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Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park

Jun 25, 2015 09:43AM ● Published by Brandi Barnett

Fairytale Formation

July 2015
By Jordan Venema

Sequoia National Park is known for its tall peaks and giant trees, ethereal signposts directing one’s attention skyward. But even amidst these heights, with heads happily in the clouds, people should be careful not to overlook the park’s humbler attraction, a treasure buried beneath the earth.
Crystal Cave sounds like a name taken from a fairytale, and between its caverns and geological formations, the cave is certainly an environment fit for the imagination. Walking through its subterranean pathways, one could almost hear the dwarves mining at the mountain’s roots.
Whoever named the caverns must have had such an imagination –pockets and passageways include Marble Hall and Fairy Pool, the Lake Room and Catacombs. And since imaginations shine more brightly in the dark, filling blank spaces with pillars, creatures and fantastic things, these names seem appropriate. Or maybe these names aren’t merely the far-fetched projections of people’s imaginations. Maybe in the light, the cave really does shine likes its namesake, like water coruscating in the sun.
According to Mark Tilchen, executive director of the Sequoia National History Association, it most certainly does. “In low light, if you shine a flashlight, it really does look like crystal,” he says. It’s a trick of light that probably has to do with the cave’s geology. “It’s a marble cave, which is unusual,” explains Tilchen, since “most are limestone.”
The cave was discovered in 1918, when two park employees who were fishing on their day off felt a strong breeze rise from the stream. They followed that breeze to a gaping hole in the earth, the entrance to the marble cave. Most cave openings are small, explains Mark Tilchen, “but Crystal Cave has a very large opening.”
Those men then went directly to their park superintendent, “who was then the first to explore the cave – by candlelight, I imagine,” suggests Tilchen.
And it was probably by candlelight the cave first got its name, when it caught the flickering flame and reflected it back as through a thousand crystals.
In the nearly 100 years since its “discovery,” the cave’s passageways have long been explored – “as far as we know,” admits Tilchen. But still the cave draws thousands of visitors per year, with that sense of “as far as we know” ever tugging at the imagination.
“It’s a living cave, meaning that there’s a lot of water flowing through the cave, so formations are continuing to form,” says Tilchen. And while there are about two miles of passageways throughout the cave, “they all are very small,” he adds.
Visitors explore about a half-mile of the cave’s passageways, with a tour culminating in the Marble Hall, one of its more cavernous spaces. “Then they shut the lights off so people can experience what it’s like in total darkness,” says Tilchen. “Some people will say that they can see something, …like they can see their hand. But it’s just a trick your mind plays. It’s absolute darkness.”
Tilchen speaks from first-hand experience. His first visit to the cave was more than 30 years ago, and he’s worked in the park for nearly 40. “I’ve been on other cave tours, and they’re all very different.” As for Crystal Cave, Tilchen says, “it’s pretty awe-inspiring.”
It also happens that Crystal Cave is the only commercialized cave tour in Sequoia National Park. And since the cave falls under park jurisdiction, “they try to keep it as natural as possible,” explains Tilchen. “And people say the walk down to the cave is as nice as the cave itself. It’s a really beautiful walk down a canyon, and there’s a river and waterfalls.”
The basic Family Tour is an hour-long experience that includes as many as 50 other guests. The park also offers more in-depth tours. The Discovery Tour follows a naturalist who provides more detailed descriptions about the cave’s geology and formation. For the spelunkers, there’s a “Wild Cave Tour” that includes four to six hours of “crawling around in the cave,” says Tilchen.
Whatever your taste, whether casual or adventurous, Crystal Cave is worth exploring – unless you’re claustrophobic. That’s a legitimate reason to sit out this experience. But for those afraid of the dark, worry not: flashlights are provided. • summer tours daily

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