The Utah Bucket List: Timpanogos Cave’s heart of stone
American Fork Canyon • Utah has some amazing mountains to climb, ski, hike and mountain bike.
But only one of them has a heart. Actually, the hearts of two lovers morphed into one, deep within Mount Timpanogos.
So goes the legend of the Great Heart stalactite formation in Timpanogos Cave.
More than 70,000 people gaze at the heart of the cave annually during National Park Service guided hikes from the limited May to September season at Timpanogos Cave National Monument in this Utah County canyon.
More than 120,000 people hike the 1½-mile trail that climbs more than 1,000 feet from the canyon bottom each year. Why so many make the climb and do not take the tour is a mystery, but it is probably because they failed to plan ahead and reserve tour tickets.
Once they have made the 45-minute tour past heart-shaped stalactites, curly helictites, coral fossils and “cave bacon,” most are eager for more.
“Children walking out the door are usually saying ‘Let’s go around and go back through,’ ” said Timpanogos Cave guide Alyssa Woolstenhulme.
Of course, these are the same kids asking questions like “How much of this cave has been discovered?” and “What if light were to get inside the cave?”
Woolstenhulme’s father also works at the national monument, and she visited Timpanogos Cave many times as a child. She was not always as fond of the amazing natural feature as she is today.
“I kind of grew up in the caves and actually, when I was younger, it kind of freaked me out,” she said. “As I learned the history about the early visitors and the fact I was standing right where the discoverer did got me to love the caves.”
Although it may have been discovered by native peoples long ago, Timpanogos Cave — actually three caves — was not reported to the masses until the fall of 1887 when Martin Hansen stumbled upon an entrance while following mountain lion tracks.
Hansen, for which the first cave is named, returned to explore the cave with family and friends. The next year, Hansen created a path to the cave, put a door over the entrance and started charging a fee to enter the mountain.
“Hiking to the cave was so much more exciting back then,” said Cami McKinney, chief of resource management at Timpanogos Cave National Monument. “Hansen cut down trees and lashed them to the cliffs. People climbed up the branches to get to the cave. And back in the 1800s taking a recreational outing was a big deal; you wore nicer clothes and explored by candlelight.”
McKinney says visitors to the caves today can retrace the steps of Hansen and other early explorers on the “Introduction to Caving Tour” offered by the park service.
The tour is offered once daily, is limited to five people and requires participants to be at least 14 years old. There are no paved walkway or railings, and people on the tour are required to wear helmets and headlamps. Gloves are also suggested.
“It follows the same route Martin Hansen took his visitors on,” McKinney said. “You get down on your hands and knees and you have stalactites hanging right over your head. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Timpanogos Cave National Monument Superintendent Jim Ireland said it is that snug experience — so different than most other notable outdoor adventures in Utah — that draws people to the cave and leaves them with a deeper appreciation of their state.
“It is a really intimate experience. Other caves are noted for large caverns and big rooms,” Ireland said. “Timp has narrow passageways and a great collection of very fragile formations. It is a unique experience.”