I ran my hand along the cold, wet, and bumpy metal, and gave a short shiver in the cool air. I blinked my eyes hard in a vain attempt to make out anything in this dark place. And then I opened them wide to make sure they were, indeed, open. I listened to the rhythmic drip, drip, drip, and breathed in deep the musky air. I was sitting in total darkness. Without my sight, all my other senses were working overtime to help orient me. But I wasn’t lost or in distress, this was part of my tour of Blanchard Springs Caverns in northern Arkansas.
It was thrilling to experience total darkness, but I was glad it was in a controlled setting. I tried to imagine those who had come before me in this cave – the ones who might have experienced this not in a controlled setting.
Blanchard Springs Caverns is a three-level cave system deep in the Ozark Mountains. Two of the levels are open for guided tours and run by the Ozark National Forest.
Blanchard Springs Tours
The Forest Service offers three main tours for a variety of levels of adventure seekers.
The Dripstone Trail is easier and accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. It is about a half of mile one way with a shuttle ride back tot he main building. The Discovery Trail is a little more strenuous with nearly 700 stair steps and about 1.2 miles long. And for those who are really adventurous, the Wild Cave Tour gives visitors the experience of off-trail caving and takes them to an undeveloped section of Blanchard Springs Caverns.
The Dripstone Trail begins 21 1/2 stories underground. Visitors travel through two large rooms – the Cathedral Room and the Coral Room.
The trail begins at the Visitor Center where guests take an elevator down into the cave. Our tour guide showed us how the cave began to form in an arch structure. Because of this, Blanchard Springs Caverns is extremely structurally sound, which opened the area up for nearly every type of calcite formation.
While on the tour, you not only get to experience total darkness, but you also see the largest flowstone in North America. Flowstone is sheet-like deposits of calcite where the water flows down the walls of the cave. They have always looked like ghosts to me.
On the tour, we also learned that stalactites form along the ceiling of the cave, where stalagmites rise up from the floor. A column is where the two meet and become one formation. We also learned about delicate, hollow structures called soda straws.
The Cathedral Room is more than the length of three football fields. Our tour guide showed us the narrow passage between the two rooms. A wider man-made passage is available for the tour. However, it was nice to imagine the explorers in the cave crawling up and over boulders and through narrow holes – in the dark – making discoveries.
A living cave
Blanchard Springs Caverns is a “living cave.” This means that the stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and flowstones continue to grow and change. It also is a great reminder of how fragile cave systems are.
We were instructed on the importance of not touching anything because the oil on our fingers and hands does not mix with the water that makes Blanchard Springs Caverns a living cave.
While taking the Dripstone Trail tour at Blanchard Springs, we also learned about who calls the cave home. Our tour guide pointed out a large pile of bat poop, also known as guano. She pointed out that the bottom of the pile dates back 900 years, while the top of the pile dates back only 200.
She explained to us that bats do not like to be too far from a natural opening. There was a natural opening near the Dripstone Trail at one time but became closed off about 200 years ago. Bats could find a way to the spot today; however, they do not like to be too far from a natural opening so they don’t hang out there (literally, ha!), she said.
Our guide also pointed out cave crickets and told us about salamanders that live in Blanchard Springs Caverns.
White nose syndrome
After we exited the cave, we rode a bus back to the entrance of the Visitor Center. When we got off the bus we walked across a mat with a solution to kill any fungus, like the White Nose Syndrome, that we may have accidentally trekked out.
Although Blanchard Springs Caverns are still open and operating, all other caves and mines in the Ozark National Forest are closed to the public to prevent the spread of the White Nose Syndrome.
According to Bat Conservation International, the White Nose Syndrome is causing the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in the past century. It is white fungus that grows on the nose of infected bats and has killed more than one million bats in less than four years. For further reading on this, click here.
Visiting Blanchard Springs Caverns
The Dripstone Trail is a great way to experience Blanchard Springs Caverns. I highly suggest taking this tour and learning about living caves and what makes them so special. I was also glad to learn more about the White Nose Syndrome and ways to be able to prevent its further spread.