Of all the caves administered by the National Park Service, a visit to Timpanogos Cave National Monument requires a bit more effort than most. Located in American Fork Canyon southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah, this particular cave happens to be situated in a cliff far above the canyon floor. A cave tour here can only be had by hiking 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of trail up 1100 feet (335 m) of elevation.
Although this park is within a thirty minute drive of the nearly two million people in the Salt Lake City area, the inherent challenge of the trail seems to keep crowds manageable. I visited on a Saturday afternoon in late May but parking and cave tour tickets were still available.
The hike up to the cave is as beautiful and fascinating as the cave itself. The trail starts off with a relatively modest grade as it winds gently through dense conifers, oaks, maples, and verdant ground cover.
Before long the grade gets steeper and rocks overtake plants as the dominant feature.
Rockfalls are common on these steep canyon slopes, and there are a number of especially dangerous spots where hikers are not supposed to stop for anything.
The National Park Service has helpfully painted striped lines in these hazardous locations, letting visitors know where they should not linger.
Among the hazards there are endless gorgeous views of American Fork Canyon.
Farther up there are three tunnels that have been blasted through the canyon walls.
The rocks along the trail are sedimentary in origin. From roughly 400 to 300 million years ago this region was low and flat, bordering an extensive salt-water sea. Over millions of years sand, mud, and coral reefs each occupied this area, and along the way each environment left behind its own unique sediments. The lowest and oldest deposits are beach sands followed by shale and then several different limestones. Over the last 60 million years these rocks have been uplifted along the Wasatch Fault to form the Wasatch Range.
Under the weight of overlying limestone and the heat and pressure of faulting and uplift, the lowest and oldest beach sands have undergone metamorphism. Over millions of years they have transformed from sandstone to quartzite. In some places faults created by Wasatch uplift are visible in these older rocks.
Above the quartzite hundreds of feet of younger limestones dominate the rock walls. These sediments were deposited in deeper water where billions of marine organisms bearing calcite shells once lived. Over millions of years as these animals lived and died they left behind the mineral components of their bodies, and this calcite gradually accumulated into thick deposits of dark gray limestone.
Near the top of the trail the steep switchbacks reveal how thick these limestone layers really are.
Faulting, uplift, and mildly corrosive carbonic acid formed in groundwater have together lead to cave formation in this massive limestone. At the end of the long, beautiful, fascinating hike up the canyon visitors are finally greeted by the entrance to the cave.
The cave tour here actually takes visitors through three different caves, each connected by man-made tunnels. The first cave is also the oldest, named Hansen Cave after its discoverer in 1887.
While reflecting pools of standing water make this cave rather attractive, this particular spot was heavily looted by early explorers. Many of the stalactites, stalagmites, and other calcite formations were broken loose and stolen. In spite of this much of the flowstone remains intact and is rather beautiful.
The second cave is Middle Cave, and the deep dark passageways here are some of the tightest and most challenging to navigate.
The final cave is Timpanogos Cave itself which harbors a variety of interesting features. The first is the Great Heart of Timpanogos, a big heart-shaped stalactite stained an orange-pink color thanks to contamination by iron and manganese.
Right next to this formation is cave popcorn stained green by aragonite and nickel.
Throughout the depths of the cave are some of its most famous features, known as helictites. These delicate dripstones grow out randomly, formed by calcite-laden water driven by capillary action evaporating in any direction.
Once out of the cave visitors are greeted with a gorgeous view down American Fork Canyon with South Salt Lake in the distance.
Although this seems like a really long post and I have gushed on and on about the virtues of Timpanogos Cave, I really had to cut a lot out of this to keep it relatively brief. It’s funny to think that I almost did not visit this location, thinking its proximity to Salt Lake City would make it a crowded, unpleasant place to visit. I was honestly surprised by its relative remoteness, beauty, and abundance of fascinating nature features. I am glad that I had an afternoon to kill and decided to visit this spot on a whim. If you ever find yourself in Salt Lake City with a few hours to spare, Timpanogos Cave is definitely worth a visit.