We begin our new series Off The Beaten Path with an adventure that takes us to the Ozark National Forest. It is here where one can visit the outstanding Blanchard Spring Caverns. The site is located in the northern part of Arkansas, part of the southern United States.
The Ozark National Forest itself has a number of landscapes that are worth seeing.
These include Mill Creek, Mirror Lake and a man-made dam that has resulted in a beautiful waterfall. Further down road is Blanchard Springs Campground for those who want an outdoor experience.
This writer considers Blanchard Spring Caverns, to be the second most impressive cave system in all of the United States. Only Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, can be considered more beautiful. For enthusiasts, I would rank Luray Caverns in Virginia for the third position.
Now before I upset people from Kentucky who are the proud owners of Mammoth Cave, I am speaking of the beauty of the formations to be observed only.
I chose Blanchard Spring Caverns to begin our undertaking, because it is less well known in comparison to some of the other cave systems in the United States.
Our story begins 350 million years ago, when the limestone that would form the foundation of the cave was laid down. The caves themselves would be created between 50 to 70 million years ago. The oldest formations in the cave today are anywhere between 2 to 5 million years old.
Blanchard Spring Caverns is considered a living cave, because the minerals deposited by the seepage of water is still an ongoing process.
Originally known as Half-Mile Cave, it was later renamed to recognize that the caverns were actually created from Blanchard Springs.
Local residents were aware of the caves existence, already in the 1930’s. The first real exploration of the cave would begin in 1955 and last for five years. Interestingly during the first foray, a 1,000 year old Native American skeleton was discovered within the caverns.
No one can explain how he entered the caves and why he was there. He did have a fractured leg, skull and a number of ribs. His remains are still there.
At Blanchard Springs Caverns a traveler has the option of four different experiences. One of them known as the Wild Cave Tour, is the newest addition and should not be considered by novices. It will take about 5 hours to complete and as the name implies is not for everyone.
You will be denied access, if you do not have over the ankle laced boots with aggressive tread. All other equipment is provided by the staff on duty. I promise, you will get dirty.
This particular tour is offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It is a strenuous and very physical trip that will traverse 1.6 miles round trip. It is only available through reservation and is not for children. It starts at 9:30 A.M. and ends somewhere between 2:30 and 3:30 P.M.
The outing will be organized in small groups from 3 to 12, at a cost of $75.00 USD (United States Dollar) that is nonrefundable. By the way, you are likely to run into a colony or two of bats that reside in the caverns.
Now that we have dealt with that unpleasantness, the rest of us can move on.
Blanchard Spring Caverns offers the Dripstone Trail tour. It will take about an hour. It will be a constant 58 degrees with near 100% humidity. Quite pleasant for those not used to the summers in the southern part of the United States. You will cover about 4/10 of a mile with about 50 steps to navigate.
These can be bypassed for those who need to do so.
If you choose this most popular tour, you will get to see nearly every type of calcite formation the cave has to offer. These would include stalagmites, massive flowstones and even delicate soda straws.
You will be viewing the two major rooms of the upper level, that includes the Coral Room known for its impressive pure calcite deposits and the massive Cathedral Room. The latter is large enough to contain three football fields and still have room left over. This area is actually the oldest part of the cave and the most sensational by far.
This particular circuit is offered daily April through October but, only Wednesday through Sunday during the rest of the year. Tour times are 10:00 A.M. To 4:15 P.M. The cost is $10.00 USD per person, with a 50% discount for children ages 6 to 15.
It is the tour that I would recommend for most visitors.
The Discovery Trail is also offered at Blanchard Spring Caverns. The tour will last approximately 1 to 1 ½ hours with a distance of 1.2 miles to cover. It is a bit more involved than the Dripstone. It is in the lower portion of the cave, so it therefore involves nearly 700 steps. If you have health issues this particular jaunt is not for you. It is important to remember there are no restrooms below.
If you take this tour you will be following in the footsteps of the earlier explorers and their campsites. You will be able to observe the natural entrance where the first arrivals lowered themselves with ropes and harnesses. You will see the spring that helped create the caves, but will miss out on some of the more spectacular formations of the upper level, but you will see some of these at the middle level .
Tours are run from 10:00 A.M. To 4:30 P.M. At a cost of $10.00 USD per person.
The final offering of Blanchard Spring Caverns is the Discovery in the Dark Headlamp Tour. It is not recommended for those individuals who have health issues. This excursion is only offered seasonally mid September to mid-May on Saturdays, weather permitting. It will take about an hour to complete the ½ mile trip.
The night sojourn is picking up the end trail of the Discovery Trial. You will be provided helmets and headlamps for a closer look, at how earlier explorers would of viewed and experienced the caverns. The cave lights will be turned off. There will be about 200 steps to climb.
The cost will also be $10.00 USD per wanderer. Again, it is half price for those aged 6 to 15.
To get to Blanchard Spring Caverns you will need to go 2 miles off Highway 14, just north of Mountain View. The site is 117.5 miles north of Little Rock, which is the capital of the state. It will take you about 3 hours to make the journey north.
By Jeffrey Hagenmeier