Chances are you’ve visited the Wisconsin Dells a time or two…and spent little to no time looking at the splendor of nature’s wonders around you – probably whiling the time away instead of adventuring in the waterparks of the Kalahari and Mt. Olympus, or visiting attractions like The Upside Down House, or seeing how many pizzas from the local joints you could have delivered to your room or how many tee-shirts you could buy on the strip.
Well, here’s your chance to do penance if you take this “must visit.”
About 50 miles away from the Dells headed back to Chicago, in a peaceful, looping, practically deserted drive that will make you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’ll find an amazing national natural landmark called The Cave Of The Mounds, in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin.
It’s called the “jewel box” of America’s major caves because of the variety, color and delicacy of its formations, and is recognized by the Chicago Academy of Sciences as “the significant cave of the upper Midwest.”
Cave of the Mounds takes its name from the Blue Mounds, two large hills that have long been Wisconsin landmark features. The West Mound, at 1,716 feet, is the highest point in Southern Wisconsin; the East Mound reaches 1,489 feet. Cave of the Mounds lies under the southern slope of the East Mound.
This area was settled in 1828 by Ebenezer Brigham, a successful lead miner who had no idea of what he was sitting on and never learned of it before he died either.
Brigham traveled from Massachusetts down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi to Wisconsin, where he built a smelting furnace and a house just north of the Cave. His house became a trading post, an inn, a stagecoach stop, and a post office.
Cave of the Mounds was accidentally discovered on August 4, 1939, when workers dynamited a quarry on the Brigham Farm to extract the high quality limestone. But nothing came out!
Instead, the blast tore the face off the quarry and revealed a great gaping underground limestone cavern more than 20 feet high. It opened into other rooms and galleries, all containing numerous mineral formations, with many surrounded by underground streams.
The limestone from which the cave was carved began forming approximately 488 million years ago, when much of North America was covered with warm, shallow seas where shellfish thrived. Over millions of years, the shells they left behind accumulated, forming enormous quantities of limestone. The seas eventually receded, leaving those layers of rock behind and erosion began to wear them down.
A large crack developed in the surface of the rock, which allowed rainwater to seep into the stone. Over time, large cavities were dissolved in the stone and as the water table dropped, the cavities filled with air.
Now that the cavities are filled with air instead of water, the water droplets coming down, which are saturated with dissolved calcium carbonate, deposit solid calcium carbonate, which builds up over time to create “speleothems,” those things growing from top to bottom that make a cave a cave.
It is the quantity and quality of its many speleothems, and the extraordinary colors left behind by minerals naturally present in the rock, that make Cave of the Mounds so spectacular.
In a very gradual process, it usually takes 50 to 150 years to form just one cubic inch of material for the speleothems, and that process is continuing today, so the “Cave of The Mounds” is very much a living, evolving thing.
It was never used as a quarry again. Lights and walkways were added and the cave has been toured by millions since its discovery. Two of its more interesting features: 1. the cave stays at 50 degrees year round, so it’s pleasantly cool in the summer and surprisingly warm in the winter, and 2. the acoustics are so good that the locals hold Christmas caroling events in it during the holidays!
*The cave has the usual tourist accoutrements and it’s open seven days a week, rain or shine, year round. Guided tours last an hour. It’s about $17 for 13-over; $9 for 12-under. For more info, visit www.caveofthemounds.com, or call 608/437-3038.