I took my required Geology course in college. It was interesting at the time, and I learned what I needed to learn to get the grade I wanted. But the details quickly evaporated from my mind. I’ve never been terribly excited about geology; perhaps this is a reaction to my mother’s infernal rock mania. She was forever gazing at the ground, stopping to pick up rocks, large and small. She’d lug them home in pockets or the back of the car and they ended up all over the house. I’m sure I felt her grinning presence over my shoulder as I lugged them out of the house after she died.
Time poses another hindrance to my appreciation of geology. Large numbers—well honestly, all numbers—muddle my brain. I’m nearly as inept about geological time as the young-earth creationists who typically believe our planet is between five and ten thousand years old and that God created the universe in six days. I can handle the six days, but I get confused when the digits add up beyond thousands: thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, billions; all those zeros make me cross-eyed. Aren’t you glad I’m not your banker?
Sometimes though, geology slaps me in the face and leaves me slack-jawed with awe. Such was the case during a recent trip through Timpanogos Caves in the American Fork Canyon of northern Utah. I’d traveled from Boise, through Idaho’s Hagerman Valley, south through ghostly remains of northern Nevada towns like Wells, entered Utah near the famed Bonneville Salt Flats, and hunkered through Salt Lake City’s rush hour freeway traffic and my spirits were beginning to ebb when a series of rainbows guided me toward the exit for State Highway 92.
The American Fork Canyon enters an Edenic landscape of river, rock, canyon, and riparian forest. The American Fork River was gushing at full force even in September. As I approached the Timpanago Caves, tourist facilities were winding down for the day, but I stopped and grabbed a brochure. A mile or two up the road a quiet campground beckoned. After settling in for the night, I examined my brochure. These caves looked way too interesting to pass up, so I decided to backtrack first thing in the morning.
The first of three, Hansen Cave was discovered in 1887 by a Mormon settler who stumbled upon the entrance while cutting wood for his homestead. One story reports that Martin Hansen was actually tracking a cougar when he found the cave. Word spread of the wondrous and colorful formations inside. Overuse and damage followed early discovery, causing an outdoor club from Payson, Utah to take up the cause of preserving the Hansen cave along with two more adjacent caves. With encouragement from the U.S. Forest Service, President Warren G. Harding created the Timpanogos Cave National Monument in 1922.
Today visitors hike one and half miles up a steep paved trail where they assemble at a grotto near the entrance to Hansen cave. Park rangers escort groups of up to 20 people half a mile through the mountain in the now connected three caves: Hansen, Middle, and Timpanogos. Each cave is slightly different and together they form a prehistoric textbook depicting the history of this part of the globe.
Geology writes that the rocks beside the trail to the caves began forming in a warm shallow ocean, 200 to 300 million years ago. Now this is particularly difficult for me to get my head around because the prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which I’m quite familiar with, existed as recently as 32,000 (thousand) years ago. So, long before there was a Lake Bonneville or a Bonneville flood, which scoured much of Idaho’s Snake River plain, this vast ocean hosted a near tropical environment with corals and tiny crinoids and bryzoans whose remains we see preserved in limestone rock.
What’s more amazing to me is that after climbing more than a thousand feet to the cave entrance, I discovered that the rocks I stood upon had once been on the same level as the river, so far below me. Through the millions of years, tectonic forces uplifted those towering 10 and 11 thousand foot Utah peaks, carrying these caves upward with them, while the unending flow of the American Fork River hacked the canyon which now leads out to the vast plain upon which Salt Lake City sits.
The caves themselves are the result of a complex combination of fault slippage, trapped and seeping water, and air currents which form stunning calcite and aragonite formations. Guests are warned not to touch the enchanting crystals because the oils from our skin damage the chemical balance of the formations. At times we gathered in spacious rooms while the guide explained the ancient text before us. At other times we squeezed carefully between giant fault lines and climbed up man-made stairs that connect the three caves. Although I must still think twice before I discuss the passage of time, I will never forget the beauty of nature spinning an intricate mosaic of images.
The caves are open for tours from May – October, weather permitting. Tickets are sold at the visitor center and online. During the summer months tickets often sell out early, so the Park Service recommends purchasing tickets at least one day before a planned visit. Bring a jacket because it is about 40 degrees Farenheit inside the mountain. Plan at least three and half to four hours for the hike to and from the cave and the tour which lasts more than an hour. An added bonus to your trip is the scenery yet to come in the American Fork Canyon which is dotted with clean and inviting picnic areas and a few really well maintained campgrounds. The forest floor is a delightful mix of aspen groves and hardwood forests. As you round the bend toward Sundance Ski Area, giant granite peaks take your breath away. 801 756-5238 http://www.utah.com/nationalsites/timp_cave.htm
Link to David Boren’s images: http://scenicutah.com/timpanogos/timpanogoscave.php
Photos without credits are my own.