Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bridal Cave

Post-Christmas, but still winter. The warmth of the holiday lights is long gone, and all we’re left with are our workdays, brown lawns, and grit-sided cars.

And here recently the weather’s been rainy and cold. “Cold” becomes bone-chilling when it’s humid, and in these evenings we’ve been getting fog plus rain, plus cold. The gray days tend to make one feel gray, and yesterday morning I decided I’d had enough. No, I didn’t hop on a plane to Arizona.

Instead, I played reverse psychology on myself. How can you make an overcast day seem brighter? Well, try spending an afternoon two hundred feet below the earth’s surface!

First: I don’t recommend doing spelunking this time of year in wild caves, unless you absolutely know what you are doing—as in, you are a professional caver—since bats hibernate this time of year, and awakening them can cause them to die. (Which sucks, so don’t do it.)

So we went to one of Missouri’s premiere commercially run show caves—these are gorgeous caves that are accessible to the public via tours. Sadly, many of these have been so touched and trampled that they don’t harbor much of an ecosystem anymore. However, since the damage has already been done decades ago, your presence there has a minimal effect on the underground environment. Meanwhile, it is good to learn about and appreciate these amazing chasms, so easy to put out of mind otherwise.

Bridal Cave

The cheery yellow signs with the retro logo are everywhere! If you live in Missouri, you learn to ignore them, but they act on you subliminally, anyway, and sooner or later, you really ought to succumb: Visit Bridal Cave.

The entrance to Bridal Cave—originally only a few feet across—used to be high on a rocky bluff, overlooking the Big Niangua, the Ozark stream that had carved the deep valley below it. That valley is no longer apparent, because the Lake of the Ozarks, created in the 1930s, flooded the chasm, and the water level rose to within easy reach of the cave mouth.

Though it had been explored much earlier, in the 1800s, Bridal Cave was opened as a “show cave”—a tourist attraction—in 1948. Tourist attractions opened up all over the Lake; and by then Missouri was already well-known as a place for caves.

Bridal Cave’s particular schtick was that its front chamber (the “Wedding Chapel”) became a popular spot for weddings. There’s a large, tall formation on one wall that sort of resembles an elaborate pipe organ, plus a central stalagmite that you could say resembles an altar, and I guess that was the inspiration. Well, also, there’s a crusty old local legend about an Indian wedding that took place there in the early 1800s. (True? Who knows.) Anyway, to date, they’ve had over 2,128 weddings in there. And they’re still doing them.

(No, they haven’t done any same-sex commitment ceremonies yet; I asked. Anyone want to go first? To have a wedding there, with their wedding package, they require a valid Missouri marriage license; but then they have also allowed other religious ceremonies on the site, so perhaps there’s some wiggle room for gay folks and their ministers, friends, and families to have commitment ceremonies, which, though not recognized by this state, are certainly not illegal by any means.) (But I digress.)

Though there’s something kitschy about it, they take the wedding thing seriously; the first thing you see when you enter the visitors center/gift shop is a large shelf bearing three-ring binders of 8 x 10 wedding photos. These photos used to be framed and displayed on the walls of the old visitor center. Today, only a select few are framed on the wall: The first wedding, of Mr. and Mrs. Basil Cole, took place June 1, 1949, for instance. Also pictured are the 700th, 1,000th, and 2,000th couples, as well as the “Couple from Farthest Distance,” Mr. and Mrs. Hui-Shong-Cha, from Taipai, who had themselves a June wedding in 1968.

Now, if it were just based on the “bridal” aspect of Bridal Cave, I honestly wouldn’t be very eager to go there. But here’s the kicker: It’s simply a lovely cave.

Indeed! Our tour guide verified this, saying that Bridal Cave is consistently ranked among the top 10 caves in the nation in terms of beauty, accessibility, and the diversity of formations. And that’s saying something, I think.

It’s not a huge cave—this isn’t one where you go back for miles and miles, or ride in jeeps, or access via long flights of stairs. But you do get a lot of bang for your buck. (Prices, times, directions are at the bottom of this post.)

The onyx formations are indeed breathtaking, in milky whites tinted with rusts and yellows; there is an incredibly long wall of uninterrupted drapery formations.

