The rolling hills of southern Indiana, known as the land of limestone, are a spelunker's dream. Water has turned the soluble rock into a complex system of underground passageways, attracting cave aficionados from all over.
More than 2,600 caves are thought to exist beneath these heavily wooded lands, all within a small wedge-shaped area of the state. But many caves are accessible only to serious cavers, those ready to crawl on their stomachs through dark, wet and narrow passages.
Fortunately for those who want to tour the underground without much fuss, the Indiana Cave Trail offers the state’s major caves which are easy to explore while remaining upright or even sitting in a boat.
1459 Bluespring Caverns Road, Bedford, IN.
812-279-9471 or www.bluespringcaverns.com
Beneath the rolling green hills of Southern Indiana, the sinewy 21 mile Myst’ry River courses through the subterranean passages of Bluespring Caverns near Bedford, Indiana. Serious spelunkers could crawl through the caverns, most of them still unexplored in an area known as Limestone Country because of the porous rock beneath the surface that’s perfect for forming caves. But for those of who like soft adventure the best way to travel the longest subterranean river in the United States is on a specially designed 17 person flat-bottomed boat.
Climb aboard for the hour long, 1.7 mile trip as the boat navigates the river’s twists and turns, moving through passageways whose walls are coated with a fine film of mud. The tour is memorable with the boat maneuvering tight corners that take it from high vaulted chambers into narrow passages on a river abundant with rare albino blindfish and crayfish. Overhead, water occasionally drips from stalactites. When the drops hit boaters, the clammy experience is affectionately known as cave kisses. These dripping ceilings along with the few moments when the guide switches off all illumination, plunging the caverns into a dense, impenetrable darkness that hides everything behind a black velvet curtain, remind visitors what the early explorers of these caverns, known to locals since the early 1800s, must have experienced.
Return to the land above to grab food at the snack bar at the Hospitality Center and picnic under the sun in the wooded cove outside by the parking lot, pan for gold, learn the geological history of the cave through the storyboard exhibits and buy treasures such as native Indiana rocks and arrowheads at the caverns’ gift shop.
Marengo Cave U.S. National Landmark
400 E State Road 64 Marengo, IN
812-365-2705 or http://marengocave.com/
There are all sorts of caving options at Marengo Cave. Soft adventure spelunkers can opt for several walking tours (no slithering on your stomach required) through vast rooms of stone formations dripping stalactites and erupting stalagmites. There’s the 40-minute Crystal Palace tour which runs about a third of a mile and passes by Mirror Lake. The Dripstone Trail Tour is a 70-minute, one mile walk that passes by both Mirror Lake and Looking Glass Lake. Another stopping point is the Crystal Palace Room, where a flashing light show accompanies music, in a grand underground theater with stone seats and a stage. The colored lights illuminated the various stalactites and other geological wonders in what is the ultimate light show. There is also a combo tour that takes visitors on both tours.
Those wanting to slither will be happy to hear that there are also some deeper explorations in the raw, undeveloped portions of the cave. The two-hour plus clean-up time Underground Adventure explores the stream level of Marengo Cave which involves crawling, stooping, sloshing through water and a lot of mud. Then there’s the Waterfall Crawl where spelunkers enter and exit through a vertical shaft into a remote area of the cave that’s home to the state’s 10th largest spring though this one is underground.
Located near the town of Marengo, the cave has a been a tourist attraction since 1883 when teenagers Orris and Blanche Hiestand slid down a narrow opening at the bottom of sinkhole holding candles to illuminate their way. What they found was a cave described as being so grand that within days hundreds of locals were visiting the site. Samuel Stewart, who owned the land where the cave was found, reacted by making the cave available to tourists on a commercial basis. Since then, this cave system has been opened to the public continuously. The Stewart family owned the cave until 1955 and since then it has had just a few owners. To get the feel of what it must have been like for Blanche and Orris, on the walking tours, the cave’s illumination is turned off and candles are lit. Darkness in a cave is complete to such an extent that one literarily can’t see their hands in front of their face. For those doing the more serious caving trips, helmets and headlamps are used.
Though the caverns are the main event here, there are a myriad of other activities too.
The Blue River winds its way through this part of the state. And Cave Country Canoes offers a series of trips including a seven mile trip which takes two to four hours, a full day trip and a two day trip. Sights along the Blue River, Indiana’s first designated Scenic and Natural River, includes blue herons, ducks, turtles and the giant salamanders called hellbenders.
For more information, call 888-702-2837 and visit www.canoecountry.com
And, of course, be sure to stop at the 3000-foot gift shop for trinkets and t-shirts to take home and the Cave Café for casual dining.
Squire Boone Caverns & Village
100 Squire Boone Rd. S.W.
Located down a winding dirt road near the small river village of Mauckport, Squire Boone Village and Caverns is named after an explorer and woodsman, famed in his day for his exploits in opening Indiana and Kentucky to settlers. In this rural area near the Kentucky border, he established a small village with a gristmill and stores. But while Squire's older brother, Daniel, achieved a lasting fame (and his own TV show), after his death, Squire passed into the mists of history. Or he would have, if two spelunkers hadn't discovered his bones in a vast underground cave that Squire considered to be almost mystical.
Though Indiana and Kentucky seem like peaceful lands, full of undulating countryside and endless vistas, back in the late 1700s when the Boone boys first came here, they were treacherous areas, full of hostile inhabitants resentful of the invading frontiersmen. Of the first eight explorers to enter Kentucky, Squire and Daniel were the only two to come out alive and it was Squire who rescued Daniel.
During one of his forays into southern Indiana in 1790, Squire, being chased by enemies, discovered the cave and hid there. Years later, he returned, started the mill and built a house. Squire asked his children to bury him in the cave and so they did when he died in 1815. After his bones were discovered more than 160 years later, a coffin was shaped out of walnut to hold his bones in one of the cave's vaults.
Because over a million gallons of water flow through the caverns every day, the walls of the cave are damp and there is always the sound of rushing water. Narrow winding passageways connect the caves that comprise the Squire Boone Caverns (note that caves are a natural cavity in the earth, caverns are a system of caves which are connected by passageways), stone steps are cut into the sides of the walls leading deeper underground, through a warren of large and small caves. The way is lit by softly glowing electric torches mounted to the stone walls which cast large shadows and give an almost Medieval feel to this deep, dark tangle of rocks and empty spaces.
Above ground, watch the mill grind grain into flour, visit the gift shop and enjoy the feel of a Southern Indiana mill town 200 years ago.