“Did you know there were caves in Florida?” says one of the folks waiting for the tour to begin, her accent vaguely Midwestern.
“Honey, I’m from Homestead – that's in Florida – and we don’t even have basements!”
It’s a common thread of conversation among visitors to Florida Caverns State Park, according to tour guides, who lead groups on fascinating underground treks five days a week.
Visitors file into the cavern at Florida Caverns State Park — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Ensconced amid the softly rolling woodland hills of Marianna, and about an hour and 15 minutes’ drive from Panama City Beach, the caves are an astonishing testament to the state’s storied geological history.
The subterranean chambers formed over tens of thousands of years as surface water seeped through the limestone rock, first forming stalactites, which grow down from the ceiling. Eventually, the steady drip formed stalagmites below. Eventually, the two join, creating a column.
The caves feature countless numbers of each, slick and shiny with perpetual wet, the limbs and protuberances of some giant, unseen amphibian under which tourists marvel, blissfully ignorant.
Other formations with whimsical names – soda straws, draperies, ribbon, cave bacon – create entirely unique spaces from room to room.
Tour tickets are available at the visitors center, as are some interesting exhibits about the cavern — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Each has a name and a story and, interestingly, a china bowl embedded into its ceiling. It took roughly five years to excavate the caves after their accidental discovery in 1937; an old tree, uprooted after a particularly bad storm, exposed their hiding place.
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers dug out the two-acre complex using hand tools, digging out several feet of earth in some places to create the space in which visitors have been walking since 1942.
The bowls, say the guides, are highly reflective, and workers mudded them into place to help disperse weak light sources as they toiled. Crews were well paid for the tough work, though. A dollar a day was big money in a post-Depression economy.
These days, of course, the caverns are well lit, even wired, in fact. Its formations cast dramatic shadows, creating an eerie, cathedral-like setting in some places, catacomb-like in others.
Its native inhabitants seem well suited for the latter; blind crayfish, salamanders and bats call the cozy space home. The cave’s year-round temperature is 65 degrees, whether a cold snap or heatwave is inflicting torture on the surface-dwellers above.
Sparrow-sized bats may hang out near the cave exit — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
The journey through this two-acre wonderland takes about 45 minutes, but goes by quickly. Claustrophobics, of course, need not apply. Children and those of short stature won’t have too much of a time crouching, but a few rather narrow and low passages – as well as step-downs and perpetually slippery floors (Water still drains into the cave.) – could make the journey moderately strenuous for some.
For those less than enthused at the idea of making a descent, Florida Caverns State Park has campsites, the cerulean Blue Hole spring for swimming (Though it may be so named because of its chilly temps!) and miles of trails for hiking.
One such walk, the Bluff Trail, is a quick but scenic 3/4-mile loop that wends up and around limestone bluffs and even through a quick, but interesting, tunnel cave. Nature-lovers will enjoy signage about the flora, fauna and history along the way.
Park admission is $5 per multi-occupancy vehicle, $4 for a single-occupant vehicle and $2 for cyclists and pedestrians. Cave tours cost $8 per person (for ages 13 and up); $5 for kids (ages three through 12).
Tours have a maximum occupancy and fill up quickly, particularly in summertime. So hit the gift shop for tickets early in the day.
Limestone ledges on the Bluff Trail give way to floodplain views in places — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson