Timpanogos Cave National Monument

Rural Route 3
Box 200
American Fork, UT 84003
(801) 756-5239

High on the steep rocky slopes of American Fork Canyon in the shadow of mighty Mt. Timpanogos in Utah's Wasatch Range are three moderate-sized limestone caves: Hansen Cave, Middle Cave, and Timpanogos Cave. These exquisitely beautiful caverns are decorated with a dazzling display of helictites and anthodites in a variety of fantastic shapes. In the tradition of the National Park Service, Timpanogos Cave National Monument preserves these caves and all their fragile underground wonders for you, and for others in the years ahead, to enjoy.

Touring the Caves | History | Geology | Planning a Visit

Touring the Caves

Opportunities to explore a fascinating underground world have lured visitors to these caves for decades. Today all cave tours are guided by a park ranger. The 1/2 mile tour lasts about an hour on a surfaced, well-lighted and fairly level route. Your tour begins at the natural entrance to Hansen Cave and continues through Hansen, Middle, and finally Timpanogos Caves. You pass from cave to cave through tunnels built in the 1930s.

The caves' small chambers and passageways are packed with extraordinary features. Ceilings, walls and floors are covered with stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, flowstone, and the helictites for which these caves are renowned. The profusion of bizarre, brilliant white helictites in the Chimes Chamber of Timpanogos Cave is a highlight of any tour. So is the Great Heart of Timpanogos, a giant cave formation of linked stalactites. Cave pools reflect cave decorations. Cave animals are rare, but you may see cave crickets, a bat, or other creatures of the darkness. Your ranger will answer questions.

Several special cave tours include candlelight historic, and flashlight tours. There are guided nature walks along the trail to the caves and of the cave system itself. Special tours, mostly in early morning or late afternoon, usually are limited to 10 persons; reservations required. Call the park.

While in the caves look but don't touch. It is tempting to touch, but delicate cave formations break easily and skin oils discolor them. Nature might take thousands of years to repair the damage, or the loss could be forever. Later visitors deserve to enjoy the caves in all their splendor. Your ranger will let you touch two stalagmites set aside for that purpose. Parts of the cave system can be wet and slippery, watch your step. Use highspeed film or a flash for taking pictures. Tripods are not allowed.

The Trail to the Caves
The hike up the steep northern slope of Mt. Timpanogos on the trail to the caves is physically demanding, but rewarding. In your ascent you will climb 1,065 feet in 1 1/2 miles on a zigzag, hard-surfaced trail from the bottom of American Fork Canyon to the entrance of the caves. Altogether the round-trip to and through the caves and back down is 31/2 miles; it takes about 3 hours. Pace yourself: there is much to enjoy along the way. Several benches give you a chance to rest, catch your breath, and enjoy outstanding views of American Fork Canyon, the Wasatch Range, and Utah Valley. Wildflowers grow on the wooded slopes of douglas-fir, white fir, maple, and oak. Chipmunks, golden-mantled ground squirrels, lizards, and many birds may be spotted. A self-guiding trail booklet is available at the visitor center. Just outside the entrance to the caves at the Grotto--where you will wait for your cave tour to begin--are restrooms and drinking water.

For your comfort on the trail, bring along a snack and something to drink; please dispose of trash properly. Bring a jacket, sweater, or sweatshirt--the temperature in the caves is 45 degrees F or so, about the temperature inside a refrigerator. Wear comfortable walking shoes. If you have difficulty walking or breathing, or have heart problems, consult a ranger before attempting the trail. Because of the trail's steepness and the caves' narrow passages, wheelchair access is impossible. Baby strollers and other wheeled vehicles, pets and smoking are not permitted on the trail or in the caves.

