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Beautiful caverns – in Florida of all places

Updated on August 9, 2014
Dream Lake at Luray Caverns, the most visited caverns in the U.S.
Dream Lake at Luray Caverns, the most visited caverns in the U.S. | Source

Caverns filled with natural beauty are found throughout the U.S. – mostly in Ohio, Missouri, New Mexico, Texas, Kentucky and Virginia. The largest is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and the most visited is Luray Caverns in Virginia. Tourists enjoy exploring these underground sites filled with stunning stalactites, stalagmites and other limestone formations.

Did you know one of these caverns is located in Florida? Yes. Florida!

We recently stopped in the quaint town of Marianna, FL (66 miles west of Tallahassee on I-10) and toured the Florida Caverns that’s part of a state park. After climbing down 45 steps we began a 40-minute subterranean tour. A Florida Park Ranger served as our tour guide and led us along a 1,600 feet long path, periodically stopping and pointing out the beautiful formations housed in a series of connected “rooms.”

To get from one room to another we had to bend waaaaay down and squeeeeeze under the limestone rock and stalactites, even then sometimes I hit my noggin. Our guide repeatedly warned, “Watch your head.” Only a pair of young girls in our group were small enough to make it through without stooping over.

Watch your head: The ceilings are low in the Florida Caverns

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Florida's geology plays a major role in the creation of caverns

To comprehend how this cavern was formed you need to understand a little geology. If I could cut a big chunk out of Florida’s soil below ground it would reveal several sandwich-like layers. One of Florida’s primary geologic materials is a porous layer of limestone rock, which sits atop clay and bedrock. The limestone is topped with sandy soils that were deposited over millions of years ago as the ocean level rose and fell.

Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, the movement of these warm, shallow seas produced limestone. The ingredients in this slow agitating underwater “cocktail shaker” included ocean shells and skeletal fragments of marine life. Limestone is basically the fossilized remnants of these creatures and that makes it ease to dissolve.

Limestone has many uses. It's found in toothpaste, paper, plastics, cereals, medicines and cosmetics. It’s also been used in construction, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that time, many banks, office buildings and train stations were made of limestone. It even covers the Great Pyramids.

Florida Caverns
Florida Caverns | Source
Coquina, a variety of Florida limestone, is composed of seashells.
Coquina, a variety of Florida limestone, is composed of seashells. | Source

Limestone is a key ingredient in these unique caverns

Limestone is one of the main elements needed to create a large cave. You also need water and lots of time. Over centuries naturally acidic groundwater seeped through the limestone rocks and produced holes in them. This constant drip, drip, drip over millions of years slowly increased the size of the holes and formed massive caves and caverns. The water’s chemical interaction with the limestone also created a variety of spectacular underground formations:

  • Stalactites– (from the Greek “that which drips.”) These icicle-like formations hang from the cave ceiling.
  • Stalagmites– (from the Greek “drop.”) These formations grow up from the cave floor below a dripping and growing stalactite.

[Many people have a hard time differentiating "tites" from "mites." To help you remember the difference: StalacTITE, which holds tight on the ceiling, has a "C" for "ceiling" and stalagmite has a "G" for "ground."]

  • Soda Straws– These are thin, hollow tube formations that grow out of cracks. They mostly grow on the roof of the cave.
  • Columns– These massive formations are created when the stalactites and stalagmites meet and grow together.

Stalactites hang from the cave ceiling and stalagmites grow up from the ground.
Stalactites hang from the cave ceiling and stalagmites grow up from the ground. | Source

The words "caves" and "caverns" are interchangeable

As we continued to walk through the cavern our ranger cautioned us not to touch the various formations because even a gentle pat of a stalagmite could kill it. He explained the oils in our skin creates a barrier between the mineral deposits and that stops the formation’s growth.

During our underground tour we enjoyed the 65 degree temperature (25 degrees lower than on ground level). We weren't the only ones who sought out the cooler temps. Centuries ago, archaeologists say Native Americans took refuge in these caves to escape Florida's summer heat. Before the Civil War, locals often held picnics in the cool caves.

Often limestone caves are named caverns. Cavern refers to a very large cave or one that contains large rooms. One of the first rooms you see in Florida Caverns is the Wedding Room. It has been chosen by couples as the site of their marriage ceremonies, because the limestone formations in the room look like a giant drapery-like wedding cake and a large pipe organ.

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The CCC gave nature a hand

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt programs designed to stabilize the economy during the Great Depression by creating employment opportunities for those in need.

Thousands of young, unemployed men were recruited into an army of sorts that battled America’s damaged natural resources on government owned lands.

