Nov 5, 2010
Silver Hill, AR – Mountain View, AR
The previous night, around the fire at the Buffalo River, someone had inquired whether I was going to “the Caverns” or not.
“Uh…,” I replied, “I hadn’t planned on it. What is it?”
The group went on to explain to me that Blanchard Springs Caverns, within the Ozark National Forest, was an attraction not to be missed on any trip to the Ozarks, so I figured I’d stop by there on my way out the next morning.
When I pulled into the parking lot that morning, it was already full of cars and school busses, and I was told that it would be a while before I could get onto a shuttle to the cave’s entrance. Pretty popular for a Friday in November. I went to check out a small hiking area to the spring’s outlet while I was waiting, to keep from shivering in the frosty fall morning. I nearly decided not to pay the $10 admission fee for the cave proper, but decided on one last splurge – and it was certainly worth it!
Blanchard Springs Caverns formed as a byproduct of the same geological forces that created the rest of the Ozarks. Hundreds of millions of years ago, an inland sea covered the central United States, including Arkansas, and laid down millennia of sediment on the ocean floor, including tons of calcium deposits from decomposing shells and bones. That sediment was compressed by the weight of the water above it, and when the ocean receded it became the newly-exposed bedrock, composed largely of limestone. After that, but still hundreds of millions of years ago, the earth shifted and lifted up the crust of what is now northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. This is known as uplift, and it is what created the Ozark Dome – see my previous posts for some pictures of relics of this. As water rolled downhill from this plateau, it naturally sought out cracks in rocks, and wore away softer minerals from on top of and within the stone. Millennia of this process created the steeply rolling topography of the Ozarks as we see them today. Eventually, in much more recent geologic time (but still tens of thousands of years ago), the trickling water began wearing away the softer stone under the bedrock in what was to become the Caverns. At this point, the water was able to tap into the source of a natural spring, which gave it a quick outlet from the interior of the rock. This increased the speed and quantity of water coming through, and the water’s erosion of the limestone intensified as well. Over time, the amount of water flowing through decreased, leaving empty cavernous rooms under the bedrock. In places, the ceilings collapsed once the support of the water was removed; in others they became sturdier as the rock walls shored them up. Small amounts of water continued to pass through, eroding and depositing minerals as it went, creating the Blanchard Springs Caverns as we know them today.
The “Dripstone Tour” takes visitors past the most dazzling of the cave formations, or speleothems as they are technically known. Blanchard Springs Caverns is an “active” cave, which means that the formations are still growing as water is still dripping through. The $10 fee includes a shuttle to the
cave entrance, a short lecture on cave formation and history, a self-guided tour recording, and the elevator back up to the top. You can get through it in an hour or spend all day in the dark, humid, 58-degree depths. In the summertime, two other, more extensive (and expensive) tours are offered, but the Dripstone was my only option in November. While there were plenty of other people down there with me, it never felt really crowded – that might be different in the heavy tourist season, so I felt lucky in my timing. I’m not going to both saying any more about the cave, because my photos can probably explain it better. I don’t have equipment for fancy cave photography, but good theatrical lighting helped me out, and my photos turned out better than expected. To get a really good look at the place, you’ll have to visit for yourself!
A visit to any cave these days requires some mention of the bats that inhabit it. The Blanchard Springs Caverns is the only cave currently open to the public on any National Forest, and visitors who have visited another cave or expect to are required to sterilize their shoes and change clothing before entering this one. The reason for all of this security is the spread of White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that is devastating bat populations across North America. I’ve touched on it in a past post, and for more information on the latest research, the official web page is a great source: http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/. I won’t say more about it now, but I have plans to devote an entire future post to the subject, so stay tuned.