There are, of course, plenty of stalactites and stalagmites to ooh and ahh at, as well as many delicate soda straws hanging from the ceilings, many visible at close range. Plus many other features I’m not smart enough to identify.

There was one thing that really surprised me, and if you’re like me and are already familiar with this cave, this might surprise you, too: They opened up a whole new section!

This project brought access to new rooms behind the ones that had been accessible since the 1940s; indeed, they nearly doubled the cave tour distance!

The last time I toured Bridal Cave was in the mid-1980s, and this project took place in 1988–1990; I was living out-of-state and had no idea this had happened. They call it the “Thompson Expansion,” named for Steve Thompson, who was the general manager of the cave at that time. They had to remove 500 tons of rock in order to carve a tunnel through to the next chambers.

In addition to lengthening the tour overall, the expansion provides two new things: First, today’s visitors are able to see parts of the cave that aren’t so worn out by feet and fingers, and experience a deeper section of the cave. At about 200 feet below the surface, the humidity and the temperature seemed to increase dramatically in the back section.

Second, a whole new treasure is now visible at the farthest extent of the tour: “Mystery Lake.” Yeah, I love how they came up with such a marketing-savvy name, but there is a real mystery to it: They discovered an old ladder and some other stuff in the lake, and they have no idea how it got in there so far, or who brought it.

Visitors can view the lake, from an overlook with a railing. This mineral water is a breathtakingly pure turquoise blue, as you view it through a nearby rock fissure. What a nifty sight!

Well, if you’ve read this far (and yeah, I know this is long), here’s my final point: I especially encourage you to visit Bridal Cave—or any of our other fascinating show caves—during these winter doldrums.

Yeah, I know that we usually think about visiting caves in the summer—tourist season, plus the coolness of the cave is really attractive in Missouri’s heat. But consider this: The cave’s constant 60 degrees feels warm in comparison to the winter outdoors. The humidity feels great, too! And when you emerge from the cave, that overcast, gray daylight suddenly seems bright!

Here’s another reason, possibly the best one of all: Winter is the “off” season for show caves, so when you go there, you practically have the tour guide all to yourself. Our guide at Bridal Cave said that in summertime, they regularly reach their maximum group size of fifty people—to which I say: ugh!

But on our tour, on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon in January, we had only six, and we all got to ask questions and wander around in each chamber, inspecting formations as the guide spoke. There wasn’t a rush to keep moving. It truly felt like a personalized tour, just for us.

So if you’re looking for something to do on these boring, cold, gray days instead of laundry, Fiddle-Faddle, and DVDs, I suggest you take a tour of one of our state's amazing show caves. I warmly recommend Bridal Cave.

Here’s the info:

Admission is fifteen dollars for adults, and seven for kids ages 5–13. Group rates are available.

They’re open every day except for major holidays and on days when they close school for snow days. If you have any doubts, you can always call ahead to ensure they’re open.

Hours are seasonal: winter, 9–4; spring and fall, 9–5; summer, 9–6.

This cave can be reached by car or by boat! Cars get there by taking Business Highway 5 for 2 miles north of Camdenton; boats can find Bridal Cave at the 10½ mile marker of the Big Niangua arm of the Lake of the Ozarks.

Contact info:

Phone: 573-346-2676


Lindsey said...

Thanks for spending that grey dreary day with me. As I told you in the cave, There is NOTHING worse than no one interested in the cave while on tour.... It's bloggers like you and the folks you bring that make a tour good for the guide too!

Julie said...

Thanks for your kind comment, Lindsey. We really enjoyed our visit, and you did a wonderful job as our tour guide.

I was trying to figure out how to work one of your comments into my blog, but now I think I have the chance to mention it: I absolutely loved how you told us that, as a kid growing up in Camden County, you had "your" cave--as if "every" kid growing up "just naturally" has a neighborhood cave to explore and play in, like Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.

Your comment made it seem that, from your childhood perspective, caves were so common, their presence was almost taken for granted. I just loved that detail; it makes me smile.

It's unfortunate that more Missourians don't understand how outstanding our state is when it comes to caves. It could be a much larger part of our tourism economy.

Thank you again for commenting.
My best regards,