A long time ago, in a land far, far away (Manitou Springs, Colorado, to be exact), a bunch of young whippersnappers took a Lantern Tour at Cave of the Winds Mountain Park. It was so much fun, you guys. I’d been in other caverns before, but being in one where the only lighting was the lantern in your hand really added to the excitement of a guided tour.
Fast forward to last week, and Dustin and I found ourselves with 2 kids, ages 6 and 2, back at Cave of the Winds Mountain Park. This time we were on the more family-oriented Discovery Tour (complete with its own lighting), but getting to show our kids the cave where we had so many fond memories was just as exciting as the first time. We owe a huge thanks to Cave of the Winds Mountain Park for hosting us. Having given tours of this cave since 1881, they know a thing or two about how to make this a great experience for all. As always though, I promise my opinions are completely honest and 100% my own.
Entering the cave, you can immediately feel the temperature change. I promptly make everyone put on their jackets, only to be removed a few minutes later with the first set of stairs. It was cool the rest of the time and the tour was not too exerting, but both were just enough that we were all perfectly comfortable in pants and short sleeves.
This is one of the first chambers of the cave. There aren’t as many formations, or speleothems here (check out my fancy new word!), but the cave is still very much alive right from the entrance. The water drips in some places, flows in others, and pools down below. So I guess if you stand there long enough, like a couple hundred years or so, you could watch the cave grow and shift and change altogether. But even just walking through, it is fascinating to see all the different layers of rock with all its nooks and crannies.
Check out these stalacTITEs (that cling tight to the ceiling), and stalagMITEs (that might one day reach the ceiling). There’s also a large piece of “cave bacon” in the top left. This type of flowstone is formed by water running down the formation in the same way it will sometimes run down your forearm when you wash dishes. Learn more about cave geology here.
Here’s some fairly young flowstone. Probably only a billion years old by my expert estimation.
Some of the cave consists of open chambers like this…
But part of the fun of this tour is that so much of the cave is like this. You have to wiggle through these narrow passageways trying not to touch the walls. I’m only about 5′ tall and even I had to stoop to get through a couple of areas. Something about navigating these passages makes you feel like you’re not just on a tour, but on an adventure!
The first tours involved lots of crawling, rope ladders, and candle lighting. The rope ladder from this shaft is what’s left of one of those old tours. The black spots on the ceiling behind it (look around the shadow of that last rung) was where they used to put out their candles so as not to catch the rope on fire. They would then climb the ladder in complete darkness and relight their candles at the top.
Early on, people were encouraged to break off a stalactite and take it home as a keepsake. No big deal. It only takes hundreds of years to grow another inch. Luckily they figured that out and stopped allowing people to touch the formations at all.
See how shiny this stalactite is? That’s not water. It’s from the oils of people’s hands touching it. Not only does that sound germy and gross me out, but it’s pretty much killed the formation.
It’s so exciting to be walking through a cave and then suddenly come to a chamber with tons of formations like these.
Okay, I missed the explanation here if there was one, but surely that’s not a person stuck in there… I think this is to show that this is the size of some of the tunnels they explored in the beginning. They would head down a hole and not come out for days! It really makes you wonder how many of these tiny crevasses lead into bigger chambers that aren’t part of this tour. And could there be portions of this cave that have still never been explored?
One of the spots you are allowed to touch. I didn’t actually. It looks really cool but… slimy.
This sweet, sweet boy… He was happy as a clam as long as Mommy held him. He could have easily walked the entire time. SMH.
Electricity was added to portions of the cave in 1907. Much later, someone happened to find this Edison bulb and plugged it in on the 100 year anniversary of the invention (around 1979), and it still works today! Please explain why I’ve ever had to change a single bulb in my house… They just don’t make them like they used to!
Back in the day when a 20-year-old woman was considered an old maid, a couple of these old ladies toured the cave and for some reason, each decided to leave behind a hair pin. When they came back a few years later, they were both married to wealthy men and decided those hair pins were good luck. So then it became a thing. Women would throw a hair pin, coin, etc., onto the rock shelf, and if it stayed you would have luck in marriage. If it fell… you get the picture.
