Echoes in the Cavern: A Hike to Timpanogos Cave
In American Fork Canyon, radio reception gets spotty so you turn it off. You’ve got to love that about Utah's Wasatch Front: A few minutes’ driving and you’re practically in the wilderness. With windows down, the mountain air whips your hair. At the tollbooth, you tell the attendant that you’re visiting the cave, and you don’t have to pay the canyon fee. Up the winding canyon road, you park at the visitor center and refill your water bottle. You pick up your ticket and meet a ranger at the trailhead. She gives you a rundown of rules and safety protocol. There is an emphasis on falling rocks. Five minutes up the trail, large divots in the asphalt trail attest to the seriousness of the ranger’s warning.
The entire hike to the cave is a nonstop series of switchbacks. The paved trail’s lack of rocks, roots, and dirt creates a false sense of tameness — during the mile-and-a-half hike, you gain 1,100 feet of elevation, which essentially limits the trail to hikers. Even if strollers or bikes were allowed, only a maniac would bring one. It’s dry and hot. A bead of sweat rolls down between your shoulder blades. The promise of being underground, chilled to 45 degrees, lures you upward. You know the moderate hike will be well worth it. Near the entrance to the cave, you run your hand over tiny fossilized shells and coral embedded in the smooth Deseret limestone cliff. It’s hard to imagine that at 6,730 feet above sea level, you’re standing on an ancient shoreline. In the middle of Utah.
You pull out your jacket, devour a protein bar, and chug some water — consuming food or drink in the cave is forbidden. Or caves, rather, since the tour navigates three caves in total. Inside the first one, Hansen Cave, the ranger checks the area for bats, but they’ve left for the season. Down the pathway the cool, damp air permeates your skin. The dank smell of earth is comforting. Light from the ranger’s headlamp cuts through a curtain of mist and lands on an unmoving waterfall of calcium carbonate cascading down the cave walls. Classic “water dripping in cave” sounds echo ahead, each drip and drop a different pitch. In the darkness the walls appear beige, but when the ranger puts her light up close to the wall, it glows bright green — a sign of the combination of nickel and aragonite deposits in the calcite. The helpful footlights guide you onward into Middle Cave.
Soon the walls close in and the ceiling vanishes. On each side, the limestone extends upward with only blackness in between. The ranger explains: We are inside a fault right now. You say aloud, “I’m walking inside a fault,” and it sounds crazy. You reach a heavy steel door with a glow-in-the-dark doorknob. Through the door, you walk through a narrow, man-made tunnel, descending deeper into the mountain toward Timpanogos Cave. Inside, you discover a small pond enrobed in calcite stalactites and columns, its edge lined with wavy shelves — Hidden Lake.
As you are led through the dark, twisting maze, you feel as if you’re in the guts of a great beast. The ranger stops before a large, glowing calcite form: the Heart of Timpanogos. You traverse through various chambers decorated with a lot of surreal formations, all of them formed by that same water that drips from the ceiling onto your glasses. The ranger reveals more secret glowing calcite: yellow from nickel, purple from manganese. Inside the next room — the Camel Room or Imagination Room — you feel like Gimli, surrounded by statues of his elders in an underground shrine. Time seems to pass much slower in here.
Near the end, you contort your body over the handrail to squeeze past a massive calcite wall shining wet in the lamplight. When you finally exit the cave, the blast of heat and blinding light leaves you confused, blinking like an unearthed mole. You wish you could go back into the cave for just a little longer. Cave life is nice. Cave life is magical. On the way down the trail, the view through the canyon to the valley below makes you stop and stare — it’s pretty amazing. You take a quick photo even though you know it won’t look nearly as good as it does right now. You can’t believe that this place is so close to the city. You’ll definitely bring your friends on the next Timpanogos cave hike so you can share this amazing attraction with them.
Note: Cave tour operations were suspended in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, and since then the park has modified tour operations to maximize safety for staff and visitors. Masks covering both nose and mouth are required throughout the cave tour and outside the cave entrance and exist. Masks are also required inside the visitor center, and restrooms, but are not required while hiking as long as social distancing can be maintained. Tickets may be purchased up to 30 days in advance at www.recreation.gov.