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Timpanogos Cave National Monument
American Fork, Utah
High above the canyon floor, three magnificently decorated caves await, tucked inside the limestone cliffs of Mount Timpanogos. The only way to visit the caves is by hiking a mile-and-a-half paved trail that climbs the sheer cliffs in American Fork Canyon. The delicate beauty of the caves makes the hike well worth the effort.
Your journey begins as you enter American Fork Canyon and drive between the towering rock walls. You hear the sound of tumbling water from the nearby American Fork River as you head inside the visitor center to purchase your tickets for the cave tour. Following the introductory movie and interactive exhibits, you begin your hike. The views are stunning as you walk through the maples, Gamble Oak, and fir forests covering the cliff sides. When you look west at a break in the trees, the expansive view and stark “V” shape tell the geologic tale of canyon carving, as water continues its rugged work of shaping stone.
For those who can read the story in the rock, the levels you hike past go from the Pre-Cambrian to Mississippian Eras. Layer upon layer of rock relates the story of a Utah very different from the one we now know: quartzite tells of ancient sandy beaches, shale of fine mud, and the fossils of coral seen in the limestone imply warm, shallow seas teeming with tiny life. These levels are prominent as you climb over 1,000 feet to the cave opening, where in 1887 Martin Hansen followed the tracks of a cougar to its den and discovered the first of three caves you will see on your tour.
Greeted by your ranger, you enter a fantastic wonderland of amazing formations. Your journey through the caves lasts just under an hour and visits the Hansen, Middle, and Timpanogos Caves: three separate caves joined together by tunnels. Many different cave formations surround you: stalagmites, stalactites, and columns; draperies and flowstone; and the delicate helictites and anthodites that make these caves well-known. Often breath-taking and awe-inspiring, the exquisite nature of these caves will make you want to visit again and again, each time discovering something new.
Beginning in Hansen Cave, dripping water sometimes startles the unsuspecting visitor. The narrow passages of Middle Cave make it easier to view the formations up close as you carefully move between the calcite-covered walls. The startling beauty of Timpanogos Cave awakens the senses as the dramatic but delicate colors of yellow, green, pink, orange, and brown add to the wonder. To try something new, reserve a spot on the Introduction to Caving Tour, in which, after you strap on your helmet with a headlamp, park rangers lead you into the unlit parts of Hansen Cave. At times, you’ll crawl on all fours or use a rope hand line in steeper sections. Expect to get dirty if you take this tour!
Timpanogos Cave is open from early May through mid-October. Summer months are busiest, and tours often sell out, so it is recommended you purchase your tickets in advance. The temperature of the caves is 45 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, so bring a jacket and drinking water for your hike. For those with children, Junior Ranger programs are offered Saturdays at 10 a.m. during the summer; be sure to ask about other Junior Ranger opportunities. In addition, evening programs are offered at 7 p.m. every Friday through Monday from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
By BJ Cluff, Interpretive Ranger, Timpanogos Cave National Monument