Cool caves for the summer

With temperatures that hover between 60 and 70 degrees, caves make great summer vacation expeditions. The damp, quiet wraps tourists in a calm that can not be found on the earth’s surface under the heat of the sun.

I discovered the wonder of caves on a hot summer day in my early 20s. Pictures from that era show me holding our first baby, as I stare up at the stalactites of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

Nine years later, I entered Carlsbad Caverns in late December. I remember little of that trip except the huge rooms and the horrific backache that had me shuffling through, just barely keeping up with our 18 month-old. In every cave, we avoided the trails that took us to places called ‘Fat Man’s Misery’ – it is not on my bucket list of experiences I want. I prefer simply viewing the rich colors enhanced with carefully placed lighting and the dark moment when the guides demonstrate total darkness and then the spookiness of the cave which early explorers experienced with kerosene lanterns and candles.

Until I visited Fantastic Caverns in Springfield, Mo., I thought I knew what to expect on a cave tour. It is one of 5,600 caves in Missouri, 18 other caves in the state welcome visitors to their well worn paths. Only Fantastic Caverns offers a difference. The only way into this cave is to ride on Jeep-drawn trams. No walking, no tight spots, no uneven ground for stumbling feet, just get on board and ride.

We paid the money and did the tour, sat in the dark for a moment, viewed the fragile soda straws above us and the draperies of rocks beside us. And, we did all that without ever having to taking a step. Fantastic Caverns is the only cave in North America where visitors ride. For families traveling with someone unable to traverse the typical cave, the motorized tour allows everyone to go underground.

Discovery to modern day visitors began in 1862 when a farmer, John Knox, discovered the cave on a hunt with his dog. Following game, the dog disappeared into a hole. Knox crawled through the opening, found the room underneath and kept the information to himself until after the Civil War ended. He did not want either side to use it as a source of saltpeter, according to our guide.

In 1867, Knox advertised for adventure seekers. Twelve women from the Springfield Women’s Athletic Club answered the ad. “They were the first groups of paid tourists who entered these caverns,” the guide said.

I pictured them dressed in the elaborate clothing of the mid-1800s squeezing through the narrow ground entrance into the cave to view its wonders. The women came with ropes, ladders, torches and lanterns. They could not see much but they did discover the Hall of Giants. The Jeep stopped beside the Giants. “They signed their names there in Feb. 27, 1867,” the guide pointed to a pillar with black letters. I snapped a picture to study later. We could not get out of the Jeep to look at it.

At some point, someone dug the larger, more accessible opening. It obviously provided easier access for the groups and businesses of the past 100 years – including a period when the Ku Klux Klan used it for secret meetings.

The cave has produced money for its owners in various ways. In the early 1900s, someone laid out a garden of mushroom beds. During Prohibition, a speakeasy opened for underground alcohol parties. In the 1950s and 60s, the cave hosted the first musical shows in Missouri – a sort of pre-Branson event with seating in a large hall of the cave. In the 1970s, a radio station broadcast from the cave. The large auditorium that seats several thousand still occasionally houses catered parties and weddings.

With such a diverse history, the reality of long-term cave dwellers seems incredible, but still, as with many caves, bats and blind cave fish live in the cave as do non-green plants. People and lights have stimulated a tinge of green on some rocks. As we entered and exited each area, the guide turned on and off the lights to discourage the growth of moss. Still just that bit of lighting has stimulated the unnatural introduction of green to the cave colors.

Our 55 minute trip did include a couple cautions for the passengers on one side of the tram to keep their heads down to avoid hitting the ceiling. We sat on a bridge above the stream of water that flows through the cave and looked up to the high water mark that kept everyone out when extremely wet weather outside brought floods that covered the tram’s path.

“We have to stop the tours because of high water that comes about every three or four years,” the guide said. During floods, visitors can visit the media center to see what an underground river looks like in flood stage.

The tour ended with a grand finale viewing of the giant pillars of merged stalactites and stalagmites. The tram exited the comfortably cool cave at the doors to the gift shop. Some things never change in the world of tourism.

Joan Hershberger is a staff writer at the News-Times. Email her at