Excepting the glistening white sands of the Gulf Beaches, Florida Caverns State Park is the crown jewel of Florida’s panhandle. A subterranean wonderland!
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UPDATE: Florida Caverns State Park was closed to the public due to the effects of Hurricane Michael on October 10, 2018. Please consult the park website to verify closure status before planning your visit.
Explore Florida Caverns State Park
There is no doubt that New Orleans was the highlight of our spring road trip, but our drive there and back revealed many treasures in the Florida panhandle. And without a doubt the crowning jewel of West Florida (white sand beaches excluded) was Florida Caverns State Park. I am willing to be wrong, but as a 5th-generation Florida Cracker, I don’t recall ever hearing about this incredible natural wonder until I started intentionally researching Florida State Parks.
I do not exaggerate when I say Florida Caverns blew us away! But even though I had done the research and written the itinerary, it was a visit that almost didn’t happen. Due to my compulsive overplanning we had a packed schedule, so we called ahead the morning of our visit and confirmed that the last tour of the day started at 4:30 PM. I’ll admit we knew we were cutting it close, but when we pulled up to the park entrance at 4:20, the young ranger told us she had been instructed by the park manager that no one would be allowed to buy tickets after 4:20. When we couldn’t persuade her to budge, we followed Dr. Phil’s advice of, “Do not speak with anyone who does not have the authority to give you the answer you need.” We asked her to point out the park manager, who happened to be standing nearby in conversation with a small group of men. When we poured out our sob story he agreed to call ahead to the visitors center ticket office to approve our ticket purchase. As it turned out, we had to wait at the gathering point for previous ticket holders who did not return promptly for the tour prior to 4:30. So we (or at least I) sat there with an air of smug satisfaction at our good fortune! Jerry rolled his eyes at me . . . .
The Caverns Tour
The park ranger who led our tour had only been at the park for about six months, but he was quite personable and knowledgeable, at least for our intellectual level. Unfortunately, it seems our good fortune landed us on a family field trip tour, something I had hoped to avoid as a public school teacher on spring break. No matter. In spite of the incessant attention-seeking questions, the abundance of ankle-biters underfoot (see Jerry’s photo below), and a dramatic episode of wailing that echoed through the caverns, we managed to have an educational and visually stunning tour of a wonderland underground.
The caverns were located a short walk from the visitors center, down a flight of stairs, and through a heavy door. Although the air-filled caverns sink 50 feet below the surface of the earth, the temperature maintained a fairly constant 65° F for the length of the 45-minute tour. The caverns hike is rated moderately strenuous, but we found it to be a fairly relaxing walk for our ragtag group of novice spelunkers, with plenty of rest stops for the park ranger’s talks and for viewing formations throughout the 2-acre tour. Several sections of the caverns require walking while bent over due to low ceilings, but surprisingly none of them excited my chronic claustrophobia.
Immediately upon entering the caverns you witness a panorama of easily identifiable stalagtites and stalagmites. But the incredible diversity of limestone formations is much more than you can imagine. Room by room we were met by flowstones, soda straws, rimstone pools resembling terraced rice paddies, and my favorite formation, translucent draperies. These spectacular formations have earned the Florida Caverns Natural Area the distinction of being named one of America’s 596 National Natural Landmarks, an honor indeed!
The natural wonder that would become Florida Caverns began 38 million years ago when the peninsula lay underwater. Fossilized seashells and other marine particles accumulated in layers on the ocean floor. Eventually the waters receded, and the layers of sediment hardened into limestone. During the last million years naturally acidic groundwater and rainfall etched fissures in the bedrock, dissolving the limestone and creating the magnificent subterranean formations we enjoy today. Fossilized shark teeth and seashells can still be found embedded in the limestone formations throughout the caverns.
The site of Florida Caverns State Park was already under development by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration as State Park #6 when the caverns were accidentally discovered by National Park Services geologist Oliver Chalifoux in March of 1937. A storm had uprooted a tree exposing an opening into the caverns below, and when Chalifoux crawled underground he encountered the amazing limestone formations that would bring international acclaim to the previously insignificant SP #6. In 1938, a few CCC workers were assigned to the Gopher Gang to map the caverns, design walkways, and install lighting. Eventually, over 200 workers joined the team and labored for a dollar a day with picks and chisels to create walkspaces through the caverns. Florida Caverns opened for the first public tours in 1942, and they continue to dazzle visitors to this day.
Florida’s Rare Flora
I would be remiss if I devoted the whole of this blog post to the subterranean part of the park. The lush hardwood forest and abundant wildflowers above ground deserve mention as well. When we emerged from the caverns tour, the first thing that caught my eye was a columbine in full bloom, a wildflower I thought grew only in colder climates. According to the Native Florida Wildflowers blog, “Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) . . . is exceedingly rare and occurs only in a few calcareous deciduous woodlands in and around Florida Caverns State Park . . . .” Later, along the trail I discovered a spotted wakerobin (Trillium maculatum). Until then I had only seen trilliums while hiking in the Appalachian mountains. As we were leaving, I also noticed a rare Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) tree, a conifer that typically grows only along the banks of the Apalachicola River.
Planning A Visit
Florida Caverns has many of the recreational opportunities offered by most state parks, such as canoeing, hiking, and camping, but the the centerpiece of the park is definitely the caverns tour. Be sure to plan your visit any day of the week Thursday through Monday. Cave tours are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. In addition to the park entrance fee of $5.00 per vehicle, the tour tickets are $8.00 per person for ages 13 and older, $5.00 per child ages 3 to 12, and free for ages 2 and younger. It would also be wise to call ahead (850) 482-1228 the day of your visit to verify that tours for the day have not sold out.