Some of the unique features of Cathedral Caverns include:
- A massive cave opening that stands at 126 feet wide and 25 feet tall making it the widest opening of any commercial cave.
- A 35 foot wide flow stone wall -which Elmo stated looked like the "southbound end of a northbound pachyderm".
- A 792x200ft "Big Room" -which was simply amazing to see in person.
- Goliath Column, measured at 45 feet tall.
It would seem that the cave temperature is fairly stable and quite comfortable throughout the year. I would suggest going when the weather is either too hot or too cold to visit other state parks. Of course, you can visit whenever it is open, but the temperature differential will be appreciated more during extreme outside temperatures. We chose to go when it was hot outside, the inside of the cave was a wonderful escape from the hot humid Alabama air.
The tour started with a brief introduction from our funny little tour guide, Elmo. I would describe him as being in his late forties, about five feet seven inches tall and round in the middle. He was sporting a pair of denim overalls and his bearded face was adorned with a warm tooth barren smile. With all due respect, Elmo is a really nice host who obviously loves his job very much. The introduction was followed up with the typical: hands off, stay together, keep your hands and feet inside at all times -yes, it's a walking tour (unless you are Elmo, then you ride an electric golf cart out front), but you get the idea.
As our group moved through the enormous entrance, I couldn't help but to wonder what the first group who passed through this very spot so many years ago must have been thinking -I imagine bears would have been the first thing on my mind. Today the interior is well lit with small incandescent bulbs projecting light from the cave floor toward the ceiling. These lights illuminate the various natural wonders that carry on for over two miles of meandering foot paths. There is a galvanized steel pipe barrier that lines both sides of the sidewalk throughout the tour in order to keep visitors from wandering off into the expansive darkness. Ever so often, Elmo would stop to show us an interesting stalactite (the jagged mineral outcrops that line the ceiling) or stalagmite (similar structures that line the floor). Eventually stalactites leaking water onto the cave floor would form deposits. These deposits would build up, thus creating stalagmites. After millions of years of doing this, they would eventually meet in the middle. And there is your science lesson for the day.
Of course, the first people to enter Cathedral Caverns would not have had the luxury of our bearded little guide, nor would they have had indoor lighting. They certainly would have missed out on quite a bit. For example, Elmo stopped us as soon as we hit the first turn and lost the familiar glow of sunlight that was initially leading the way. Here we found ourselves standing on top of a small hill with a small stream a several yards below the railing. He pulled out a flashlight from the center pocket of his overalls and began to scan the walls and ceiling until he came upon what he was searching for. On the right wall about ten yards away, there was a small bat hanging upside down sleeping. According to Elmo, these "chicken nugget" sized mammals are great with sweet and sour dipping sauce. You may deem otherwise, but I'll take his word for it. Having found the little chicken nugget, he switched the golf cart into gear and we moved on.
If you squint your eyes, you may see a small bat.
As we carried on, the cave began to expand ahead of us and the pathway snaked its way up and down and left and right over and over again. The whole way, Elmo continued to scan the walls for chicken nuggets and occasionally would stop on one long enough for the group to see it. The next attraction was the original pathway where James Gurley, the man responsible for creating the original cave tour, had taken his guests in the 1950's. Where we had a nice wide concrete path with panoramic views of both sides of the cave, early guests would have been hugging the left wall in an attempt to stay upright. Also below was the path and bridge that Gurley would have driven his retired Army Jeep across in order to carry supplies in and out of the cave while he was developing it. The remnants of the old bridge and path were still there but, sadly, they didn't see fit to leave the little Jeep as part of the display. Again, Elmo switched the golf cart into gear and we followed behind.
We then stopped at the flow stone wall. I peered up as I attempted to soak in the enormity of the massive 32 foot wall. The surface glistened and appeared to dance in the incandescent light cast from down below. My eyes followed across the smooth hilly top of the structure and down the grooves that separated the mounds. I decided that they looked like giant molars and snapped a couple of pictures of it. This is when Elmo put his hand on my shoulder and told me that he was going to toss me over the side. Before the tour kicked off I had made a joke, as I often do, and his idea of retribution was to make me a permanent fixture on the enormous flow stone wall. He pointed at what appeared to be a face on the side of the wall and calmly stated "that was the last guy who made jokes during one of my tours". Of course he was only kidding and I got that, but after he made his way back to the front of the tour, one of the group members said "I didn't know what he was about to do when he snuck up behind you like that". I just laughed and and snapped a few more pictures. Elmo hopped back on the golf cart, and the tour continued.
As the group ascended into the darkness, I found myself daydreaming again. I tried to imagine what the cave would look like as the light from our torches danced on the walls and stalagmites casting long shadows on the path ahead. I also pondered the likelihood of chicken nugget guano landing on our heads. What are the chances these little guys will wake up while we are down here? I suppose that I could tuck my head into my t-shirt and hope for the best. In some cultures it may be considered good luck to have a bat poo on one's head, but I'm a southern man and 'round here, that's just plain nasty! With that thought, I snapped out of my fantasy state and sped up to catch up with the rest of the group.
The cave was beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. I won't give away too much of what we saw. It's an experience best enjoyed in person as words don't really do it justice. The entire tour took about an hour and a half so make sure you feed the little ones lunch first. One spoiler, if you are afraid of the dark, this trip is not for you. At one point, in the deepest part of the cave, Elmo cuts off all of the lights, placing you in total darkness. Once the lights come back on the tour is officially over and you can find your way back at your own pace which gives you enough time to snap a few more photos as you leave.
There are other activities for the kids, we took Victoria over to the mining area so she could try her hand as a prospector. They basically hand you a bag of sand a sifter and your child pours some sand into the sifter. A trough of flowing water is then used to separate the sand and expose all of the goodies hidden inside. She ended up with some cool rocks to take home along with some memories that hopefully will last a lifetime.