Timpanogos Cave day; a local treasure where ‘fairyland’ and science meet

Ranger in Timpanogos Cave, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of National Park Service, St. George News

FEATURE  Ever since its discovery, there has been a local passion for Timpanogos Cave.

It was a group of locals who saw it for the treasure it is and did what they could to protect it. It was a locally-formed organization that managed day-to-day operations at the cave for its first 26 years.

Even today, there are hundreds who hike the cave’s access trail daily just for exercise and they pay attention to every detail, from flowers blooming to any new rockfall, said Cami McKinney, chief of resource management and interpretation at Timpanogos Cave, which she noted is a testament to what an interesting place it is.

Locals feel a love and ownership of the cave and sometimes forget that it is a National Park Service site. To them, larger parks like Yellowstone are for tourists, but Timpanogos Cave is for locals, McKinney said.

The 250-acre national monument that lies on the northern slope of Mount Timpanogos is actually comprised of three caves – one is the actual Timpanogos Cave, the others are Middle Cave and Hansen Cave. They are best known for their abundant decorations of delicate helictites and aragonite as well as distinct coloration in many of their formations. Helictites are small formations that defy gravity in their twists and spirals.

Native Americans, fur trappers, pioneers and miners used the surrounding lands long before the discovery of the caves. In the late 19th century, for instance, American Fork Canyon was home to sawmills and silver, lead and zinc mining operations (and even a narrow-gauge railroad line to transport the ore), but all these activities went on without the slightest clue of what lies above. There is no evidence of people entering any of the caves prior to their discovery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


This historic photo is a portrait of Hansen Cave discoverer Martin Hansen, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

Hansen Cave was discovered first, in October 1887. Up the canyon to cut timber, teamster and logger Martin Hansen, a native of Denmark, was tracking a mountain lion high on the south slope of the canyon and came across the natural entrance to the cave that now bears his name, but only explored it as far as the natural light reached into it, observing animal bones and debris littering the floor.

Hansen returned to better explore the cave several times and later convinced three men, his brother-in-law, Richard Steele, as well as Charles and Joseph Burgess, to help him develop the cave for tours. The four men carved a crude trail nearly straight up the canyon wall with few switchbacks, lashing or bolting logs to the rock to create “tree ladders” at some of the more difficult points, and then fashioned a wooden door on the cave’s entrance.

For the next four years Hansen guided tours to what some locals called the “Cave of the Buried Rivers” for 25 cents a person and visitors often broke off pieces of the cave’s formations as souvenirs, but the tours proved unprofitable by 1891 and he ceased operations.

From 1892 to 1893, the Duke Onyx Company of Chicago hired miners to take out what amounted to two train-car loads of cave rock thinking it was onyx, which was used as decorative stone in furniture, counter tops and mantle pieces. Later, it was discovered that the formations removed were made of a much softer mineral, known as calcite.

In 1913, two boys, James Gough and Frank Johnson, discovered Timpanogos Cave while doing some exploring as their families toured Hansen Cave. The young men tried to keep their discovery a secret and even filed a mining claim on the cave, but never ended up mining anything. Since only a few friends knew of the cave’s existence, when the boys moved away, their discovery was forgotten until a few years later when Vearl Manwill and a few friends combed the area looking for the entrance and made the “rediscovery,” later notifying the Forest Service about its whereabouts.

The group was dismayed at the damage they saw in Hansen Cave and did not want the same fate to befall the other cave. The group formed the Payson Alpine Club to help protect the cave and the Forest Service declared it a “public service site,” which placed a small amount of protection on it.

The Forest Service and community acted swiftly to protect the cave. The Forest Service had a sentry guarding the cave and installed a door as extra protection when someone could not be there.

An article in the Deseret News in September 1921 published photographs of the cave from the Forest Service’s initial explorations and touted Timpanogos Cave as more beautiful than Hansen Cave and a rival to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. In response to the media attention, the Forest Service declared the cave closed while it took the steps needed to protect it and develop it for tours, including the installment of a steel entrance door, the construction of walkways, bridges, walls and the installation of an electric lighting system.