Warning! Rocks fall often in American Fork Canyon. Areas of greatest hazard on the trail are marked by blue stripes, avoid stopping in these places. Be alert for the sound of falling rocks. It a rock seems to be headed your way, take cover: move close to rock walls, stay low, and protect your head. Don't throw rocks yourself. Stay on the trail; shortcutting causes erosion and can start a landslide. Running --especially downhill--is dangerous. Children under 16 years of age must remain with their parents or adult supervisors, who are responsible for their conduct and safety.

Over 100 years ago no one knew that there were caves hidden in American Fork Canyon. Then on a fall day in 1887, 40-year old Martin Hansen, a Mormon settler from American Fork. Utah. accidentally discovered the first cave. Hansen was cutting timber high on the canyon s south slopes when. according to one popular version of the story, he came across the tracks of a mountain lion. Following the tracks to a high ledge, he found an opening in the rock--the entrance to the small cave that would be named after him. Hansen did not enter the cave that day, but he returned later to explore. To allow others to get a firsthand look at the cave. Hansen and others hacked out a rough and hazardous trail straight up the mountainside. By all accounts, the first visitors found the cave exceptionally decorated with colorful deposits of flowstone and other formations. Within only a few years. however, souvenir hunters and miners had stripped the cave almost bare, selling much of their stolen treasures to museums and universities and to commercial enterprises who made decorative objects from the cave deposits.

Not until 1915 was a second cave discovered. That summer a group of families from Lehi. Utah came to American Fork Canyon for a day s outing. While the rest of the group explored Hansen Cave, teenagers James W. Gough and Frank Johnson climbed around the rocky slope outside. By chance. they stumbled across a hole not far from the entrance to Hansen Cave. It was the entrance to Timpanogos Cave. Many persons explored the cave, seeing its exquisite formations, including the Great Heart of Timpanogos. but for some reason knowledge of the cave and its whereabouts faded. Then on August 14. 1921, Timpanogos Cave was rediscovered. An outdoor club from Payson. Utah had come to American Fork Canyon to see Hansen Cave and investigate rumors of a second cave. It was Vearl J. Manwill, a member of the club who confirmed the rumors by rediscovering Timpanogos Cave. That very night.... by the light of campfire, [we] discussed our find ' Manwill wrote. and talked about ways and means to preserve its beauty for posterity instead of allowing it to be vandalized as Hansen's Cave had been. The people around that fire dedicated themselves to the cave's preservation.

The excitement of rediscovering the natural wonders of Timpanogos Cave had not yet died when a third cave--Middle Cave --was found that fall. George Heber Hansen and Wayne E. Hansen, son and grandson of Martin Hansen were in American Fork Canyon hunting deer. As they looked through binoculars at the south slope of the canyon from the opposite side they spotted an opening near the other two cave entrances. Within days they returned to this new cave--Middle Cave--with a large exploring party equipped with ropes. flashlights, and candles. In the party was pioneer cave-finder Martin Hansen. by then 74 years old.

The hopes of all those who sought to protect and preserve the caves of American Fork Canyon were realized a year after Timpanogos and Middle Caves were discovered. In 1922, at the urgings of Utah citizens, the U.S. Forest Service, and others, President Warren G. Harding issued a proclamation establishing Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Since that time the caves have been officially recognized as natural features of national significance and extraordinary scenic and scientific value.

Some of the Earth s most powerful and most delicate forces combined to create the wonders of Hansen, Middle, and Timpanogos caves beginning when the Wasatch Range was building 65 million years ago. Tremendous mountain-building forces slowly uplifted and fractured the sedimentary rock. The caves were dissolved later along fractures now called the Hansen, Middle, and Timpanogos faults in the Desert Limestone. Apparently rising hot water and descending cold water were important factors in the caves origins. Natural, weak carbonic acid dissolved the rock to form the caves, which were created at the level of an ancient water table and later invaded by a stream for a short time. It is likely that rainwater and water from melting snows seeped or flowed underground along two vertical cracks, or faults, dissolved the surrounding layer of Desert Limestone, and hollowed out the subterranean chambers.

