FLORIDA CAVERNS STATE PARK, FL — Florida is full of caves. But unless you’ve got scuba equipment, special certification, and what some might call a death wish, you’ll never get to see most of them.
Since Florida’s water table is so close to the surface, few of its caves are dry. Florida Caverns State Park (with an elevation of 180 feet) is a rare exception. It contains the only dry, commercially operated cave in the state.
The ground below the park may as well be Swiss cheese. Between 30 and 40 caves have been found in the 1,280-acre park. Of these, 23 have been mapped and one is open to visitors. The caves are formed when rainwater, containing carbon dioxide, percolates through the soil, which contains humic acid.
The resulting carbonic acid slowly chews away the underlying limestone. Slowly is an understatement–these caves were formed at a rate of 1 cubic inch every 100 years. The caves are home to crayfish, salamanders, crickets and rats. But bats are the best known residents. Five species of bats are found in the park. Bats eat half their weight in bugs each night.
Park officials estimate that bats in the Marianna area eat 206,792 pounds of insects each year. But that’s down from 858,880 pounds before the region was developed. Indians lived near the caves as early as 10,000 years ago.
When the Spanish visited the area, they met Choctaws and Apalachicolas. The parking lot at the visitor’s center was once an Indian village. Local Indians hunted nearby and tended vegetable gardens. They lived in mud huts thatched with palmetto fronds. The cave entrances were used as temporary shelters 1,100 years ago, and in 1818 Indians used the caves to hide from Andrew Jackson.
But the caverns weren’t deeply explored until recently. The fires used for light would ruin the air in the caves, making it nearly impossible to explore, according to one park ranger. The main cave was discovered in 1934 when a tree became uprooted. In 1942 the state bought the property and the Civilian Conservation Corps dug out portions of the cave to create walking space for visitors.
The cave entrance, a deep hole in a limestone bluff, is suitably creepy. The dark crags are festooned with stringy moss, and the heavy door at the bottom suggests something ominous beyond.
The cave is cool inside, a constant 65 degrees year-round. The depth of the cave averages 45 feet below the surface, and is 65 feet deep at its lowest point. The lower portion often floods during periods of heavy rain, but shortened tours are still offered.
The principle attraction inside are the calcite formations, which range from the fantastic to the grotesque. The walls and ceilings are the work of a maniacal decorator: A giant wedding cake is surrounded by nightmarish faces, prickly stalactites called “soda straws” cover portions of the ceiling, and fossilized sharks teeth accent the bare limestone.
Several weddings have been performed in this unique atmosphere. The wedding colors are determined by the type of rock: the limestone is white, the clay is orange, and the decayed humus is brown.
Since these are dry caves, all of the stalactites (ceiling) and stalagmites (floor) are formed by seeping rainwater.”Rainfall is strictly the life of the cave,” according to the ranger. The formations are delicate. Light causes algae growth, so the lights turn off automatically as tours pass. Finger oil stunts the growth of the formations, so touching is discouraged. The tour lasts about an hour.
The cave is small compared to Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Caves, but the details are no less interesting. In addition to the featured attraction, the park contains another oddity–the Chipola River, which disappears underground for 900 feet. The park also has a good trail system that wanders along limestone bluffs overlooking a floodplain. Horseback riding is allowed.
Florida Caverns Park Info:
Florida Caverns State Park is located three miles north of Marianna in the Florida panhandle. Admission is $5.00 per vehicle up to 8 people, or $4.00 for a single occupant. Campsites cost $20.00 per night and include water and electricity. For more information, call (850) 482-9598.
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