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Beauty Down Below


© St. Petersburg Times

Nothing above ground can adequately prepare you for a visit to a subterranean cave, ice cavern or lava tube at any of a score of sites in the United States.

Inside the nation's most magnificent caves -- some of which are millions of years old and hundreds of feet below the surface -- is an amazing world that rivals Gothic majesty in design and orientation. First-time visitors are often overwhelmed by the size and variety of mammoth chambers, frozen waterfalls, natural bridges, translucent draperies and more.

Among America's most spectacular caves are Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and Luray Caverns in Virginia.

Though researchers now estimate that people first entered the 350-million-year-old Mammoth Cave about 4,000 years ago, its discovery wasn't recorded until about 1799. It was established as a 52,830-acre national park in 1926 and since has been proclaimed a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

Located in the gently rolling hill country of south-central Kentucky, Mammoth is the longest known cave system in the world -- an astonishing 335 miles of explored passageways. They contain nearly every type of cave formation.

Between the 1800s and early 1900s, the cave was the site for weddings, performances by Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth and singer Jenny Lind, and the establishment of a hospital for tuberculosis patients.

Today, 14 miles of trails are maintained for 13 cave tours, including one for the disabled.

Popular sites include Snowball Dining Room, where lunch is served 267 feet beneath the surface; Wild Cave Tour, a five-mile adventure through crawl-ways and unimproved passages that requires visitors to wear hard hats and headlamps; and Crystal Lake, a pool formed by a stalagmite dam.

Biologists have discovered 200 species of animals in this maze of cavernous domes and pits, underground rivers and lakes, giant vertical shafts and rooms decorated with sparkling white gypsum crystals. Three endangered species -- the Kentucky cave shrimp, Indiana bat and Grey bat -- live in the cave.

Reservations, durable footwear and warm clothing are recommended for visitors taking tours.

Located in Virginia's splendid Shenandoah Valley is Luray Caverns, the largest cave system on the East Coast.

Tinsmith Andrew Campbell and photographer Benton Stebbins stumbled on the opening to its beautiful cascades of glittering stalagmites and stalactites in 1878. The caverns were purchased by Col. T.C. Northcott in 1905, who opened them as a tourist attraction.

Luray Caverns, a symphony of sight and sound whose soaring walls reflect every color of the rainbow, now draws a half-million visitors yearly. Guides lead them on tours along a smooth, paved walkway 164 feet beneath the surface. Among the underground attractions in this 64-acre underworld are the Great Stalacpipe Organ, Wishing Well and Dream Lake.

The organ is recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as "the world's largest natural musical instrument." A repertoire of 20 musical pieces can be produced when the electronically controlled, rubber-tipped plungers strike stalactite formations in an area covering three acres.

So many visitors have tossed coins into the Wishing Well, a 6-foot-deep pool, that more than $350,000 has been collected from it and donated to charitable organizations.

Visitors think they are gazing into a mirror when they look at Dream Lake, a wide pool reflecting thousands of stalactites hanging from above.

Among other U.S. caves open to the public are:

COLOSSAL CAVE, 22 miles from Tucson, Ariz.

Its massive hewn-rock entrance clings to the slopes of Rincon Mountain like a Tibetan monastery. Once the home of ancient people, Indian tribes and outlaws, it is one of the world's largest dry caverns, with a year-round temperature of 72 degrees. Cave explorers have never found the end of this enormous underground wonder.

A modern system of hidden lights illuminates such spectacular stalactite, stalagmite and shapely calcite columns as Kingdom of the Elves, Madonna, Frozen Waterfall and the Drapery Room.

Just east of the Colossal Cave entrance is the valley through which the Spanish explorer Coronado first entered Arizona in the 16th century.

GRAND CANYON CAVERN in northern Arizona. It was a hideaway for the Hualapai Indians until 1927, and its first guided tours were conducted using rope ladders. Now an elevator whisks you 21 stories into the Earth for a tour along lighted walkways.

TIMPANOGOS CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT, 35 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah, on the north slope of 12,000-foot Timpanogos Mountain.

Best known for its incredible translucent white crystals, it's comprised of three large limestone caverns connected by narrow manmade tunnels. A steep, 1.5-mile hike is required to reach the cave, open mid-May to mid-October. Its temperature is 45 degrees. Walter Roessing is a freelance writer living in Walnut Creek, Calif. If you go

Colossal Cave, Vail, AZ 85641; phone (520) 647-7275.

Grand Canyon Caverns, Box 108, Peach Springs, AZ 86434; phone (520) 422-3223.

Luray Caverns, P.O. Box 748, Luray, VA 22835; phone (540) 743-6551.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Mammoth Cave, KY 42259; phone (502) 758-2328.

Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Route 3, Box 200, American Fork, UT 84003; phone (801) 756-5238.

Originally published October 19, 1997

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