What do you do when it’s cold and rainy, but you are still ready for an adventure? Well, if you’re lucky, you can head below ground and explore some of the best kept caves in the southeast.
We don’t have many caves in my home state, but Rickwood Caverns are a short 3-hour drive away, and well worth the day-trip. When we arrived to to the visitor center, we found that we would be the only two guests for the 10 am tour, which ended up being perfect, because I had many questions and our tour guide had the opportunity to show us all her favorite features, share her best stories, and we turned our one hour tour into two and a half hours.
One of my favorite things about the tour had nothing to do with the caves, but featured a rescued and rehabbed squirrel named Murph who was found after she fell out of a tree as a youngster. She has some neurological difficulties that prevent her from ever being released to the wild, but she lives a pampered and well loved life at the park, doted on by staff and visitors alike.
After playtime with Murph, we took a short hike through the drizzle to the entrance of the caverns. The cave was discovered in the 1860s by a hunter and stayed an untouched wild cave until the 1950s. It was then made accessible by a boy scout troop, which blasted rock and crafted stairs into and out of the cave. The idea of boy scouts handling dynamite nearly 200 feet below surface is a little daunting, but times were definitely different then.
After operating as a commercial entity for a number of years, it then became a fallout shelter, storing nearly 5 tons of supplies and food within. It is actually quite fortunate (on many fronts) that its suitability as a fallout shelter were never tested, as modern testing has revealed that it would not maintain suitable levels of oxygen for an extended period of time for the numbers of inhabitants that they expected it to serve. Regardless, in the years since, only 2 tons of food and supplies have been removed, and those can be seen in the small museum / store at the exit of the cave.
There were still some Christmas lights and decorations in the first cavern room, which I didn’t find to be as beautiful as the more natural lighting; but the Christmas light tour generates enough revenue to support the caverns for the rest of the year, so I can’t condemn them!
The caves reveal 260 million year old formations that continue to slowly continue their growth today. The initial formations reveal fossils from crustaceans, sharks teeth, and other oceanic life, as the caves were once part of the sea floor, and many rooms were carved by powerful currents of water. There are some places in the caverns that I felt highlighted this best, many of them looking like rivers flowing through time.
Rickwood Cavern is known as a “Living Cave”, in that water is still seeping through the caverns and contributing further to the formations of the stalactite and stalagmites. There were a few that we saw which were visibly wet, though being a cave that is visited by the public, the formations are stunted from being touched – even when advised not to by the guides.
The caverns are the perfect place for escaping harsh weather, be it rain, summer heat or winter cold. The caverns maintain a temperature of around 62° year round; cool enough to be comforable with a light jacket. They do flood from time to time, so you may want to call ahead if the area has been experiencing heavy rainfall.
I loved one section towards the end of the tour, where a very thin formation has been illuminated from within, revealing the paper thin walls of this particular structure.
Then I totally geeked out over these tiny natives – Perimyotis subflavus – Tri-colored bats. They look no bigger than a jet-puffed marshmallow, and were a delight to learn about. They enter and exit the cave through a “bat door”, which is basically an iron gate that secures the caverns from trespass by humans, but allows the native species in and out.
At the very end of the tour, you come upon the subterranean lake. Mostly unexplored, the actual size and capacity of the lake is unknown. It does house blind cave fish and cave crawfish, and they use it to provide water to an olympic sized swimming pool on the property. Filling the pool to capacity only drops the levels inside cavern by one inch. So far, they do not know the total depth nor source of the lake.