Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Tour heads to Badger State’s largest cave

Crystal Cave, Wisconsin's longest cave.
Crystal Cave map

Half-mile hike
heads 7 stories

Day hikers can explore Wisconsin’s longest cave near the village of Spring Valley.

The Crystal Cave tour runs about 0.5-miles round trip through 1,300 feet of passageways. Several deeper passages are closed to the public. The cave is a commercial venture, so a fee is charged to be part of a tour.

To reach Crystal Cave, from Spring Valley take Wis. Hwy. 29 west. In about a mile after ascending the hill, turn left/south onto the cave entrance road. After parking, go into the gift shop to purchase tour tickets.

In 1881, a teenage boy discovered the cave when pursuing a squirrel that disappeared down a sinkhole. The next day, he and his brother returned and with rope and lantern explored a small portion of it. During the early 1940s, a businessman had the clay and rock debris removed from the sinkhole and opened the cave to the public for tours; it was named for the quartz crystals that appear throughout the cave’s walls.

The cave runs through a chunk of dolomite, a type of limestone, that formed about 485 million years ago when this part of the world was a covered by a shallow sea; two fossils of nickel-sized snail-like creatures can be seen in cave’s floor. It is seven stories deep and 4000 feet long.

Your tour leaves from the gift shop, descending down stairs through the sinkhole discovered in the 1880s. Ramps then pass man-made pools that cleverly control the water draining into the living cave.

In short order, the tour enters the Ballroom, the cave’s largest chamber. Following that, several passageways head past stalactites, stalagmites and rippling flowstone.

The cave is home to several bat species; both big and brown bats hibernate there in winter. Usually a bat or two can be spotted sleeping above you in a passageway.

Among the tour highlights is the Spook Room, where the tour guide turns off the lights to show just how dark the cave is. The darkness actually feels impenetrable.

From there, the tour heads to the Story Room, where a humorous story of Cave Man Charley is presented. Among the last stops is the Wish Room, whose walls are filled with coins; the rock walls contain a large amount of illite, a mineral used for a variety of disparate purposes, including cosmetics, dam repair, and medicine.

The cave remains a constant 50 degrees, so when visiting always wear a sweatshirt and pants, even on summer’s hottest days. Crystal Cave generally is only open from April through mid-October with slightly longer hours in late spring through summer.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.