Deep beneath the cornfields, rolling hills and idyllic scenery of rural southern Indiana lays a possible national treasure. The Binkley cave system, quietly surveyed over the better part of the last fifty years, awaits further discovery. Closed before the end of the last Ice Age, no human had ever set foot in this underground wonder before the late 1920’s, when the bottom simply dropped out of a pond near Corydon, Indiana, forming what was eventually called Binkley Cave. During the 1930s and ‘40s, amateur spelunkers began to explore the first short stretches of the cave, and in 1967, Gary Roberson and Terry Crayden began to survey more of the system.
By 1969, 11.35 miles have been surveyed. In early 2012, a connection was discovered between Binkley Cave and nearby Blowing Hole Cave. Today, the cave system has grown considerably, as it now sits at over 37 miles long, making it the 11th longest cave system in the US, and easily the longest in the state of Indiana. It is a tentative belief that after the entire system is surveyed, it will become the longest privately-owned cave systems in the nation. The owners (Roberson being one of them) have now opened up the original Binkley cave as a “show cave” known as Indiana Caverns, where the public can come in and tour a small (but absolutely incredible) portion of the oldest part of the system.
Why Southern Indiana?
The area that is home to the Binkley cave system was prehistorically a vast ocean. Gary explains that the sediment that fell to the bottom of the ocean was compressed over many, many years and hence formed sedimentary rock such as limestone, which is incredibly prevalent in the area. Once the landscape changed, groundwater began to erode away the water-soluble limestone, eventually carving out the enormous cave system we see today. During the last Ice Age, creatures used the cave system as a source of shelter, food, and many other things. As a result, the system is a treasure trove of prehistoric animal bones. A veritable cornucopia of remnants have and will continue to be found in the system, including flat-nosed peccaries (which were pig-like creatures), bears up to nine (yes, nine) feet tall, owls as large as four feet, bison, and others.
What can I expect to see?
Even as a rural Indiana native, I was a little surprised at the drive to Indiana Caverns. It’s pretty off of the beaten path, and the road leading directly to the site can generously be described as a one-and-a-half lane county road. Depending on the season of your visit, don’t be surprised if you get stuck behind a tractor with that familiar (to Midwesterners) orange triangle sign on the back, letting you know that, well partner, you ain’t gettin’ anywhere very fast. Trust me, it’s worth the wait. Pulling into the parking lot, I noticed the quaint setup of the brand new visitor center, set amongst what looks to be just another piece of good ol’ Indiana countryside. As there was an absolute deluge of rain coming down upon my arrival, I didn’t get a lot of time to snoop around outside, but it appeared to still be fairly undeveloped. Upon entering the visitor center, I noticed something very unique and quite refreshing. As a regular visitor of outdoor attractions both publicly and privately owned, I’ve noticed that gift shops tend to be the prevalent presence in any visitor center. While there is a gift shop in the visitor center at Indiana Caverns (they’ve got more than necklaces and keychains, anyhow), there is also a large section of the building devoted to a burgeoning interpretive center where visitors can look around at displays and learn a bit of the history and notable facts of the system on their own, giving the place a bit of an “immersion experience” feel.
According to Carol Groves, director of Marketing & Communication for Indiana Caverns, “The goal is to have the best interpretive display of any privately owned show cave within 3–5 years.” The highlight of this area has got to be the running electronic ticker that shows where the current surveyed mileage of the system stands on that day. It really gives you a sense of just how quickly and impressively this previously virtually unknown cave system is growing. Coupled with a regularly updated map above it, the display gives you a sense of the magnitude of the whole operation. “The Binkley cave system is growing rapidly in length right now,” says Gary. “ISS (Indiana Speleological Society) cavers surveyed another 2,255 feet last Saturday in a new underground river found only three months ago. This new area has the potential to take the cave from nationally significant to internationally significant.”
Another supremely cool opportunity offered at Indiana Caverns is the chance to be an active participant in the excavation of some of the prehistoric remains. For a nominal fee, “Paleo Dig at Indiana Caverns” gives you the seemingly unprecedented chance to be a part of history. Participants are supervised by a paleontologist while painstakingly extracting history from the muddy depths of the cave.
“New” in the strangest sense of the term
While it is difficult to call a roughly one million year old cave “new,” Indiana Caverns just opened in June of 2013. Within seven weeks of operation, roughly 14,000 folks have come through the proverbial doors, and visitors have confirmed to the staff that they are “impressed by the amount of work that was done in just one year to develop the cave,” according to part-owner and driving force behind the ongoing work, Roberson. With a staff of less than 20, they have had their hands full, but each of them seem to be incredibly well-informed and cordial. According to Roberson, the marketing of attractions has changed drastically. “We have a considerable advertising budget. We have billboards and advertisements all over the area, but in order to reach people from far away, social media is by far the best avenue.” Another thing that some visitors may wonder about is the ever-spreading scourge known as White Nose Syndrome, a potentially deadly (for bats) infliction that has taken a toll on bat populations over the last several years. At Indiana Caverns, however, it is not much of a concern. The main entrance to the cave is housed indoors and accessed through a set of sealed glass doors, so that bats don’t bother. Other natural entrances to the cave offer access for bats, but in order for them to reach the part of the system frequented by humans, they would have to travel well out of their way and probably exert too much effort to bother looking for food there. Therefore, human-to-bat transmission is highly unlikely. Gary also explains that most transmissions of WNS are bat-to-bat, anyhow, so there’s really not much to be done once it has spread in a specific area.
Nowhere near “tourist trap”
Every traveler has been stung by the ever-alluring highway billboard that doesn’t deliver on its promises of tourist-nirvana. Indiana Caverns is nothing close to that. While a grand majority of the Binkley cave system is off-limits to the public (do you really want to army crawl through the mud for miles, anyhow?), the tour is simply awesome. Descending down what looks to be a tunnel into another dimension, visitors are led into the cavern. Upon entry, they are led down an open spiral staircase for what seems like several stories. Because you can see straight down for several feet and considering the new-ness of the cave, it can be a bit of a tense experience (especially for people with a fear of heights). Upon landing from the staircase, visitors are immediately treated to a view of a four-story underground waterfall and taken across an open catwalk to other geological wonders (again, heights!). Next up is what the staff calls “Peccary Plunge.” Apparently, these creatures ventured into the cavern and met an untimely demise when the ground much fell from beneath them. Bones of the animals are found in abundance in this area, and replicas have been placed in strategic locations to give you a sense of what they looked like. There are several other fascinating stops on the tour, including a few “bear wallows,” which are indentations in the silt where the massive creatures once bedded down for rest. The end of the tour consists of a really cool float down an underground river, where several other formations can be seen. With all of the ducking, climbing, and handrail holding, there is a small but genuine twinge of danger, which adds another layer to the fact that this isn’t just another show cave.
To sum it up…
While the size of the show cave itself will probably not grow anytime soon, knowing the sheer size of the surrounding Binkley cave system is a pretty amazing in itself. The Binkley cave system is an amazing development, especially for its location, and may hold real scientific significance in the future. “[The cave’s] scientific significance really depends on research that is done. There is not a lot of money to sponsor cave research, so it is fairly limited,” explains Roberson. “I guess I would say that the Binkley cave system of which Indiana Caverns is a small part has great potential for additional research, [so] who knows what could be discovered? I think the bones, the great depth of the cavern (for what is generally defined as a sinkhole stream cave), the biology, and [the possibility of] unique microbes that might have medical or other uses are some of the things that bear more investigation.” As the ticker in the visitor center will tell you, this is an ever-expanding piece of history unraveling right before our eyes.