Chocolate falls, soda straws, popcorn, even the Pillsbury Dough Boy - no, the Big Rock Candy Mountain hasn't made its way into American Fork Canyon.
Those are just four descriptions given to mineral and limestone formations at the Timpanogos Cave National Monument, located on the north slope of Mount Timpanogos.There, imaginations over the years have resulted in stalagmites and stalactites and other rock and mineral shapes taking life-like forms. Tour guides point out terraces, coral gardens, an oversized heart, chimes, a giant comb, draperies and all sorts of animals - you can discover more on your own if your imagination can adapt to a little darkness and an underground chill.
Here are some notes stemming from a recent trek up to Timpanogos Cave:
HILL ON THE CAVE: Michael O. Hill is in his first year as supervisor of the Timpanogos Cave National Monument. The northern California native said his April arrival was like "coming home" after working at Biscayne National Park in southern Florida.
His first impressions? "The first time I saw it, it blew my mind. It's as well-decorated a cave as you're going to find."
Mindful that Timpanogos Cave doesn't quite measure up to the underground capacities of the likes of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Hill said he wants to capitalize on its smallness. Big is not necessarily better, he says, and Timpanogos Cave offers personable personnel and famous high-concentration helictite formations. "It's the prettiest little cave you'll ever find."
MISCELLANEOUS: Timpanogos Cave is actually three caves joined by man-made tunnels. Hansen Cave was discovered by Martin Hansen in 1887 after he followed cougar tracks to a cave entrance. Middle Cave and Timpanogos Cave were discovered nearby - but not for more than three decades after Hansen's initial discovery . . . . In addition to the regular tours, reservations can be made for five-member special tours - historical, candlelight and flashlight . . . .
While the cave is usually open from May to October, the visitors center at the base of the mountain is open nearly all year. It's closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day . . . . While the cave is closed from November to April, employees spend time in administrative duties - budgets, planning, training, hiring. Also during each off season, one-third of the 1.5-mile trail up to the cave is repaved.
GUIDE: Scott Squire, who directed our cave tour last week, exemplifies the talented guides described by Hill.
The seasonal job works out well for Squire, a science teacher at Orem's Lakeridge Junior High School. He's able to apply his professional skills in two ways as a guide - not only was his science background apparent during our tour but he displayed a talent for capturing the attention of everyone in our 20-member group, which included a pair of 3-year-olds, a pair of 5-year-olds and four assorted pre-teens.
Rather than talk on an adult level, he involved the children in the tour. The 5-year-olds were recruited as security guards to enforce the "no-touch" policy. A 3-year-old respectfully was told that, no, there weren't any dinosaurs living in the cave. The pre-teens found descriptions given in details they could understand. Meanwhile, the adults didn't feel ignored either.
Of course, Squire has had plenty of practice in refining his tour talents - he's worked at the cave since 1965. His highlight? "All the different people you get to meet. It's the people who make it interesting."
And for the visitors, it's people like Scott Squire who make the cave interesting.
NUMBERS: More than 90,000 people are expected to pass through the cave this year, exceeding last year's 88,000-visitor total . . . . The Timpanogos Cave staff is comprised of seven permanent employees and 31 season workers . . . . Hill estimates the daily visitor totals to be between 800 and 900, with the July 24th count reaching 1,387 - believed to be an all-time record . . . . Plan on about three hours for the round-trip tour; the 1.5-mile hike up the steep mountainside can be somewhat taxing but offers spectacular views of American Fork Canyon, Utah Valley and the Wasatch Front . . . .
On weekdays, some 50 tours of up to 20 visitors each pass through the cave; on weekends, it is up to 60 tours . . . . Each guide averages five tours daily . . . . At any one time, up to 10 tour groups are scattered throughout the cave . . . . The temperature in the cave is 43 degrees year-round. Squire likens it to a household refrigerator: "You get an appreciation for how your vegetables feel."
OVERCROWDING UNDERGROUND: Because of already tight tour schedules and a high demand by visitors, some people are being turned away. Hill recommends that folks avoid the cave's busiest days - Saturdays, Sunday afternoons and holidays that are observed on Monday.
This year's onslaught of cave patrons has resulted in a day's tour schedule being sold out as early as 12:30 p.m. - and that's with the final tour not starting until more than five hours later.