail that we use today is not the trail they used back then. He actually cut down trees, would lay them against the cliff face, and you would climb the branches to get up into Hansen cave.

“And then you would explore a cave by candlelight. Even in the first tours that were given in 1922, they were walking on a mud floor. And the lighting was very, very different. And so people were learning about caves without really understanding geology,” McKinney said.

The hike up, potential danger, and the beauty that awaits 

The mile-and-a-half trail has been paved since the 1950s. The elevation gain is about 1,000 feet, roughly the height of the Empire State Building. There are benches to catch your breath and enjoy the view.

In addition to the elevation gain, those visiting the caves should also look out for rock falls. High-risk areas are marked with yellow and red paint. When you make it to the top there are three different cave adventures that await. 

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“There’s the introduction to caving, where you wear a hard hat and a headlamp and you get to explore. And we have a lantern tour where the lights are off but you’re handed a lantern and you get to go see the cave, the way they saw it 100 years ago.

“And then there’s the tour that a lot of people remember and you get you have a fully lighted cave experience! Cave tours are every 15 minutes all day long, but they do sell out really quickly,” said Cami McKinney, the program manager for visitors operations and science at Timpanogos Cave National Monument.

A mirage of colors and formations

When entering the cave there is a mirage of colors and formations including helictite formations which McKinney says are unusual to see in caves. It may be tempting with all of the textures and colors to know what they feel like, but McKinney says visitors need to keep their hands to themselves. 

“Sometimes it’s so tempting to want to touch, especially when you want to understand how it feels we as humans use touch as a way to learn about the world around us.

But even the oils on our skins can damage the cave formations that can stop them from continuing to develop. But also a lot of them are very, very fragile, and a simple brush of your shoulder or a touch of your finger can cause them to break. And since it takes hundreds and thousands of years to have these rocks actually growing, it’s important that we allow them to continue to develop so that you can come back another day and enjoy the caves. But your children can also come and your grandchildren can come and have the same experience that you do.” 

While the formations are incredible, they also have scientific value. Water from the surface drips down into the cave and can be studied through stalactites.

Preserving the history and beauty of Timpanogas Cave

Remaining the same temperature year-round and hidden from weathering and erosion, the cave preserves thousands of years of history. Still, officials conduct a “deep clean” once a year.

“The 55,000 to 60,000 people that come into the cave (each year), even if they are on their best behavior, even if you’re being very careful not to touch, we often leave a little bit of hair behind sometimes lint off our clothes,” McKinney said.

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“And in the fall we go through and we do a cave cleaning — a cave restoration. We cleaned the cave by using toothbrushes, tweezers, and a little bit of water. And we’re able to keep the cave looking as pristine as it does.”

“But one of the things that we’ve learned lately is even the carbon dioxide that we breathe out is changing the cave environment. And it changes how the cave formations grow. And when we introduce too much carbon dioxide into the cave environment, it slows the growth of a stalactite.” 

McKinney says it’s important to have a balance when enjoying nature and keeping it intact. The key she says, is responsibility. She says we need to preserve the caves so that future generations can experience the cave as did those who came before them.  

“We live in a world that is surrounded by things that are made by man. We are around buildings, we’re around electronics, and there’s something that is really healing in order to be in nature. To hear the sound of the river, the wind, and the leaves,” McKinney said.

“But there’s something extra special about going into a cave. As you enter that darkness, you get to learn a lot about yourself. You experience what it’s like to be in the darkness of the underground that is so completely enveloping. Even the air feels different underground. It smells different.

“And you get to decide exactly how you interact with this piece of nature through this very sensory experience.” 

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Timpanogos Cave: a refuge for explorers past, present and future