What's cool about where I live is that there are lots of fun adventure choices. Kayaking in the Gulf of Mexico. Hiking through rare forest habitats. Exploring new sinkholes. How about trekking through a system of prehistoric caves? BADASS. Off to the Florida Caverns.
We woke up from our snuggling marathon, feeling moderately refreshed after our 50 mile journey from Tallahassee to Chattahoochee, and ready to bike another 25 miles to the caverns. We had decided to stay both nights at Lake Seminole, so that meant leaving the tent set up and being able to ditch all the weight from our gear.
Now, Highway 90 West would have been the most direct route to the caverns, but I had decided on Old Spanish Trail, which paralleled it the whole way. I looked at Google Maps Street View for hints for what the road would be like, but there weren't any photos. When we arrived at Old Spanish Trail, we figured out why. It was a dirt road. Fortunately this part of the Panhandle is straight Georgia clay, hard and compact. So lesson learned: if Google doesn’t show it, it’s most likely unpaved.
Old Spanish Trail was pretty slow going, but it was beautiful. No cars. Seventy degrees. Pretty pine forests. We passed swamps and ponds and cemeteries. By the time we finally made it back out to a paved road, we figured we had probably added an hour on to our ETA.
We entered the park and immediately signed up for a tour. You may think, “Hey, this is just Marianna, FL. What’s the rush?” Well this park was packed. There was a hoard of Russian tourists waiting for their tour to start, and as it was we still had to wait an hour before our tour began.
So this is where I make my plea to up and coming State Park Rangers. LISTEN. You have a great duty and responsibility to make our natural places seem as goddamn interesting as you can. If you can’t make the general public understand why they are special, then we won’t care about them. And if the public doesn’t care about them, then we won’t stand up to developers who want to profit from their destruction. So do your job Park Rangers, and don’t do what Ranger Frank did.
I had high hopes for Frank. He had the age of an experienced ranger, but I could tell pretty much immediately that he was a tour dud. He spoke to everyone as if we were in kindergarten. But forget his tone—it was like Frank was going out of his way to make this tour as uninteresting as he possibly could. There were two things he was concerned about, and they were the size of the puddles on the cave floor and the possibility that you could hit your head.
We descended into the cave. This cave is huge. There are about a dozen distinct rooms visited on the tour. There were 20 of us, and we all fit comfortably in the first room, which was lit us theatrically to highlight the stalactites that hung down in petrified globules. The stalagmites rose from the floor to meet their aerial counterparts, and transparent drapes of dripping calcite ripple down from the sidewalls.
“Now we’ve had a lot of rain this winter,” Frank explained. “If it keeps raining like this in April, this puddle might get so big we might have to close this part of the cave. Yessir, these puddles are much bigger than normal.”
These caves exist because they are made of limestone, just like the rest of Florida is. Limestone is formed out of the prehistoric skeletons of dead sea animals, and Florida used to be submerged in the ocean. Time and pressure from the ocean compressed the skeletons into porous rocks, through which water filters and flows. When water comes into contact with air it picks of carbon dioxide, which then forms a weak solution of carbonic acid. This acid eats away at the limestone, and after millions of years, caves are formed. Carbonic acid is also responsible for the magnificent cave formations, as microscopic bits of limestone care carried down with every drip of water.
“See that rock over there?” Frank asked, pointing with his flashlight. A kid in the back called out, “A duck!” Frank said, “Yep, and that’s why they call this room ‘The Duck Room.’”
A kid pointed at the ceiling and asked, “Is that a bat?” Four species of bats roost in colonies in the Florida Caverns. Colonies of Southeastern bats number as high as 13,000 individuals in the fall. Not only that, the highly endangered Grey bats hibernate in only two caves in the entire state of Florida, and one of those caves is in Florida Caverns State Park. There are only 150 Grey bats in existence.
Frank said, “Yes, now that is a bat. You can look at it, but don’t look at it for too long. What you really need to look at is this step right here. If you’re looking at the bat and not where you step, you could fall.”
Another kid pointed at a puddle and said, “I think I see a crayfish.” Both the Dougherty plain cave crayfish and the Georgia blind cave salamander live in the caverns, and are equally mysterious. Virtually nothing is known about either species because they live exclusively in caves. Scientists don’t even know what the albino crayfish eat.
“Yes, that is a crayfish,” Frank conceded. “Now this part right here, you have to really be careful. Yes, even a short kid could crown his head around this corner. If you don’t want to crown your head, please watch where you’re walking, even if you’re a short kid.”
Human beings lived in and around the caverns for the past 5,000 years. Two village sites have been confirmed, one of them right where the visitor's center parking lot now stands. Most of the evidence of habitation is concentrated in and around cave entrances, which means people were using them as natural shelters. A partially fossilized human femur was found in one of the caves. Other fossils have been collected and identified, including bones from ancient relatives of llamas and horses.
"Now I'm gonna turn these lights off in the back of the room," Frank warned. "When I turn these lights off it's going to be very dark back there. In fact, you won't be able to see anything back there. It's going to get dark. Okay, I'm turning them off now."
The fact that we can walk in the cave is only possible because of the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of Roosevelt’s initiatives as a part of the New Deal. The state bought the caverns in 1935, and the CCC began the work of turning them into a state park soon after. The men of the CCC were given a job to conserve the natural beauty of the cave, and they worked on the project till the park opened in 1942. They dug out the floor of the cave, filling wheelbarrows and buckets with stones and debris chiseled out with picks. They cut passages through solid rock to connect the distinct rooms of the cave.
“This is my second favorite room in the caverns,” Frank said. “My first favorite room is the cake room. I haven’t really thought about what my third favorite room is, but it’s probably the forest room.”
After 45 horrendously boring minutes, the cave tour was over. We emerged into daylight and fortunately, it was still light enough to traverse some of the hiking trails of the Upland Hardwood forest, though the necessary brevity of our woods wandering made me regret the Old Spanish Trail lollygagging. I could probably walk in those woods all day.
But we didn’t have all day, did we. We had to leave those pretty pretty woods so we could make it back to the tent before we got killed on Highway 90 at dark. Turns out Highway 90 is a lot hillier than Old Spanish Trail. I mean we had some climbs. People don’t normally associate Florida with massive hills, but basically all of the Panhandle is marked with them.
We pulled into the campsite well past twilight, but it wasn’t quite pitch black yet. We survived our first real weekend tour since we got back from Colorado last summer. I want more of them, little two night getaways to Florida’s remote parts, but it’s hard since Travis and I don’t live in the same town right now. That will be changing in the fall, so I have lots of little bike trips to look forward to in the coming months.