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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Carole Helsop briefs hikers at Timpanogos Cave National Monument in American Fork Canyon Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012.

AMERICAN FORK CANYON — Brenda Sanchez and Zayra Lara stopped for a photo on the Timpanogos Cave trail overlooking the fading fall colors on the rocky mountainside.

Trudging up the path behind them Sunday were a half-dozen of their siblings and cousins who were bundled up against the cool but clear morning air. Asked what brought them to the canyon, Sanchez had a ready answer.

"Family," said the 18-year-old from Salt Lake City. "Spending time with family."

Timpanogos Cave National Monument celebrated its 90th anniversary Sunday, the last day of its 2012 season. The cave is open annually from mid May to mid October.

Ranger Carole Heslop said families have visited the cave since Martin Hansen, a Mormon settler from American Fork, discovered it in 1887.

"It's a place for families. It's always been that way. That's part of the draw," she said.

At the urging of Utah residents and the U.S. Forest Service, President Warren G. Harding signed a proclamation establishing Timpanogos Cave National Monument on Oct. 14, 1922. Rangers celebrated Sunday with a large cake and giant birthday card for visitors to sign.

"It's been a great 90 years. Let's make it a 100 more. Timp caves don't change a thing," wrote Josh B.

Jim and Lois Cotton, of Charlotte, N.C., were among those making the 1.5-mile trek to the cave. Married 48 years, the couple was visiting their 358th national park or monument, and second to last west of the Mississippi River. They're headed to the Golden Spike National Historic Site this week.

"We love national parks," Lois Cotton said. "We think they're just great."

Touring national parks and historical sites has been a lifelong endeavor for the Cottons starting with Saratoga National Historical Park in New York in 1964.

Although alone Sunday, they took their children with them when they were young and now often take their grandchildren, estimating they've been to 50 parks together.

The National Park Service oversees 398 sites, according to its website. The Cottons list Glacier National Park in Montana and Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska among their favorites. But they say nothing matches the pure beauty of Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands in Utah.

"Utah is far above the rest of them," Jim Cotton said.

Timpanogos Cave is a series of three limestone caverns — Hansen Cave, Middle Cave and Timpanogos Cave. The ceilings, walls and floors are packed with stalactites, stalagmites and helictites, a twisted form of stalactites that look like twigs.

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The trail to the cave follows a steep 12 percent grade that gains 1,100 vertical feet. Wheels are not allowed on the paved path for safety reasons. Walking or being carried are the only ways up.

Heslop said she saw a family carry a child up and down in duffel bag, with two family members at a time taking turns on the handles. "That was very touching," she said.

Fire destroyed the cave's visitor center in 1991 and a "temporary" pre-fabricated building has stood in its place since. Plans for a new 2,300 square-foot visitor center are waiting for approval.

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