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Natural Beauty of Arkansas
Not Just Above Ground

By Kit Bakker, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Legends linger around the limestone caves of Arkansas. Tales of desperados, moonshiners, and Spanish Conquistadors seem to emanate naturally from the mysterious underground attractions that are so numerous in the Ozark Mountains, but these underground treasures don't need ghostly stories to be fascinating. The state's nearly 2,000 documented caves possess a wild mystery all their own.

Bearing names like Mystic, War Eagle, Crystal Dome, Cosmic, Spanish Treasure, and other flights of imagination, eight of these caves currently are open to visitors. Each cave is distinctly different.

The U.S. Forest Service operates mammoth Blanchard Springs Caverns at Mountain View. The others are commercial tour caves open to the public.

Visitors who venture below ground will find glistening fossils; popcorn, flowstone, helictite, stalagmites, stalactites, and other formations; sometimes narrow passageways; and deep pools that are home to blind salamanders or trout. There are vast rooms glittering with massive formations as well as tiny niches which might hold just one corkscrew-like piece of geological history.

Inside temperatures stay the same year round, usually ranging from the upper 50s to lower 60s, depending on the cave. During frosty weather, interiors feel gently warm, while in summer, they provide a cool respite from the heat.

Arkansas's caves are living, which means the formations, caused when minerals are deposited by dripping water over long periods, are always changing.

Nearly all the caves provide guides who assist with safety as well as with cave lore. The guides also keep watchful eyes on the delicate formations.

Randy Langhover, who with his wife and son operates three tour caves, always tells his visitors to Cosmic Cavern near Berryville about the fragility of caves.

He points out damaged areas, then contrasts them with lacy soda straws and fronds from intact formations. Even the lightest touch can sometimes break a delicate strand so he cautions cave explorers against feeling the rock.

As visitors venture deeper into the cave, strategic illumination casts lights and shadows onto a wonderland of shapes, colors, sizes, and textures.

There are frozen waterfalls, cabbage heads, draperies, columns, flowers, cones, and other formations, all created by the action of water on stone. Light dances around the cave walls, wet floor, and formations, scattering and then re-forming in a rainbow of colors.

Although the tour doesn't actually enter it, visitors may view the cave's newly discovered "Arkansas's Silent Splendor" room. First explored in 1993, the 200-by-20-foot room is an example of "what a pristine cave looks like," with nine-foot-tall "soda straws" and a giant onyx flowstone on the east wall, among other attractions.

He points out that once the formations and living organisms that inhabit caves are gone, "they're gone forever. We need to protect these eco-systems for future generations."

An "ancient river" carved Hurricane River Cave, located on U.S. 65 at Pindall, says Roby Szlemko, who operates the cave with his mother, Barbara Szlemko. Visitors can take a 45-minute tour into the cave, traveling about one-fourth of a mile.

The serpentine trail, which "is mostly level," passes three springs as it works back to two four-story rooms named the Cathedral Room and the Theater Room.

Szlemko likes to tell about the cave's skeletons, including a saber-toothed tiger skeleton found in 1978. There are tales that Cole Younger, one of the notorious Younger Brothers, may have used the cave as a hideout.

At Bull Shoals Caverns, located just off Ark. 178 at Bull Shoals, Confederate soldiers "pulled clay out of the cave to make gunpowder," says Harold Graham. Graham, along with his wife Millie, operates the cave as well as Mountain Village 1890, an above-ground historical attraction.

Concrete walkways form the one-third mile trail, which is about 100 feet underground. Three bridges mark the spots where an underground river crosses the trail.

Conquistadors led by Hernando de Soto left stolen gold in the Old Spanish Treasure Cave on Hwy. 59 at Sulphur Springs, says Paul Linscott, who operates the attraction.

Many explorers have come looking for the gold, which remains hidden if, indeed, it ever existed. However, an oak tree still bears remnants of a map rumored to have been carved over 200 years ago.

Mystic Caverns, eight miles south of Harrison on Scenic 7 Byway, is actually two caves separated by 60 feet of rock.

Mystic, which has been opened to public tours since the 1920s, contains one large room featuring a 28-foot "pipe organ" among its formations. The cave was cleaned in 1994, stripping away layers of soot caused by years of moonshining operations.

Crystal Dome Cavern next door was discovered in 1967. Because of its later discovery, the eight-stories-high cave is more pristine than Mystic.

Visitors to Onyx Cave, located six miles east of Eureka Springs, take self-guided tours. Electronic messages point out different formations such as the Witches Fireplace and the Friendly Dragon.

An underground stream runs through War Eagle Cavern on Scenic Hwy. 12 near Rogers. The cave contains unusual dome pits, some reaching 60 feet in height; abundant crinoid fossils; and other attractions. The entrance, which is surrounded by plantings, is located on Beaver Lake.

Discovered in 1963, Blanchard Springs is filled with unspoiled formations such as the 65-foot-high "The Column," as well as another huge formation named "The Flowstone." The cave was opened to the public in 1973.

The 1.2-mile Discovery Trail, which follows a stream in the lower depths, contains nearly 700 stairsteps. The .7 mile long Dripstone Trail leads through the upper portion.

Several of the caves are open all year, but days open vary by season. Some are open from spring until fall only. Visitors should check with individual properties before planning a visit.

Some caves offer other on-site attractions, such as gift shops, museums, snack bars, and more.

Access varies by cave, as some contain stairs, steep or uneven walkways, narrow passageways, or ramps. Some caves can accommodate wheelchairs. Visitors with questions about access should check with cave operators before planning a visit.

For more information, check with individual caves or local chambers of commerce. Cave telephone numbers include: Blanchard Springs Caverns, (870) 757-2211; Bull Shoals Caverns, (870) 445-7177 or 1-800-445-7177; Cosmic Cavern, (870) 749-2298; Hurricane River Cave, (870) 429-6200 or 1-800-245-2282; Mystic Caverns, (870) 743-1739; Old Spanish Treasure Cave, (501) 787-6508; Onyx Cave, (501) 253-9321; and War Eagle Cavern, (501) 789-2909.


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