Often considered to be the most significant cave of the Midwest due to its mineral formations, Cave of the Mounds near Blue Mounds, Wis., is a privately owned natural wonder that is over a million years in the making.
A deep history
Although its formation dates back to the Pleistocene Epoch 2.58 million to 11,700 years ago, the Cave of the Mounds wasn’t discovered until August 4, 1939. On that day, a crew working at the Brigham family farm limestone quarry blasted a section of rock and uncovered the cavern below. Naturally, the men were excited about their find and returned the next day to descend into the darkness. After confirming that the cave had no other natural openings, Charlie Brigham sealed the entrance to the cave and stood guard to protect the space from vandals. Despite his best efforts, word got around the curious came.
A month later, Brigham leased the cave to bank teller Carl Brechler and band teacher Fred Hanneman, who developed a plan to open the cave to tourists. They cleared the rock and rubble from the original blast, installed the infrastructure needed to make the cave accessible to a wide range of visitors and built an entrance building so that they could open on May 30, 1940. The cave proved to be a popular spot, and by year’s end over 58,000 people visited the grotto to see the speleothems – stalagmites and stalactites – that included soda straws, helictites and oolites.
Brechler and Hanneman made a number of improvements to the cave, including an upgraded entrance building in 1942, a mineshaft in 1945, and concrete pathways and metal handrails in 1946. By the late 1950s, the Cave of the Mounds was completed, and folks have flocked to it for the past 66 years.
In 1988, after a 12-year process, Cave of the Mounds was designated a National Natural Landmark by the Department of the Interior for its distinct character, rarity and value to the scientific community. To qualify for such a unique honor, the cave had to represent the best example of a biological or geological resource in the United States.
For the last 35 years, the cave has remained a privately owned entity, although it has operated in partnership with the National Parks Service. The NPS works to ensure that the cave is managed and protected for future generations as an example of the state’s natural history.
Ready to rock
Cave of the Mounds is located between 40 and 57 feet below ground level, depending on the specific area of the cave. It boasts a total surveyed length of 1,695 feet, including all nooks and crannies. The guided self-tour covers a 1,100-foot walk, or approximately one-fifth of a mile. The cave is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily throughout the year and the cavern maintains a comfortable 50 degrees, which makes it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Although there are no bats, coyotes or other cave-dwelling animals to see inside the grotto due to a lack of natural openings, the cave does get a steady supply if fresh air thanks to the porous nature of the limestone rock. According to its website, the cave’s onyx grows approximately one centimeter each century, provided that the conditions are perfect; but because conditions are rarely perfect, it usually takes a lot longer. In fact, a human’s hair grows faster in six hours than the Cave of the Mounds speleothems do in a year.
Cave of the Mounds offers a wide range of tours that showcase an array of brilliantly hued crystal formations throughout the journey. There is the guided self-tour, as well as black light tours and VIP experiences: The latter merges the cave experience with above-ground attractions such as the gemstone mine and geode cracking. Guests are also encouraged to take in the interpretive nature trails, gardens and the Brigham Barn Discovery Center.
Throughout the year, Cave of the Mounds offers special events including Halloween tours that feature trick-or-treating, lantern tours, discovery days and more.
Guests who have visited Cave of the Mounds say it is fun for all ages and definitely worth a stop. One visitor said he enjoyed seeing the various rock formations in different shapes and sizes on his Tripadvisor review.
“It took us about an hour to cover the entire tour since we loved to admire each formation for quite a while,” he said. “This is a good place to spend with the kids, especially on a rainy day where outdoor activities are limited.”
A first-time spelunker from Sycamore, Ill., said her family had a wonderful time at the cave and found that the staff went above and beyond to make sure her first experience was a memorable one. “They were helpful, friendly, talkative and more than willing to answer the hundreds of questions we had,” she said on Yelp.
If you go … Cave of the Mounds is located at 2975 Cave of the Mounds Road near Blue Mounds, Wis. For more information about daily tours, admission rates and more, call (608) 437-3038 or visit www.caveofthemounds.com.