Then a change occurred. Water that filled or partially filled the caves drained. As water seeped into the air-filled caves, it decorated them with fantastic formations. Water trickling through the limestone overlying the caves dissolved calcite and other minerals from the rock. Then, upon entering an underground chamber, the water deposited its mineral load as a tiny crystal on a cave ceiling, wall, or floor, Over thousands of years, as countless crystals were deposited, a variety of cave formations took shape--stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, helictites, and others. Each had its own shape and size, determined by how and where the water entered the cave, how long it flowed, and other factors.

Today, the caves still are changing: new formations are being created, and existing ones are growing where mineral-laden water continues to enter. In Timpanogos Cave a stalactite-stalagmite pair are growing closer year by year; today they are only 3/4 of an inch apart, and, if growth continues at the current rate, they probably will join in about 200 years. As long as water--the master architect and interior decorator--continues to trickle into the caves, creation will continue.

Helictites: Stars of the Underground Show
Helictite, a strange and exotic-sounding wore , is the name of a strange type of cave formation found in these caves. The tremendous number of helictites is one of the things that makes the Timpanogos Cave system so special. Such quantities of helictites, coupled with anthodites, are uncommon. Helictites twist and turn unpredictably in, all directions, defying gravity. Usually less than 1/4 inch in diameter and a few inches long, they are as delicate--and fragile--as hand-blown glass.

Smooth but spiraling helictites are made of calcite; needle-like crystals are made of aragonite, a mineral chemically identical to calcite but with a different crystal structure.

Cave explorers and speleologists have debated the origin of helictites since they were first discovered. From the beginning it was apparently understood that they were created in a much different way from such formations as stalactites stalagmites, and other more common formations. Some early speculators believed helictites were created by mineral deposits on spider webs or fungi. Some thought their odd contortions were the result of the forces of electrical energy, cave winds, or earth tremors.

Today many speleologists believe that two forces peculiar to water guide the creation of helictites. Like crooked straws, most helictites appear to have a tiny central canal running up and down their length. Water is apparently pushed and pulled through this canal by capillary action under hydrostatic pressure. Together these two forces override the usually dominant force of gravity: controlled by these forces water slowly seeps through the canal to the tip of the helictite where it then deposits a crystal. Some scientists further believe that the crystals do not stack neatly, but arrange themselves haphazardly one on top of the other, adding to the apparently random nature of their growth. future research may shed new light on these unusual cave creations.

Stalactites and Other Common Formations
Many different types of cave formations have been created by water simply dripping or flowing into the caves. Perhaps the most well known of these are stalactites and stalagmites, which can be seen throughout the caves. Stalactites, which hang like icicles from the ceiling' form as drop after drop of water slowly trickles down through the cave roof. The smallest stalactites may be hollow and as thin and straight as a soda straw, and so are called soda straw stalactites. Others may be massive: The Great Heart of Timpanogos in Timpanogos Cave--5 1/2 feet long, 3 feet wide, 4,000 pounds--is composed of three, or possibly more, tremendous stalactites that have grown together. The many colors of stalactites--and indeed all of the formations in the caves--are caused by traces of iron, nickel, magnesium, and organics. Stalagmites are formed when mineral-laden water strikes the floor. The tallest stalagmite is about 6 feet high in Timpanogos Cave; most are smaller. Occasionally stalactites and stalagmites merge, forming a floor-to-ceiling column. The caves largest column, 13 feet high, is found in Hansen Cave.

Another common formation--draperies --are created when water trickles down an inclined ceiling. A spectacular example of such a formation is the Frozen Sunbeam, a thin translucent sheet of orange-colored calcite in Timpanogos Cave. Draperies in these caves are seldom more than one inch thick.

The Cascade of Energy and the Chocolate Fountain, both in Timpanogos Cave, are examples of still a different type of formation--flowstone. As its name implies, the smooth coatings or sculpted terraces of flowstone are created when water flows down a wall or across a floor. A particularly impressive specimen decorates a wall in the Big Room of Middle Cave.

