FIFTY-SIX — Intrepid underground explorers are once again viewing the wonders of Arkansas’ most famous cave.
Visitors at Blanchard Springs Caverns, north of Mountain View, gaze at formations that nature has taken eons to create. The caverns reopened for tours in August after being closed for two years mainly because of the pandemic and also to do maintenance inside the colossal caverns.
Visitors can take the guided one-hour Dripstone Trail tour through the caverns. Length is about one-half mile of easy to moderate walking on a concrete sidewalk suitable for wheelchairs. The more strenuous Discovery Trail tour, with 700 stairs, and the wild cave tour aren’t yet being offered.
Also new is that reservations must be made in advance at www.recreation.gov to book a tour. Cost is $16.
A dozen eager cavegoers lined up at the cavern entrance Aug. 25, a warm Thursday. This isn’t a typical cave entrance. Visitors board a pair elevators that lower them 216 feet underground.
From there cave guides show groups the way through two spacious hallways that look far from cave-like. These are air chambers, guides tell their guests, to keep warm outside air from entering the cool, moist environment of the caverns.
Exiting the last chamber, there are oohs and aahs from visitors as the wonders of Blanchard Springs Caverns unfold. Immediately, they gaze upon a cavern room the size of Bud Walton Arena, maybe larger. It’s filled with formations that are gently lighted for people to see, but soft enough the dark, mysterious quality of this spectacular underground place is maintained. The weather may be hot outside, but the temperature inside the caverns is a constant 58 degrees.
There are flow stones big as a house. Delicate formations that look like a thousand drinking straws hang from a rock ceiling. Others features appear as veils of stone curtains that glisten with moisture.
Formations grow about one inch every 125 years but that varies, our guide tells the group. Moisture and rock combine to create the formations.
The caverns have 11.8 miles of surveyed passages through several rooms, the guide reveals. Visitors on the Dripstone Trail tour see two magnificent rooms.
Blanchard Springs Caverns is in the Ozark National Forest and the U.S. Forest service oversees operation of the caverns. Knowledgeable cave guides wear U.S. Forest Service uniforms.
Preparations to open the cave to the public started in 1964, our guide said. The Vietnam War stopped work for a time, but the caverns finally opened to the public in 1973.
Information at the visitor center says locals knew about the cave by the 1930s and called it Half Mile Cave. Exploration took place through the 1950s and 1960s by experienced cavers and one Boy Scout troop. A human skeleton was found inside the cave in 1955, with the cause of death unknown.
What goes down into Blanchard Springs Caverns must come up. At tour’s end visitors exit far downhill from the elevators that took them underground. Here guests board a bus for an uphill ride through the forests and back to the visitor center.
No need for a helmet, knee pads and three light sources at Blanchard Springs Caverns. A sweatshirt might be in order for the 58-degree coolness deep underground.