Caverns – the underworld of Austin

(a travel journal-part2)

 

When I think of Texas, I think of BBQ, Tex-Mex, cowboys, rangers, farms, the Brush family, oil, and western movies. So when a friend recommended me to visit caves, I was surprise. Forgive my ignorance, I have little to none knowledge in geology and speleology. Ran a quick search on the great WWW, I learned that there are at least 9000 caves, caverns, sinkholes, and springs in Texas. Hamilton pool reserve which I visited on my first day is one of them. Barton spring pool in Zilka Park is another more well-known natural “playground”. During my visit to Austin in November, I decided to pay a visit to underground. There are many caverns in and around Austin to choose from. The two caverns I went to are both within 1 hour drive from downtown Austin.

 

Longhorn Cavern — A glimpse of the underworld
Located in Burnet County, Longhorn cavern is about 45 minutes west of Austin City center. Although it is actually a state park, the cavern itself is operated and maintained by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The gift shop, cave tours are also operated by them, it has been since 1930s. Our Tour guide told us that the cave used to be privately owned. It even used to be a restaurant, where the main cave as the dining hall. When the previous owner sold the cave back Texas state, his condition was to have the cave operated separately from the state and state park, that’s where the CCC came in. There are 4 different tours offered at Longhorn Cavern, with various physical demand and length in time. Since this is our first “rodeo”, we decided to take it easy with just the walking tour that last about an hour and half.
From above ground, we couldn’t tell where the cave actually is. As our tour guide led us down a flight of stairs under the bridge, we saw the cave’s entrance. We were literally walking down a hole in the ground. As we decanted down to the bottom of the stairs, it is as if we are entering a different world. The lights shining through the opening from above ground and shinning on the rocks, everything seems so magical. We were entering a spiritual world, where every tree, every rock has life. There is this serenity and peacefulness spilling out from within. Our tour has about 18 people, various in ages, and somehow, collectively we gave up our normal voice level and started whispering. We, as a group of human being, coincidently realized we are entering a different demenision, we want to explore but yet worry we would be disturbing this other world.



And I am not kidding. Everything in this underworld has life. Everything is still growing. In fact, the tour guide asked us not to touch anything in the cave, he emphasized that the stones took millions of years to grow to where it is, and still continue to grow. Because our skin has oil, natural oil, it would prevent the stone to grow, in other words, yes, our being there is disturbing the Mother Nature’s process, threatening its existence.
We thread carefully into the cave, every step we took, every corner we turned, we are at awe at the wonders of nature. At the same time, I really appreciate the people who dedicated their life in preserving these caves so that we can have a chance to experience its beauty. The cave itself does not have a light source. We are deep in the ground and sunlight is completely blocked, without light, it would be completely dark, pitch black. It is because of the spot light that the CCC installed, we can witness this amazing creation of nature. The spot lights are cleverly placed, out of sight, bouncing off the walls of cave. It created different layers enhanced the visibility of different texture, formation and surface.



At Longhorn Cavern, most of the rock formations are limestone or dolomite. And the columns are formed by water dripping from top of the cave, drop by drop, bringing minerals to the bottom part, and over years, decades, millennia of accumulation; the top part “kiss” the bottom, and became a “columns”. As we wandered in the cave, there were water drop on us from time to time.
There are also “halls” that has a seemingly very smooth surface; I can only imagine those are creations of water, and waves inside the cave once upon a time. The power of water, sculptor of these different formations, crafted these domed ceilings, sinkholes, rock carving, weird shaped formations, sparkling rocks, crystals, it feels like these are different emotions. She was peaceful when carving the domed ceilings; happy when painting the “meringue pie” like ceiling; worry when sculpting the columns; mad and angry so she went around smashing thing and broke open the crystals. The beauty of it all left me speechless. I took a deep breath and try to take it in, or more likely try to let Mother Nature in.


About midway into the cave, we came across a “room” of sparkling rocks. They were crystals. They have different names for it, the rainbow room, Calcite hallway; I like the name “Hall of Gems” best. It was as if we were entering a diamond mine. Shinning rock reflecting lights in different ways, red, white, blue, yellow… It is colorful. But they are not diamond; they are calcite, which is actually worthless. Our tour guide explained that this is one of the largest crystal rooms, and the calcite is very soft that we can almost scratch it with our fingernails. Of course we don’t dare to try, no matter how temping these “bling blings” are.
So we are in a cave, and yes, there were bats. There were way smaller than I imagined, just the size of my thumb, like a dry plum, a tiny little dark thing hanging off the ceiling. They are not in large group nor big population either, at least not in the areas where our tour took us. Someone in our tour was on bat counting duty, and we spotted 18 of them, all sleeping. It is day time after all, but we are in a cave, how can they tell it day time or night time?
There are many tales and stories surrounding the history of Longhorn Cavern. And our tour guide did an excellent job telling the stories and trying to lend us his vast knowledge of geology and the cavern. Me, I am not a very good student, and I was mostly too fascinated by the beauty of nature. At the end of the tour, he suggested that we should come back for a more in-depth tour, which will take us to areas that the walking tour won’t cover and can spent more time discovering or taking pictures.

Things to note:
Walking tours operate multiple times a year, check website for schedule. The other tours would require reservation
4 different tours: walking tour, wild cave tour, paranormal tour, and photography tour.
Wear comfortable shoes, no flip flops, might get slippery
No bathroom inside the cave
Kids under 5 not recommended

 

Longhorn Cavern | 6211 Park Rd 4 S, Burnet, TX 78611

 

 

Inner Space Cavern
The other cavern we went to is Inner Space Cavern. North of Austin downtown in Georgetown, Inner Space Cavern appears to be well-funded. We saw a huge billboard on the highway as we drive up. The road and parking lot are better paved, gift shop is more stocked, and the facilities are newer as well. But then of course, ticket price is a bit higher.
Inner Space Cavern is relatively newer, in the sense of discovery and being publicly opened. As the tour guide explained, it was discovered during the construction of highway I-35 in 1960s. When the work crew surveying the area and digging around, they “accidently” dug into a “large hole”, they found different rock formation inside, along with the remains, or rather skeletons of Ice-Age animals. These evidence helped determined Inner Space Cavern is about 90–100 million years old.
Since it is discovered fairly recently, many parts of the cave remain undiscovered. Mostly because these areas are still filled in with earth, and it is a very labor intensive procedure to “dig” these cave out without harming the rock formation. Petty much like archeologist, the geologist resources to hands and brush, little by little to clean away the dirt, the dirt that has been complied for millions of years, that are not going to come down easily without a fight.
Compare to Longhorn Cavern, Inner Space Cavern does not have as much variety. They are mostly tube/ joints/ beams/straws/ columns, whatever name they might be called. While Longhorn Cavern has many different textures and formations, Inner space has a bigger “room”. However, by comparison, I found Longhorn Cavern more interesting, and that could be related to the quality of our tour guide as well. We sense that our tour guide at Longhorn is passionate of what he does. He is genuine in educating the visitors and the history of the cavern; whereas our guide at Inner Space might be a part-timer. And no, we didn’t see any bats in Inner Space Cavern.



There are more caverns around Austin; these two are not the biggest, nor well known. They were just more convenient for me. to name a few of others:  Airman’s cave, Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio,  Kickapoo Cavern,  Caverns of Sonora, Cave Without a Name and Wonder World Cave, all worth a visit. Perhaps next time, until next time.

 

Inner Space Cavern | 200 S Interstate 35, Georgetown, TX 78626

 

 

 

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