Still another, not quite so common, type of formation that occurs in the caves IS cave popcorn. Popcorn occurs where water seeps slowly through walls or ceilings. These knobby lumps are particularly abundant in Timpanogos Cave, where they occur mixed with helictites.

Underground Pools and Cave Creatures
The caves natural world offers many other features besides unusual crystal formations. Small, clear pools occur where water has collected; mirror-like, they reflect their other-worldly surroundings. There are 30 such pools and lakes in the Timpanogos Cave System. One pool, Hidden Lake. can be seen in Timpanogos Cave. A lake in Hansen Cave' not visible along the cave tour route, supplies drinking water for the fountain at the Grotto. In some pools' small wall-like formations made of calcite form rimstone dams.

Animals inhabit the caves' but they can be easy to overlook. Such barely noticeable creatures as cave spiders. centipedes, and crickets live here. An occasional bat roosts in the caves. but no large bat colony such as those found in Carlsbad Caverns or in many other caves exist here. Occasionally a pack rat. mouse chipmunk or lizard visits Without an underground stream or other steady source of food' however, the caves are not well equipped to support a diversity of cave animals.

Like other cave features' the pools and cave animals are protected by the National Park Service. Their survival depends on the Park Service and on you. Timpanogos Cave National Monument is just one of more than 350 parks in the National Park System. Preserving many of the most important natural and cultural sites of the United States, all our national parks deserve our respect and careful guardianship.

Planning a Visit
The caves are open daily for frequent tours usually from mid-May through September. When snow makes hiking to them difficult or dangerous they are closed. Tickets for cave tours are sold at the visitor center. Children under 6 get in free. In summer all tours usually sell out by early afternoon. Special cave tours are available--see"Touring the Caves" . Call for reservations.

When you buy tickets you are told when your tour starts. You may begin walking up the (strenuous) 1 1/2 mile trail to the caves 1 1/2 hours before then, which gives you ample time. In early morning there is usually only a short wait before you may start for the caves. The wait quickly lengthens, by late morning it may be 2 to 3 hours.

You can enjoy your time here in many ways. Ask a ranger for suggestions, or see park brochures and exhibits. Don't start up the trail before your designated time. That only makes a longer stay at the Grotto, a small and not very comfortable waiting area near the eaves' entrance. When too many people arrive early at the caves, some may end up waiting in areas of high rockfall danger.

The National Park Service wants you to enjoy the caves but must limit the number of visitors to protect delicate, irreplaceable features. Each tour has a 20-person limit. Those able to-buy tickets often wait several hours before they can start hiking to the caves. Buy tickets in advance or arrive early in the day to avoid long delays. To buy advance tickets write or call the park at least two weeks before your visit or buy them at the visitor center up to the day before the tour. Call the park if you have questions. Weekends and holidays are busiest. Come early--or on a weekday.

Getting There

Visitors arriving from Salt Lake City travel south on Interstate 15 to exit 287 (Alpine Exit) then turn east on State Highway 92 and proceed 10 miles to the monument.

Visitors arriving from provo should travel north on Interstate 15 to exit at 8th North in Orem. Follow State Street (Highway 89) north to Pleasant Grove. Turn right on State Highway 146. Follow this to State Highway 92, then turn right and head east to the monument in American Fork Canyon.

Visitors arriving from the east on U.S. 40 or U.S. 189 (Heber city or Provo Canyon) may take State Highway 92 west, passing over the mountainous scenic route known as the Alpine Scenic Loop Highway. Buses and vehicles over 30 feet should travel U.S. 189 through Provo Canyon to 8th North in Orem (State Highway 52) then west to U.S. 89. Follow U.S. 89 north to State Highway 146 in Pleasant Grove, north to State Highway 92, then east on 92 to the monument.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 19 Dec 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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