After a while, the weight of the hair pins was putting stress on the cave wall. They stopped allowing this to take place, but kept the historic wall because there would be some awfully unhappy women out there.
Check out this cave history in the making! Click here to learn more about the history of Cave of the Winds.
One of the things we couldn’t exactly get a picture of was experiencing total darkness. At a certain point in the tour, the guide turns off the lights and leaves only a lantern burning (like the one Dustin is holding in the very first picture on this page). Luckily you get some warning, where I then gave my kids extra warning, and out goes the lantern. Sure, I’ve been in dark places before but this is the real deal. He said the only place darker is at the bottom of the ocean. I was holding him, but Hudson started feeling on my face saying, “Mommy? Mommy?” The lights were only out for a minute, but it was still a really neat experience.
Here we are headed back up and out of the cave. While you’re inside you don’t really think about it, but you never really know where you are in relation to the entrance. There are a lot of stairs and passageways, up and down, at different parts of the tour (luckily not all at once). It’s a little bit disorienting when you step back outside, look at the mountain, and have no idea where you were inside of it.
The Discovery Tour we were on lasted about an hour. It was the perfect length to keep the kids interested and it wasn’t too strenuous either. If your kids are older (or you don’t have any) and you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can also do the Lantern Tour where each person has their own lantern, walking through parts of the cave that are unimproved, and unlighted. But once our kids are old enough, we plan to come back and do the Caving 101 Tour where you really get to test your spelunking skills, crawling, climbing, and exploring the cave much like in the early days!
There’s so much more than just the underground tours at Cave of the Winds. Above ground, there are multiple climbing, zip-lining, and thrill-seeking opportunities, but unfortunately our kids are still too small for most of them. They did, however, thoroughly enjoy Stalactykes Adventure Slide. Hudson didn’t even care that he couldn’t get himself up higher than the first level, but Harper could have climbed all 8 levels and slid down that gigantic slide over and over again for the rest of the day.
Knowing that we weren’t going to make it to any of the gold mines in Colorado (at least not this trip), I really wanted Harper to get to pan for some gemstones. Just outside the building is a huge sluice and a place to purchase bags of dirt, all guaranteed to contain gemstones. Once Harper got the concept and saw a colorful rock or two, she was hooked. Plus, the gemstones made a great keepsake and reminder of our time at Cave of the Winds Mountain Park!
No matter where you are at Cave of the Winds Mountain Park, above or below ground, the views are breathtaking! I can only imagine what zip-lining through the canyon would be like!
Quick tips for an enjoyable experience:
~Use google maps to get there. Other navigation systems may take you to a Cave Avenue address and that’s just not right.
~Wear good walking shoes and dress in layers. The cave is cool but comfortable with the right clothing and footwear.
~Leave the stroller in the car. Instead, opt for a front baby carrier if your littles can’t walk yet.
~Book an early or late tour online and save yourself some cash.
~Plan to do more than just the tour. The above-ground activities are just as exciting as below!
~Wear sunscreen for outdoor activities and drink a lot of water. Not only is that Rocky Mountain sun intense, but staying well hydrated is one of the easiest ways to help prevent altitude sickness.
~Share your pictures and experience at Cave of the Winds with us! We love to see other families out adventuring too!
Planning a trip? Heres a few other family-friendly activities we enjoyed in the area:
Side note: This little stinker decided the morning of our tour that he is Mama’s boy and he cannot walk on his own, nor will Daddy holding him suffice. Normally he’s all about Daddy, all day long. As soon as we were out of the cave we had to remind him that he is perfectly capable of walking on his own (thank the Lord because he is so so heavy!), but while we were in the cave I ended up carrying him most of the way so that none of the other people on the tour had to listen to him scream.
So I also owe a huge thanks to my sweet husband for taking pictures for me. I am usually the one taking all the pictures so the poor guy hardly knows how to use my camera, even on auto. He learned real quick and even in a dark, difficult to photograph cave, he still got some great shots. Go ahead and give him a shout out guys!