The CCC became known as Roosevelt's “Tree Army” because these strong men planted some 3 billion trees from 1933 to 1942 and restored the country’s forests, which once dominated the U.S. landscape. They also built numerous roads, trails, recreation facilities and buildings.

A total of 3 million men served in the CCC over its nine years.

To be eligible to enlist in the CCC men had to be unemployed, unmarried and between the ages of 18 and 26. A little less than half of the men (45%) were city dwellers. Most were hungry and poorly educated. About 70% of the enrollees were malnourished and poorly clothed and only 11% had graduated from high school.

Most of the men lived in camps spread across the western U.S. They were provided with room, food and clothing. The CCC men wore surplus military khaki and blue denim clothes. The camps, like military bases, were little self-contained cities.

In their free time CCC members could participate in cultural events, sports activities, arts and crafts and dances. The men were allowed to leave camp on weekends, but most stayed at the site because it satisfied all their needs.

Each CCC member was paid $30 a month and they were required to send $25 of their pay to their families to ease life for the folks back home. The men worked 40-hour weeks.

Enlistments were for six months and most CCC men reenlisted several times until they reached the maximum two year stint.

CCC workers prepare a drainage canal in Oregon for fine grading before concrete is poured. Most CCC projects were in the west, which had vast undeveloped park lands.
CCC workers prepare a drainage canal in Oregon for fine grading before concrete is poured. Most CCC projects were in the west, which had vast undeveloped park lands. | Source

The man behind the caverns

This room is not on the same massive scale as found in the Luray Caverns. In the Virginia tourist attraction rooms have cathedral-size ceilings. Luray even has a specially designed organ (established in the 1950s). It’s called a “Stalacpipe” organ because electronically controlled rubber mallets tap stalactites and produce musical tones. The organ console is connected to stalactites spread out over 3.5 acres, making it the largest musical instrument in the world.

Luray Caverns has received rave reviews from visitors since it opened to the public over a century ago. After a visit in 1880, the Smithsonian Institution declared, “It is safe to say that there is probably no other cave in the world more completely and profusely decorated with stalactitic and stalagmitic ornamentation than that at Luray.”

Such pronouncements prompted Floridian Dr. J.C. Patterson to visit Luray. He was fascinated by the massive caverns and he urged the local chamber of commerce to support an effort to develop a cavern attraction in Marianna, Florida.

In 1935, Dr. Patterson donated the land that makes up most of Florida Caverns State Park. Dr. Patterson and the business community knew that building a state park would produce needed construction jobs and generate a steady flow of tourism dollars.

Caverns supporters originally focused on a different area for their tourist attraction. Then, in 1937, a geologist accidentally discovered the entrance to the current cave. He saw that a newly fallen tree’s root ball had exposed a small hole in the ground. He crawled into it and discovered the network of caves and the beautiful formations that many tourists enjoy today.

In its natural state, the cavern wasn’t large enough for people to stand and move about. Most of the cave was only a few feet tall. In 1938, the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began work on the cavern and other structures in the park. (See CCC sidebar story.)

A hardy group of CCC men, nicknamed “The Gopher Gang” after the burrowing rodent, tolled for five years underground. With limited lighting and headroom, they crawled through the cave and excavated it using only pick axes and other hand tools.

As we stood in one of the rooms, the ranger pointed out a white dinner plate over our heads, The CCC men had cemented it in place. It was used 80-years ago to reflect the light coming from a bare bulb in the cave ceiling.

More than 200 CCC workers used picks and chiseled pathways through the limestone. Some are extremely narrow and low, but big enough to allow us to enjoy Florida's only public underground cavern. As the project neared completion, the Gopher Gang strung electrical lights and mapped the cave.

The 1,340-acre park officially opened to the public in 1942. Since then it has twice been voted as the number one park in the nation.

The park includes a hardwood forest with lots of walking paths, a campsite and access to to the Chipola River and a natural springs. Picnic areas are scattered throughout the park. You can also rent canoes and kayaks, swim or play golf. The park also has a small playground, a museum and a gift shop.

TripAdvisor awarded the park its Certificate of Excellence and the travel website's users gave it 4½ stars out of 5. One woman on TripAdvisor raved about the cave and trails and concluded, “This is a wonderful state park -- not to be missed.”

The Florida Caverns State Park at 3345 Caverns Road, Marianna is open from 8 am until sunset. Park admission is $5 per vehicle. Cave tours (offered daily except Tuesday and Wednesday) cost $8 for adults and $5 for children under 12. Kids under two are free. –TDowling

© 2014 Thomas Dowling

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