After driving two hours in the 95 degree heat, we pulled into the parking lot at Indiana Caverns. I couldn’t wait to get underground where the air stays a consistent 52 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. But before heading inside to check out one of the largest cave systems (Binkley) in the country, we congregated around a picnic table, me, my son Eli, and his girlfriend Maria to eat a picnic lunch.
We made turkey sandwiches and sprinkled Texas BBQ chips onto our paper plates. I was starving! However, within about five minutes, sweat bees dive-bombed our table like a fighter squadron making it almost impossible to sit there and eat. They were darting in our faces and landing on our arms, legs and backs. It was so annoying, Eli ate his sandwich walking in circles around the table.
Instead of being a relaxing experience, lunch became a gobble-and-go moment. We packed up the food quickly and stored it back in the Prius before heading toward the ticket counter and gift shop where we bought three passes to see Indiana Caverns.
If you’ve never visited Indiana, you’ll want to know that the geography of South Central Indiana is unique from the rest of the state and well known as one of the Midwest’s most popular caving areas. Among the small towns that dot the countryside, underground caves and streams, as well hundreds of small waterfalls can be found.
If you’re curious like me, you may wonder why all these cool places end up huddled together in one area of the state and that has to do a lot with geology. According to IU’s Geological and Water Survey Website, “Karst is a distinctive type of landscape or topography that commonly occurs where carbonate strata (limestones and dolostones) are at the surface. Slightly acidic rainwater and water in the soil slowly percolate through fractures, dissolving the rock and creating sinkholes, caves, and many other features that characterize karst.” You can learn more about Indiana Geology here. What we get from all that science are way cool places to explore.
Tickets to tour Indiana Caverns cost $20 a person and include an hour-long tour and boat ride on the underground river. Highlights of this tour include an underground waterfall, several dig sites where prehistoric bones and fossils are prominently displayed, and prehistoric cave bear nesting sights. Before taking the tour, a group of us were taken in a room and debriefed with a ten minute movie explaining how the cave was formed…that’s the science part. Then we entered an airlock and descended a metal spiral stairway. About 40 minutes into the tour, complete with cheesy jokes and puns, our guide took us across thunder alley (a loud metal bridge) to the boat docks where we boarded (under strict instructions) for our under ground river boat tour, which lasted about fifteen minutes. I wish this part had been longer.
After the tour, the three of us went back to the gift shop. Reminiscent of family vacations when I was a child, we looked for small trinkets to take home, reminders of our trip. I bought a fossil necklace, doubtful it came from the area at all, but I liked the nautilus shape and it was only $4.
We hopped back on the road and drove 30 minutes north to Marengo Cave. It was getting late (5pm) and we weren’t sure if we’d arrive in time to take both tours. But as luck would have it, we got in on the very last group of the day.
As cicadas trilled in the trees nearby, about a dozen of us, sat on the back porch of the gift shop waiting for our guide. A framed poster containing old pictures of the cave’s early days hung near the cave entrance. I thought it fascinating that over 135 years ago this cave was opened to the public for 25 cents (per person) and generations have been touring its subterranean passages ever since.
Our guide, a girl in her 20s, lead us into the cave. The air was damp and cool. Immediately, I noticed the biggest difference between Marengo Cave and Indiana Caverns — lighting. Well-placed, camouflaged fixtures enabled us to see the formations more clearly and to get better pictures! Marengo Cave is abundant with massive columns, stalactites and stalagmites, draperies, waterways, falls, and rim dams.
I think if you had to choose between the two, for cave features, I’d definitely choose Marengo Cave. The price is about the same and you can get a coupon to do both of the tours they offer for the price of one. Check out Pin Perks Coupons. If you do both, you will be making a 2-1/2 hour commitment there. But where else do you want to be on a 95 degree day in Indiana?
After our last cave tour of the day, we plugged our camp address into the GPS and made the ten mile drive to Happy Hollow Homestead, a farm we found on HipCamp. If you like camping, but not always thrilled by what you find at State Parks, I highly recommend checking out HipCamp. It’s like AirBnB for campers. Use this link to get $20 off your first camping stay on HipCamp.
After meandering up a long gravel drive, we found a nice place under the trees to camp for the night. One of the farm dogs came to greet us while we pitched our tents. He was super friendly and gave us a warm welcome. Before heading back out to get some dinner, we decided to explore the tree web we’d seen in pictures on the website. Eli and Maria disappeared, while I rolled out my sleeping bag and mini air mattress. Question: Do you consider bringing a pillow and air mattress glamping? Me either.
Anyway, I found them already high up in the branches, laying down in a web made of nylon string tied in knots. It looked really relaxing even though it was easily 40 feet in the air. What if one of the knots didn’t hold? I didn’t want to miss out on this experience, so I calmed my fear of heights and began the climb up the nylon ladder. Reaching the top, I hoisted myself over the edge and crawled to the middle of the web.
Lying still under the canopy of leaves above, I felt a part of this place. I imagined sleeping there all night with the sounds of tree frogs and cicadas closer than ever. Unfortunately, our grumbling stomachs forced us down.
On his phone Eli located a pizza place nearby with good reviews and this is where we ended up, an old rusty trailer next to a gas station. He reminded us they had good reviews…Although we had to wait 45 minutes because they misplaced our order, the pizza was good. The bread sticks which came after the pizza, not so much. I’d say if you can find something else nearby, I probably would. Sorry Papeno’s.
Back to the campground, exhausted we opt to forego the fire and head straight to our tents to sleep. With rain in the forecast for tomorrow, we have only tentative plans for 2-3 other caves. We’re going to play it by ear… or in other words, let Mother Nature decide.
Read my next post to find out…