Monday, May 22, 2006

Alabama's Newest State Park - Cathedral Caverns

All I can say is....Wow!

Alabama's newest state park has a lot of history behind it. Originally called Bat's Cave, it was used as a home for prehistoric Indians and also used by the Confederate forces during the Civil war to mine saltpeter. In 1952, a man by the name of Jay Gurley saw its potential and purchased the land, intending to open it up to the public. Jay is the one who named the cave Cathedral Caverns because his wife said that's what the cave reminded her of...a cathedral.

I agree.

When I first arrived at the park, the rustic, log pavilion Visitor's Center dominated the scene. That is until I happened to look over to my right and saw the cave entrance down the hill. The entrance itself is one of the largest in the world at a whopping 126 feet wide and 25 feet high! The path winds down into the earth into the first immense room with a ceiling height of 45 feet and about 400 feet long. Looking back out of the mouth of the cave is like looking out of the mouth of a giant slumbering worm. It was truly intimidating.

The path is about 8 feet wide, made of concrete and is large enough for a golf cart to drive upon. My grandparents were fortunate enough to have been allowed to ride the golf cart along with our tour guide as they would not have been able to make the mile-long tour on foot.

Along the path, visitors see wonders such as Goliath, a giant, stalagmite column that rises 45 feet and touches the ceiling above and has a circumference of 243 feet. A pool mirrors the giant and the orange-tinted lights create shadows and accents on its face. Tendrals of mist float like spirits throughout the room and further back into the cavern.

The next room, which is the widest at 152 feet wide, also has a natural wonder: an underground river named Mystery. It flows across the width of the room about 40 feet down from the trail's bridge. Hearing the gurgling of the river as it passed below was truly eerie and, looking down, you can see the remains of the old cross-tie bridge that Jay Gurley used to drive his Jeep across. The river has been known to flood the cave, so the Alabama Department of Transportation built a higher bridge in 1996.

Going on, you will see the Frozen Waterfall, which is a wall of flowstone with water tumbling down its face.

The passage continues into the next room. The ceiling here rises to about 83 feet and according to our guide, Jay Gurley measured it with just a helium balloon. The view is amazing as the trail is about four stories up from the rocky floor and the ceiling is higher still!

More wonders await around the corner. The Stalagmite Forest is truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Hundreds of stalagmites rise from the floor of the cave, creating a supernatural forest that surrounds you as the path winds though. Pools of water mirror the forest, making fanciful shapes and figures. It was like something out of a science fiction movie.

A little further and the trail ends overlooking another immense room that stretches into the darkness. Beyond that is a second stalagmite forest and what is called the Crystal Room, which is gated off and also not open to the public.

To exit the cave, you have to walk back the way you came in, but that's OK.

I enjoyed seeing the formations a second time and to be honest, there is nothing like being in a cave for a couple of hours and then coming upon the exit hundreds of feet away and still looking huge!

Jay Gurley took visitors through the cave for many years up until 1985. He put his heart and soul into the project and knew that the cave was something special. Cathedral Caverns became a state park in 1987, but due to funding delays, restoration didn't begin until 1995 and the cave didn't actually open until 2000.

While being restored, the cave became somewhat famous when scenes from Disney's Tom and Huck were filmed there. Our guide pointed out the area in the Stalagmite Forest where Tom and Becky hid from Injun Joe.

The trail is easy to navigate for the most part. It is completely concrete and hardly slippery at all, but there are a few rises and steep climbs. There is a handrail at all times. It is rather a far walk, so talk to your guide before setting off if you have questions about your ability to take the tour. Strollers and wheelchairs are allowed, but just remember you will be huffing and puffing on the steep parts.

I highly recommend this cave. It's natural beauty takes my breath away and the lighting and pathway adds to the character of the cave without making it seem garish or touristy. I will definitely be going back in the future. And don't forget the souvenir shop. They sell an interesting book by Bill Varendoe, Jr. that tells all about the cave and its history and has some amazing photos as well.

Cathedral Caverns State Park is located near Grant, Alabama off U.S. 72 and about 40 minutes from Huntsville.

Cathedral Caverns
637 Cave Rd.Woodville, AL 35776
phone: 256-728-8193
Adults - $8.00
12 & under - $5.00
children under 5 - free

Directions and tour times can be found at

**For more photos from Cathedral Caverns, visit Nathan Wu's site.
He took some gorgeous pictures! Also see this site...some gorgeous shots from opening day in 2000.

Links: (more great photos)

For more info on Jay Gurley, go here.

© 2006 Dana Sieben