Underground adventures await in Midwest caves
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of Squire Boone. Daniel Boone’s kid brother, Squire was overshadowed by his legendary sibling’s courageous expeditions into uncharted territory, despite the fact that the two often traveled together.
“Daniel was the lucky one. He had people write down all his exploits,” said Claudia Yundt, the director of southern Indiana’s Squire Boone Caverns. About 30 miles west of Louisville, Ky., the cave may be the only place where Squire, not Daniel, is the one who is revered.
The Boones stumbled across the cave in 1790 during a westward exploration.
“They were following the creek that runs beside the caverns when they discovered the spring that comes from our cave,” Yundt noted.
The cave still delights visitors with its streams and waterfalls. Each day, more than a million gallons of water flow through the caverns.
Subterranean adventures await throughout the Midwest. The experiences vary. Walking may be the most common way to explore, but it’s not the only way. At an Iowa cave, guests glide through in boats. In Missouri, they take a tram. And in Wisconsin, people squirm through muck on their bellies.
One of the openings in Mother’s Cave near Chilton, Wis., is so tight that it’s been named the Squeeze. Heavyweight visitors are urged to check out Ledge View Nature Center’s simulation of the actual hole, because it’s better to discover whether you’ll fit before venturing underground. (Ledge View will offer family-friendly Halloween Candlelight Cave Tours on Oct. 21 and 22.)
The crawl, guaranteed to get guests covered in mud from head to toe, is optional. Oversize and less-adventurous folks can still take a guided, walking tour through the adjoining Carolyn’s Caverns, reached by climbing down a ladder into the damp, cool recess.
“Damp” only begins to describe the experience at Spook Cave, near the Mississippi River in McGregor, Iowa.
A small boat’s aluminum hull was reflected in a calm pool of water as it drifted toward the cave’s entrance at the base of a 90-foot limestone bluff. As the boat slowly slipped inside, the guests’ shivers weren’t from the telling of spooky stories but from the sudden drop in temperature. Regardless of the season, the temperature is a constant 47 degrees.
A relatively young cavern — experts say it formed a mere 750,000 years ago — Spook Cave wasn’t discovered until the 1950s. That’s when Gerald Mielke spotted a hole in the rock along Bloody Run Creek.
Mielke became obsessed with finding out what lay behind the small opening. His quest involved several sticks of dynamite.
“He blasted it in 1953 and worked on it for two years, excavating it by hand,” owner Paula Rasmussen explained. The cave, named for the eerie sounds made by water rushing over rocks, opened as a tourist attraction in 1955. The construction of a dam along the creek flooded the cavern, making it accessible only by boat.
The half-mile trip takes 35 minutes. Along the way, guide Bryce Decker pointed out sound-asleep bats hanging from the ceiling. Frogs and salamanders are among the other critters living amid the brown, black and white stalactites.
While Spook Cave is one of only a handful of U.S. caves toured by boat, Missouri’s Fantastic Caverns has bragging rights as the only cave through which guests ride in tram cars being towed by a Jeep.
“There’s a lot of pretty caves in the country,” marketing director Kirk Hansen said. “We’re just lucky enough that we’ve got a pretty cave that you can ride through.”
With wheelchair-friendly tram cars and no stairs to navigate, the cave outside Springfield is accessible to all. A roadway of gravel was laid in the 1960s.
“The cave was carved by an ancient underground river. Once the water drained out, it left behind a bed of silt on the floor,” Hansen said. “It pretty much came down to smoothing out the silt from the underground river so we could drive on it.”
There are a dozen stops during the hourlong tour. Rather than offer kitschy names for the various formations, guides prefer to explain how they were created. The cave has been dubbed “Missouri’s oldest classroom.”
There’s a sinister side to the history of southern Illinois’ Cave-in-Rock State Park, overlooking the Ohio River in a tiny town also named Cave-in-Rock. During the 18th and 19th centuries, pirates would hide in the cave before ambushing unsuspecting travelers on riverboats. Several murders were linked to the marauders.
Day trippers and campers long ago replaced the outlaws. While the yawning entrance is 20 feet high and 30 feet wide, the cave is only about 150 feet deep. A small hole in the cave’s ceiling provides a bit of natural light.
Upriver in Indiana, while Daniel Boone continued his exploring, his brother Squire settled near the caverns that now bear his name. Following his death in 1815, Squire was laid to rest inside the cave. Two centuries later, visitors pass by his simple coffin every day.
Jay Jones is a freelance writer.
If you go
Cave-in-Rock State Park: 1 New State Park Road, Cave-in-Rock, Ill.; 618-289-4325; www.dnr.illinois.gov/Parks/Pages/CaveInRock.aspx. Features campsites, a restaurant and lodge. Open year-round.
Fantastic Caverns: 4872 N. Farm Road 125. Springfield, Mo.; 417-833-2010; www.fantasticcaverns.com. Offers tours year-round. Adults $23.50, children 6-12, $16.50.
Ledge View Nature Center: W2348 Short Road, Chilton, Wis.; 920-849-7094; www.ledgeviewnaturecenter.org. Advance reservations for its May-to-November cave tours are recommended. Tickets cost $6-$7.
Spook Cave: 13299 Spook Cave Road, McGregor, Iowa; 563-873-2144; www.spookcave.com. Open May to October; offers cabins and camping for overnight stays. Adults $12, kids 4-12, $8.
Squire Boone Caverns: 100 Squire Boone Road, Mauckport, Ind.; 888-934-1804; www.squireboonecaverns.com. Welcomes guests year-round. Adults $17, children 4-11, $9. In addition to cave tours, there’s a historic village open during summer.
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