Wandering the West
There’s a cave in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains called Great Expectations. To get into it, you have to crawl through a crack in the earth that’s less than two feet high and runs 1,500 feet. All the time, you are crawling in running water at just above freezing temperature. Gee, I wonder why they call that the Grim Crawl of Death?
Anyway, I’m not suggesting that’s a fun weekend trip, although it might be for dedicated spelunkers, those who like exploring the tight, outer reaches of caves. I just wanted to get your attention and who could pass up reading a column with that headline?
What I would propose though, is a nearby day outing that takes you through the Heber Valley, down the top half of the new Provo Canyon Highway, past Sundance Resort in the shadow of Mount Timpanogos, by Cascade Springs and then into a lush aspen forest that winds up and over the Wasatch Mountains into absolutely gorgeous American Fork Canyon.
Oh, and that’s just the route that gets you to the destination Timpanogos Cave National Monument. This cave doesn’t feature a grim crawl, but it does require a substantial hike with a lot of vertical. From the Visitor’s Center, it’s a near 1,200 foot climb over a mile and a half of paved trail.
But Timp Cave is one of those wonders of the Wasatch, set aside for all to enjoy as a unit of the National Park System a small unit at just 250 acres. The attraction here is the cave. Rangers lead all trips in small groups of 20 or so. Inside, lights and stairways make it easy to navigate, and you’ll see lots of interesting things, like the Heart of Timpanogos, a formation in the shape of a human heart. Timp Cave is famous for its helictites, six to ten inch long formations that twist and turn and look like they should fall down but instead fall up.
The ranger spends 45 to 60 minutes giving you the tour, and there will be a lot of up and down on steel staircases inside. And along the way you’re bound to think, "this is one cool cave." It is 46 degrees year round, so bring a sweater or jacket.
In addition to the standard cave tour, you can reserve a place on cave tours that take you away from the main chambers into tighter, more undeveloped areas where you’ll have to crawl through tight spaces and climb up and down narrow cracks. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I hear its pretty adventurous (and safe), but I don’t ever intend to go.
You can get to the cave a lot easier by just taking freeways to American Fork and going a mile and a half up canyon to the Visitors Center, but I always say getting there is half the fun, and that’s why I propose the much slower, indirect approach via the Alpine Scenic Loop. Driving through Heber Valley is nice, and so is the ride alongside Deer Creek Reservoir with Timpanogos my choice for Utah’s mightiest peak looming over the water.
They’ve been building the new Provo Canyon Highway forever, but its done now, and it is an engineering marvel. It has concrete walls painted and contoured to look like rock outcrops, and places where the westbound lanes are elevated and the east bound lanes dropped to fit everything into tight places.
Take the turn right to Sundance, look around there if you haven’t yet, and continue past it, looking for signs taking you slightly off the road to Cascade Springs. These springs gush seven million gallons of the purest water on earth, which cascade over and through a series of travertine ponds so clear you can see the eyeballs on the trout swimming in them.
Then continue twenty twisting turning miles to the cave over the Alpine Scenic Loop, through glades of aspen and peek a boo glances at Timp and other glacier carved peaks. Once October comes and the aspen turn gold, this road is bumper to bumper on weekends, but by then the cave is closed for the season.
These are all in our backyard; spectacular wonders of nature you just can’t see anywhere. It’s a day trip that’ll take less than a half tank, jammed with scenery and new sights.
Park City to Timpanogos Cave: 2-plus hours one way (because the speeds are slow and you’ll be stopping for the sights)
Admission fees: Fee to access the National Forest $6 per car
Fee to access the cave: $7 per adult, kids at three different rates
Insider tip: You must reserve ahead or you may get there to find all tours sold out. Call the visitors center at 801-756-5238 for a reservation well ahead of your planned visit.Timp closes for the season in October.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
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