Humans have been visiting Russell Cave in northeast Alabama since about the time its limestone roof collapsed creating an entrance around 10,000 years ago. A timeline of human invention was preserved in the floor of this hunting camp for millennia, from atlatls to bows, pottery to pump drills. The park rangers were the friendliest we encountered during Pretirement and often offer demonstrations of prehistoric tools and weapons.
Museum with American
Indian artifacts, boardwalk to cave entrance, nature trails
There are a select few artifacts displayed on site in the
National Park Service (NPS) visitor center.
From there a short boardwalk leads through the forest to an overlook of
the archaeological digs at the cave entrance, which you cannot enter.
Two nature trails (0.6 and 1.2 miles long) split off from
the boardwalk to explore the surrounding hills.
This cave is not famous for its pretty cave formations, but
for its incredible archaeological record.
If you want to see beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, I recommend
you head west to the impressive Cathedral Caverns State Park.
East of Provo, Utah in Uinta National Forest lies tiny Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Accessing the cave requires a guided tour (fee) and a one-and-a-half mile hike that climbs 1,092 feet, but the destination is completely worth the effort as it has an amazing collection of helictites and other cave formations.
The cave tour actually takes you through three caves that
were connected by manmade tunnels after the National Park Service (NPS) took
over management in 1922. It is a bit
strange to find yourself turning a door handle when inside of a mountain,
Most caves run by the NPS have an elevator, but Timpanogos Cave requires a one-and-a-half mile hike that climbs 1,092 feet, which might not sound too bad until you consider it starts above 5,600 feet in elevation. The paved trail has many scenic overlooks at which you can stop to catch your breath. Canyon Nature Trail is a flatter option near the visitor center if you are not hiking up to the caves.
Timpanogos Cave has the best collection of gravity-defying
helictite crystals we have ever seen.
There is an entry fee ($6) for Alpine Scenic Drive through American Fork Canyon, which is covered by the America The Beautiful Pass. Tickets ($8 per person) for cave tours often sell out on weekends, so reservations are recommended (they can be made 30 days in advance).
Alpine Scenic Drive is paved, but parking is limited at the NPS
There are numerous campgrounds (both developed and primitive) along the 20-mile Alpine Scenic Drive through Uinta National Forest. They can fill up due to its proximity to Salt Lake City, Utah, but backpacking is free and does not require a permit.
Explore More – How
do helictites form in twisted shapes that defy gravity?
Sometimes overshadowed by nearby Wind Cave National Park, the third-longest mapped cave system in the world is located within Jewel Cave National Monument. Thick calcite crystals are the sparkly jewels that adorn the walls of this gem in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Lantern Tour, Scenic Tour, Wild Caving Tour
The Wild Caving Tour is reserved for those willing and able to squeeze through the 8.5 x 24-inch crawlspace located out front of the visitor center. It is a taste of what is to come during sections like the “Brain Drain.” Thick layers of manganese will permanently stain clothing worn by those brave enough to take this epic 4-hour journey that crawls less than half a mile past rare hydromagnesite balloons and gypsum flowers.
Most of the forest within the monument has burned, but Canyons Trail makes a 3.5 mile loop from the visitor center or Historic Ranger Cabin.
Most cave tours do not allow you to touch anything, but on the Historic Lantern Tour at the historic entrance to the cave (summer only) you can feel the 4-inch long calcite crystals (also called dogtooth spar) that formed like a bathtub ring as water slowly drained out.
Summer when the Historic Lantern Tour and Wild Caving Tour are offered.
Originally designated a National Monument in 1922, the area surrounding 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak became a National Park in 1986. This park is so remote that moonless nights offer some of the darkest skies you will see in your entire life. Plan to stay multiple nights to walk along the scenic Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, summit the peak, visit Lexington Arch, hike through a grove of ancient trees, and take a guided tour of Lehman Caves.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, Lehman Caves, Lexington Arch, bristlecone pine trees
Pass through ancient bristlecone pine trees on your hike to the only remaining glacier in the state of Nevada. This park was once home to the oldest single-stem tree in the world with nearly 5,000 annual rings (a cross-section is on display at the Great Basin Visitor Center). It was killed by a researcher who cut it down to count it in 1964, but he then became a major advocate for creating the national park.
Lexington Arch is located down a long dirt road, the first nine miles of which are passable by any vehicle, but the final two miles require four-wheel-drive. From the trailhead, the hike is 1.7-miles one-way, for a total round trip of 7.4 miles if you park where we did. Lexington Arch is an impressive 60 feet tall and its limestone structure is unique since most arches are sandstone.
Gnarled branches of bristlecone pine trees reach for the sky at 10,000 feet in elevation. Wheeler Peak provides a great backdrop for them.
Summer, with September a great time of year to visit for changing colors in the aspen stands. Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive closes in winter.