MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Forty years have passed since cavers exploring the
lower sections of Blanchard Springs Caverns made their way up a
steep rocky wall and squeezed their way through a narrow opening.
What they encountered was amazing, though dim lights made visible
only a small sliver of their colossal discovery. They had entered
what's now known as the upper, or Dripstone, level of the caverns,
where the largest rooms and most spectacular formations are found.
The exploration team, which consisted of four Batesville natives,
had made what’s
been hailed as the most important cave discovery of
the 20th century. Hail Bryant, who was accompanied by Mike Hill,
Robert Handford and Hugh Shell (who died in 2002), said the find was
kept a secret for several weeks because they didn't really know how
extensive the chamber was.
"Our lighting allowed for very limited vision," Bryant recalled.
"Until we rigged up a multi-flash camera system and later viewed the
slides and photos, we had no idea that we had stumbled onto
something very special."
Shell, an ex-WWII Marine and a veteran cave explorer, learned about
Half-Mile Cave in the mid-1950s. Then, the only way in and out of
the extensive underground system was a 70-foot vertical shaft
located about one-half mile from Blanchard Springs. Shell made his
first attempt to descend the shaft in 1959 using a homemade rope
ladder that proved to be too short. The failed venture, though, only
increased his desire.
Bryant, who started exploring caves in his teens, teamed with Shell
in 1960, and the two began working on a system to more easily
descend and ascend the cavern's natural entrance. Soon the gear was
ready and together they descended to the floor of the middle level
of the cave. Once there they faced underground river crossings,
muddy passageways, gigantic rocks and total darkness.
Shell and Bryant maintained a scientific approach, mapping and
photographing miles of passages. Their findings were then turned
over to the U.S. Forest Service, which owned Blanchard Springs
because the caverns were part of the Ozark National Forest. At one
time, Shell, Bryant and their teams were the only non-Forest Service
personnel granted permission to enter the caverns.
Often the exploration team consisted of high school and college
students. "But we always had a captain in charge of each trip,"
Bryant said. "Those young cavers deserve much of the credit, because
they worked hard for the team."
The upper level of the caverns was almost discovered in 1960 and
again in 1962. "We could see debris [gravel] that had washed from a
small crevice at the top of a 60-foot wall of rocks," Bryant said.
"Finally, in 1963, the team made it to the top and squeezed through
to the upper level."
After leading several news photographers, writers and Forest Service
officials through the Dripstone section, the caverns gained
notoriety as others witnessed firsthand the extent of its remarkable
discovery. But more work had to be done. So Bryant and his team
prepared a presentation and traveled Arkansas and to Washington D.C.
in an effort to convince the public and government officials that
Blanchard Springs Caverns were unique.
"Using color slides and commentary, we had to assure people that
caves like this are extremely rare, and something the public would
want to visit," Bryant said.
An article printed in Life magazine in 1964 featured a full-color
photo layout of Blanchard's spectacular formations and brought
national attention to the cave. By the time the pictures appeared,
plans were underway to develop a trail through the upper chambers.
When Shell and Bryant ended their studies in 1964, they had
photographed and mapped about 10 miles of passageways.
It took workers nearly 10 years to construct the Dripstone Trail.
Great care was taken throughout, with much of the work done by hand
to avoid damaging the underground environment. Low-level lighting
and an air-lock door system were installed, and after 30 years of
tours, they have helped keep Blanchard a "living" cave.
The Dripstone Trail and the visitors center complex opened to the
public on July 7, 1973. During its first season, travelers from 48
states and 29 foreign countries toured the caverns. For the first
time, visitors could enjoy intriguing features such as flowing
draperies, multi-colored stalagmites and stalactites, sparkling
columns up to 65 feet tall, and delicate coral-like calcite on the
walls of the cave. And, for the first time, they could experience
the enormity of the caverns -- the largest room is 180 feet wide and
the length of four football fields placed end to end.
Almost immediately work started on a second tour, the Discovery
Trail, which opened in 1977 and covers parts of the cave first
explored. Visitors may view the natural stone shaft where the
explorers descended by rope and one of the largest flowstones in the
world -- some 140 feet long and 40 feet tall. Discovery is quite
strenuous, with about 700 stairsteps. Designed for the physically
fit, it is open only during the summer months.
Those who've visited the Dripstone have been able to experience the
wonders Bryant and his team discovered with relative ease. A
216-foot elevator shaft has replaced the need for ropes at the
sinkhole, and concrete pathways with handrails lead the way as
Forest Service interpreters provide interesting facts about
Blanchard, which is now ranked among the 10 most beautiful caverns
in North America.
The latest Blanchard Springs Cavern tour debuted in the spring of
2000. "Wild Cave" tours are guided trips into undeveloped reaches of
the cavern system. An immediate hit with the more adventurous, the
wild cave experience requires that participants crawl up and down
dirt slopes, squeeze through tight spots and scramble over large
rocks. Those that take the wild cave tour, though, are rewarded with
fantastic sights not seen on the first two tours. These tours are by
While the Shell-Bryant team did most of the important job of
exploring and recording their findings, they were not the first
explorers in Blanchard Caverns. In 1934, Willard Hadley, a Forest
Service planner, descended the natural entrance and conducted
limited excursions. Then, in 1955, Roger Bottoms of West Helena lead
a small team into the caverns several times. It was Bottoms who
discovered the remains of a prehistoric Native American who died in
the cave some 1,000 years ago.
Other facilities at Blanchard Springs Caverns include an exhibit
hall, movie theater and bookstore. The Blanchard Springs Recreation
Area offers scenic campsites, a fishing lake stocked with trout,
hiking trails, picnic sites, limestone bluffs and the massive spring
that emerges from the caverns.
Some 3.09 million persons have toured Blanchard Springs Caverns
since 1973. Still, it is thought by many as "one of the best kept
secrets in the Ozarks." Tour reservations are advised by calling
1-888-757-2246. Additional information is available at www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ozark/recreation/bsc.html.
Preventing Cave Vandalism