There was controversy over the naming of the cave with different groups favoring different names and the Payson Alpine Club feeling it should name the cave because of its role in its rediscovery. The Alpine Club wanted to name it “The Cave of the Crystal Cliff.” Other names considered included “Cave of the Crystal Chimes,” “Fairy Cave” and “The Wonder Cave.” The Forest Service, however, made the official announcement that the cave would be known as Timpanogos Cave because of its uniqueness and its tie-in with the mountain.

While all the excitement was going on about the preservation and naming of Timpanogos Cave, the third cave of the system, Middle Cave, was discovered by none other than Martin Hansen’s son, Heber Hansen, while on a deer hunting trip with his nephew, Wayne Hansen. While stopping for lunch on the north slope of the canyon directly across from the entrances to Hansen and Timpanogos Caves, Heber Hansen looked through his field glasses and noticed another opening between the two. The two men abandoned their hunting trip to investigate and came back to explore with other family members, including Martin Hansen himself, then 74 years old.

The Forest Service, once it found out about Middle Cave, deemed it significant, but the vertical drop at its entrance made entry difficult and dangerous for the regular visitor and thus did not make it part of its initial development plans.

Early development

During the winter of 1921-1922, the Forest Service concentrated on making improvements to Timpanogos Cave that would allow for tours, including constructing a more accessible entrance, a tour trail, a parking area and campground as well as installing a lighting system.

Unfortunately, in its efforts to provide access to the general public, the agency damaged what it was trying to preserve. While blasting a more accessible entrance, powder smoke coated and settled on the formations of the Lower Passage near the new entrance, blackening them, which is a scar that remains to this day.

This historic photo shows an early visit to what would become Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Sep. 21, 1921 | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

Other blasting went on to make the cave accessible, but that blasting helped cut the cave access trail into the mountain. The tour trail in the cave included leveling cave floors and bringing in gravel to ensure good footing. The trail inside the cave also included the use of wooden planks. Trail workers would carry one of these planks up the trail every day.

A power line had to be installed up the canyon to power the lighting system, which started to run short of funding, but thankfully the American Fork Commercial Club and several other organizations stepped in to raise money to fill the funding gaps.

“The lighting system consisted of wooden pegs driven into the cave walls to support lighting fixtures with the cable suspended in the open between the pegs,” McKinney wrote in her book about the national monument, titled “Heart of the Mountain.”

In the beginning, there was quite a controversy over who should manage the cave. The Utah Outdoor Association, based in Salt Lake County, was originally slated to manage the cave, but that idea received a lot of opposition from people in Utah County, saying an organization there should manage it. In the end, the Timpanogos Outdoor Committee, originally formed to raise funds for the lighting system, was reorganized to manage the cave and did so until 1947.

By the end of May 1921, tours of the cave began, at the time only going through Timpanogos Cave. The committee quickly realized that it needed to limit the size of each tour to further help preserve it. Sometimes, they had to turn potential visitors away. With the large numbers of people in the cave, despoiling started to occur as visitors would break off pieces of cave formation and put them in their pockets while their tour guide was looking the other direction.

Another threat to the cave loomed during the first year of tours – a group with three mining claims that said it owned the cave and that the Forest Service had no right to be there. Just after the group’s lawyers started to get involved, a letter came from Washington, D.C., in response to a letter by the chief regional forester stating that the three caves, the trail and the “Cave Camp” on the canyon’s floor would receive federal protection.

So just 14 months after the rediscovery of Timpanogos Cave in 1921 and a push from the nearby local communities to preserve the three caves before they could be mined or vandalized, President Warren G. Harding, using powers from the 1906 Antiquities Act, declared it a national monument on October 14, 1922, thus putting to rest the legal claims of the supposed mining claim holders and adding a measure of protection against those looting the cave of its treasures.

