Bucket list: Tour Crystal CaveCrystal Cave officially opened tourists in 1942. Today Wisconsin’s longest cave draws around 40,000 visitors — newborns to senior citizens — each year from April through October.
By: Sarah Gorvin, The Republican Eagle
SPRING VALLEY, Wis. — When Jean Cunningham was in high school, there were basically two places where she could work: Crystal Cave or the local nursing home. She took the former and hasn’t stopped in nearly 45 years.
“It’s been pretty much my life since 1968,” she said.
Cunningham majored in biology and geology in college, and she went on to earn her masters in geology. After working for various oil companies, Cunningham and her husband, Blaze, returned to Spring Valley and bought Crystal Cave in 1986.
And even though the couple recently sold the cave to fellow geologists Eric and Kristing McMaster, Cunningham said she still will be involved with the ancient formation.
“I just enjoyed the cave,” she said. “The cave for me has always been fascinating.”
Crystal Cave officially opened tourists in 1942. Today Wisconsin’s longest cave draws around 40,000 visitors — newborns to senior citizens — each year from April through October.
The cave is about 485 million years old. It was formed by carbonic acid — made when rain water mixes with carbon dioxide from plants — eating through the limestone.
Throughout the day, tour guides armed with flashlights (the cave is somewhat dim, even with the electric lights) lead small groups down into the cave. At its deepest point, the cave reaches about 73 feet — or just more than seven stories — underground.
But if the word “cave” immediately conjures thoughts of headlamps, close quarters and pitch blackness, there’s no need to worry about that here. Wooden stairs, ramps and relatively large walking paths make for a fairly easy stroll around the rock formations.
In fact, there are only one or two low-hanging boulders — nicknamed “headache rocks” by the staff — to watch out for.
The tour starts at the base of the first set of stairs. Last week, guide Ashley Osteen began by telling the story of how the cave was discovered in 1881. Brothers William and George Vanasse were chasing a squirrel when they noticed it disappear down a hole. They came back the next day to discover the upper level of the cave.
As Osteen leads the tour down the stairs and ramps into the cave’s lower levels, the temperature gets colder. Crystal Cave is a steady 48 degrees all year long, no matter what the outside temperature is.
That makes it a perfect hibernation spot for bats in the winter. Cunningham said four species of bats — little brown, big brown, eastern pipistrelle and northern myotis — call the cave home from late fall to early spring.
But because the cave is usually closed during that time, Cunningham said bat sightings are rare during the tours.
“Most people don’t see a bat down here,” she said.
However, there are plenty of other things to see seven stories underground. Osteen explained the difference between stalactites (on the roof) and stalagmites (on the floor); there are plenty of both along the tour.
She also pointed out fossils of ancient creatures that lived in the cave 450 million to 500 million years ago and veins of minerals that run through the stone walls.
Last week, Richard Johnson brought his grandchildren — 12-year-old Parker Wylie, 10-year-old Cooper Wylie and 13-year-old Kadie Grundy — from St. Croix, Minn., to see the cave.
“We’ve always wanted to come here,” Johnson said. “It’s interesting; amazing.”
Ella Sorenson, 9, Somerset, Wis., had a simpler reason for visiting the cave last week.
“We like rocks,” she said after the tour.