Timpanogos Cave is located but forty-five minutes south of Salt Lake City. One of its claims to fame is that it possesses one of the world's largest "underground lakes". While this might conjure up visions of Moria, the truth is somewhat less impressive. Apparently for one's cave-bound body of water to qualify as an "underground lake", your 'lake' must be at least one foot wide by one foot long by one foot deep. Theirs is some nine feet across, which is somewhat more impressive, but still nothing to compare to most impressively large but surface-bound inland bodies of water. This fact could not deter me from my course: I must still behold this wonder of the natural world.
Noticing the heavy traffic, we park a little ways up from the cave, and hike over a small creek and hill in order to reach the Visitor Center. It is Labour Day, and apparently the National Parks of Utah are a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. In order to protect the environmental stability of the Timpanogos Cave system, and for reasons of visitor safety, the Park must limit the rate at which persons enter the cave on a guided tour at any one time. We are fortunate, and nab the last pair of available tickets for the twelve-forty tour. After purchasing our tickets for the cave, we realize that it will take us at most an hour and a half to achieve the summit, which will still leave us some considerable time before our appointed tour - and both of us have become hungry.
We trek back over the hill and creek, jump in the car, and head to a grocery store. I know that we should have done this sooner - it is always good to have a little extra energy available on any hike. We look for appropriate foodstuffs, and I suggest something healthy, like donuts from the bakery. While Dana is not entirely opposed to this idea, we eventually decide upon the traditional staple of hikers the world over: granola bars.
Here begins controversy. I like the crunchy ones, and Dana likes the squishy ones.
What the hell... granola bars are less than a couple of bucks a package... and besides - I'm on vacation, so we go wild and get both chewy and crunchy varieties. Everyone is happy, and we return to reclaim our parking space the short mile before the trailhead.
We begin our climb to the summit in good spirits, and with plenty of water. The day is already warm and bright, but the breeze is cool and forgiving, and we are on the shady side of the mountain in the morning. In places where the trees or rocks provide thick or continual cover, it is even chilly. Then the slope begins to rise, and Dana and I find that we have spent far too much time in the flatlands, and almost certainly not enough time out-of-doors hiking. It occurs to me that it would be very healthy to make a daily jog to the cave entrance and back down again every morning, and with some delight, I realize that I would like to fence my way up this mountain. Finding our second wind, we continue upwards.
As one nears the halfway point, you can finally look out and appreciate the scale of the Wasatch Fault, running a clear and open line North and South through the Great Basin Region. The Earth's crust is expanding in an East-West direction in this area, gradually lifting the Wasatch Mountains ever higher - and leaving the valleys within which nearly two-thirds of Utah's population lives and works ever farther beneath them. There are five major segments to the faultline, and while geologists have no idea when or how many of the segments will shift at any one time, they do predict a major earthquake somewhere along that line within the next hundred years. When next the two plates suddenly slip, it will not be a gentle process - the earthquake is predicted to range from at least 7 to 7.5 on the Richter scale.
The earth does not shift for us today, and our footing remains steady as we scale ever higher. The tree-cover on the trail becomes thinner, and our path cuts through the talus pile of several rockfalls. We twist around a few more switchbacks, and finally achieve our destination, the Timpanogos Cave System, just a few hundred feet shy of the summit. The rocks here are littered with fossils from an ancient seafloor. Crinoids and other ancient bivalves peer out from a seabed lifted to summit.
We watch chipmunks scamper nimbly in the talus pile by the door as we wait for our tour to head into the cave system. One of the rangers gets ambitious and offers us the opportunity to join a tour nearly fifteen minutes earlier than our scheduled appointment with the underground, and we accept. We pass through the portal into the underworld, and the door slams shut with incredible finality. Dim light filters in from the original cave entrance carved by erosion nearly fifteen feet above the artificial entrance through which we passed. Our doorway had been built not only as a convenience for visitors, but also to preserve the moist environment of the cave system, and to protect the cave from looters and vandals who might destroy any of the wonders contained within. We pass through another door into a narrow realm of odd angles and lousy headroom. Our guide stops us for a minute, and turns out the lights that had been strung along our pathway, and we find that Timpanogos cave is a very dark place once one is inside. Rather, it would be a dark place but for the dim light shed by numerous cell-phones, digital cameras, and small personal electronics. She turns the lights back on, and we progress further into the depths.
I am disappointed to learn that the 'massive' underground lake is not part of the regular tour - one must come back with crash-helmet and complete their beginner's caving course to witness that particular wonder. I brighten up to learn that this cave does have other lakes, so I will not go away completely unsatisfied. One of the more 'impressive' specimens is pictured above. It is exceptionally cold in the caverns, well below fifty-five degrees F, a direct contrast to the heat on the surface world above. I am glad we came prepared with long-sleeves, but the chill moisture of this dripping place still makes me shiver. That same moisture is the lifesblood of any cave, as it simultaneously dissolves away the minerals of the cavern and redeposits them in the half-melted columns and flows of living stone.
As we travel further into the depths, we hear several charming stories about how people discovered these caves mostly by accident, and were delighted to later learn that all three major systems were in fact connected to one another. I take some pride in only hitting my head on the ceiling twice during our journey, and our path eventually leads to an exit on the surface world nearly two-hundred feet distant from where we began. It is by this gateway that we learn that the Park Ranger who ran our tour of this underground world had a sister living in Conroe and working in the Woodlands. I have filed this away as another piece of evidence proving what an incredibly small world it is we all live in.
The heat of the day is welcome as we head back down the mountain and cross the creek once last time on our way to our parking space, and to our next destination.