Monument designation was not the end of hassles from the group with the mining claims, but the community came together to make its case to protect the cave and a hearing in late 1922 ruled in favor of the Forest Service, who, even though the National Park Service had been created six years earlier, retained management of the new monument.

The seasons immediately following the first saw many improvements to the cave, including the construction of a concession building and residence for the cave custodian and improvements to the lighting system, cave access and tour trails and cave camp.  

This photo shows early cave visitors at the cave’s entrance, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, 1925 | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

But water to the cave itself wasn’t one of those improvements. Instead, concessionaire Basil Walker sold bottled soft drinks to thirsty cave-goers because there was no water available at the cave entrance until 1939, when the Hansen Cave entrance opened and water was pumped from the Hansen Cave Lake.

During the summer of 1923, rangers quickly realized that they had a communication problem. The rangers giving the tour could not observe the full length of trail from the cave entrance. When there was no one to show around, the rangers would walk down the trail to do some work at the canyon’s base and then when visitors showed up, would have to make the climb again. They temporarily solved this problem by honking a car horn to alert the rangers up above of the presence of visitors, but later the system improved when a ground-return telephone was installed.

At that time, interpretive programs began to take shape and one of the stories that became a staple was the Legend of Timpanogos, about a Native American princess, Utahna, who climbed Mount Timpanogos as a sacrifice to please the Great God so it would give her tribe rain. A young brave, Red Eagle, stopped her from jumping off the mountain and she mistook him for the Great God, fell in love with him and lived with him in a cave for a time. When he was injured in a bear attack, she realized he wasn’t the Great God.

She nursed him back to health and knew she had to carry out her duty so she finally took the plunge to her death. Red Eagle carried her broken body to the cave where eventually their two hearts were made into one and became the Great Heart of Timpanogos – one of the most prominent stalactites in the cave. Legend has it also that if one looks closely at the top of Mount Timpanogos, they can see the outline of Utahna’s body.

The trouble is, this story isn’t an Native American legend at all. Originally, it was the invention of a Brigham Young University professor who guided hikes to the summit of Mount Timpanogos itself and when the Heart of Timpanogos formation was discovered, it added even another layer to the yarn.

Despite its complete lack of authenticity, locals love the tale, McKinney said, but today rangers will usually only include it on the tour today upon request.

NPS administration

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order transferring all national monuments the Forest Service administered to the National Park Service, which made Zion National Park’s superintendent technically in charge of the cave. However, the Timpanogos Outdoor Committee, which by then had changed its name to simply the Timpanogos Cave Committee, still operated the cave, this time around by a special-use permit endorsed by Zion’s superintendent.

This historic photo shows an electrical cable being carried up the cave access trail, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, 1930s | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

That same year, the committee decided to connect Hansen, Middle and Timpanogos caves via man-made tunnels, which also required a trail forged to Hansen Cave. In the era of the Depression, there was no better organization up to the task than the Civilian Conservation Corps, which completed the project with the help of a survey crew from Zion National Park.

The tunnel project, which created the one-way tour of all three caves that remains to this day was not completed until 1939. McKinney said she loves that CCC and WPA-era relics, like the tunnels, are still part of the cave. She said most cave tour-goers have no idea that the tunnels they walk through on the tours are from that era.

In the early 1940s, the park built a stone house for the park custodian, Thomas Walker, who later became the park’s first superintendent. The Timpanogos Cave Committee dissolved and turned management over to the National Park Service in 1947 and in 1955 the cave became independent of Zion National Park in its administration and budget.  

After World War II, continual improvements were made to the parking lot, lighting system and cave trail – there was even a proposal to install a chairlift up the cave to spare visitors from the steep walk, but such a system did not meet NPS ideals. The Mission 66 program, which was a boon to park infrastructure across the nation in celebration of the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary, brought a new visitor center and parking lot, and the paving of the cave access trail.

