ST. CHARLES, Idaho — Casper the Friendly Ghost and a reluctant Miss Piggy are just some of the local residents living among the bats in the year-round darkness of Minnetonka Cave.
The characters are popular destinations on a star map that takes hikers deep inside the Bear River Mountains west of Bear Lake in southeastern Idaho. Inside, the damp cave glistens under artificial light and captivates spelunkers young and old.
“This is a cave of imagination,” says 9-year cave guide veteran Dellene Rigby, navigating the slippery concrete path that winds through the cave. “Whatever you see in the formations is what it is to you.”
Eons of geologic forces have carved the cave’s rooms and chambers — one the size of a football field with a 90-foot ceiling that rivals the Sistine Chapel’s.
More recent developments, Rigby explains, adorned the cave with its decorations of stalactites, stalagmites, delicate soda straws and drapery that hang from a ceiling teeming with life.
Legend holds that a frontier woodsman named Edward Arnell stumbled onto the cave’s tiny entrance sometime around 1906. At the time, Arnell was working to help construct a saw mill in St. Charles Canyon and was out looking for something to eat.
The story goes: He shot a grouse, the bird fell near the entrance to the cave, and as Arnell approached to collect his kill, he felt a gust of cool air shoot up from the ground.
The following day, he returned with his friends and some torches and made what is believed to be the first exploration of the cave by white settlers.
After three decades of disinterest and vandalism, the cave got the improvements and care it needed to become a tourist attraction, and today it brings an average of 25,000 visitors each year between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Last year, 34,310 people were ushered through Minnetonka Cave — the most in recorded history.
Inside the limestone cave, visitors walk from room to room where mineral formations resemble the Seven Dwarfs, a black bear and a small dove.
Deeper on the path, guests are led down a steep flight of stairs that plunge 50 feet into the Devil’s Kingdom. Just off the walkway is an area of interest named the Devil’s Office - a deep fissure that glows with a hellish hue of orange and red.
Halfway through the hike, visitors arrive inside the largest room in the cave, called the Ballroom. Attached to the majestic ceiling is a rare feature cave officials call Minnetonka Bacon. It’s a 20-foot-long strip of drapery that hangs 18 inches from the ceiling with a gentle wave.
The next stop on the tour reminds visitors why the cave is called Minnetonka — an American Indian word meaning “flowing water.”
“This is my favorite room,” said Rigby inside a massive chamber dubbed the Treasure Room. She points to a rare dripstone formation that resembles gold coins stacked one on top of another. Falling water gushes from above, cascading onto the mounds of gold coins that were formed when water dripped a lot more slowly.
“This year there has been a lot of water,” said Rigby. “There normally isn’t this much water.”
Rigby says many cave visitors enjoy special formations called helectites — stalactites that seem to defy gravity as they twist and turn in odd directions. One resembles the tail end of a pig stuck in the rock.
“The theory is that as the water drips it seals itself off,” she said. “But these are so stubborn, they defy gravity and turn different ways.”
Minnetonka is closed nine months of the year to preserve the natural habitat of the five different species of bats that live in the cave. It’s not uncommon to see a small-footed myotis or Townsend’s big ear bat hugging the cave walls.
At the end of the trip, Rigby says every visitor finds something different they enjoy about the tour.
“Some people really like the geological part to it — knowing the types of rocks and history of the formations and stuff,” she said. “Others just like the fresh air, a healthy walk and a love of nature.”
Kids, she says, love the Casper formation — a stalagmite with eyes, a smile and a surprise when the tour guide turns off the lights. Adults tell her the steep stairways are a challenge.
“A lot of people are just amazed they made it,” she said. “Especially the stairways.”
Information from: The Herald Journal, http://www.hjnews.com