The monument has also weathered some challenges over the years, literally and figuratively. Two canyon floods, in 1965 and 1983, did significant damage, and in 1991, the Mission 66 Visitor Center burned down. Two people injured by rockfalls in the 1960s filed suit against the monument and won, causing staff to ramp up rockfall prevention and awareness along the trail. Later on, they even marked spots along the path with the highest rockfall propensity.

Today, McKinney said mitigating rockfalls is a major priority and is one reason there are shelters at each cave entrance. In the summer, there is a rock curtain above the cave access trail to aid prevention and in the wintertime it’s opened up because the area is an avalanche zone, she explained.

“Fairylanding” vs. Cave science

The monument’s superintendent in the early 1970s barred the practice of “fairylanding” – placing heavy focus on the fanciful sounding monikers of cave formations such as the Frozen Sunbeam and the Chocolate Fountain as well as groupings known as ¨cave bacon¨ and ¨cave draperies.”

However, in the 1980s, a new superintendent encouraged it, and even initiated special tours themed around it, as well as other themed tours such as history, flashlight and candlelight tours to encourage repeat visits and allow visitors to see the cave with different perspectives. Budget constraints, however, in the late 1980s put an end to these specialized tours.

Today, McKinney said a little fairylanding still goes on but not as much, and part of the reason for that is today there is greater understanding of cave science. Earlier on, pointing out the formations and their imaginative names was the main thing tour guides had to talk about because they were unsure as to how the cave was formed.

“We don’t want to tell people what to see,” McKinney said, noting that sometimes tour guides ask visitors what they think formations look like rather than using the power of suggestion.

A tour group in Timpanogos Cave’s Big Room, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

Today tours are centered on unified themes and what is now considered the real cave formation story is told. Even though it is a theory, there is a lot of evidence to back it up, McKinney said.

The generally accepted cave formation theory is that the rock of the cave was once below the water table and with the help of faults and fractures formed by plate tectonics, where cold and warm water met and dissolved the rock, making large holes into which the American Fork River once flowed, McKinney said. Uplift caused those holes to be pushed above the water table and once above the water table, over time deposits from drops of water created the stalagmites and stalactites.

Besides the challenge of coming to a firm conclusion on how the cave was formed, one of the monument staff’s hurdles over the years has been to maintain the right airflow that is best for the cave environment. The artificial tunnels between the caves have been the main disruption to that airflow and McKinney said they’ve tried doors made of different materials that haven’t quite worked. About five years ago they installed doors akin to industrial freezer doors that have worked better than anything else to keep the airflow as natural as possible.

Speaking of the artificial, another challenge is maintaining the lighting system, which, in the cave’s damp environment, is like putting lights in a swimming pool, McKinney said. Sometimes, as water levels rise in the cave, the lights are submerged. The lights need constant “TLC.” The current lighting system has been there since the 1990s and she said she hopes it will last another 10 years.

Cave science, McKinney said, is interesting, because caves are protected micro-environments – closed systems where life is sustained in total darkness. Even NASA is taking interest in cave science, because NASA scientists feel that if there is life on other planets, it would most likely be underground.

Kind of like rings in a tree trunk, the marbling in cave formations shows a record of hydrological cycles – dry and wet years. Scientists are studying isotopes taken from the caves´formations to do just that – study weather patterns from caves that precede Lake Bonneville and was once near its shores.

Pretty interesting for a cave system no one knew existed until just over a century ago.

Visiting the caves

Timpanogos Cave National Monument is about a four-hour drive from St. George via northbound I-15 to SR 92 into American Fork Canyon.

Unlike Lehman’s Cave in Great Basin National Park, whose entrance is only steps from its visitor center, those wanting to explore Timpanogos Cave must hike a 1.5-mile trail that ascends 1,092 feet from its visitor center.

The caves are typically closed from mid-October to early May due to the snow accumulation during the winter.

For more information and to reserve a tour, visit the monument’s website.

Photo gallery follows below.

About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

For previews on Days Series stories, insights on local history and information on upcoming historical presentations, please “like” Wadsworth’s author Facebook page.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

Click on a photo then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.

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