A Cave with a Past
This often-overlooked Hill Country state park is a year-round delight.
By Rob McCorkle
For centuries, Longhorn Cavern has sheltered man and beast from the elements, been used as a hideout by scofflaws and even served as a subterranean speakeasy for Prohibition era “swells” who, when the cave was in private hands, enjoyed cocktails and danced to the big bands.
Today, Longhorn Cavern operates as one of Texas’ show caves, drawing visitors from throughout the world to view a host of surreal speleothems (rock formations) sprinkled throughout a maze of rooms, tunnels and sinkholes. Perhaps not as well known as Cascade, Natural Bridge and Inner Space caverns, which sit not far off busy Interstate 35 in central Texas, Longhorn Cavern serves as the main attraction in a state park occupying 645 acres of classic Texas Hill Country scenery between Marble Falls and Burnet.
When asked what distinguishes Longhorn Cavern from other major Texas caves, Concessions Manager Michelle Devaney explains, “We’re easier to tour than Natural Bridge, which is bigger, but we’re larger than Inner Space. Once you’ve gone down our 52 steps, you’re on rather level terrain.”
Devaney says 40,000 to 45,000 people a year visit the cavern, many of them schoolchildren on field trips during the fall and spring. She’s surprised at how many people have never been underground before and by how many people still don’t know about the park and all that it offers.
“People need to realize that, yes, our main attraction is the cave, but that we do have other interesting outbuildings, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum,” she points out. “And we have a nature trail with lots of bird life, a deli snack bar and a gift shop with items from around the world.”
Longhorn Cavern was created not just by the seepage of surface water, but also by underground lakes that dissolved and eroded rock several million years ago during the downcutting of the Colorado River. Park exhibits explain how very slow-moving underground currents created the cavern when they worked their way through cracks and other openings in Ellenburger Limestone deposited 500 million years ago when the area was covered by a shallow sea. The result of the water’s work is a wondrous world of odd-shaped formations, domed ceilings, gaping sinkholes, tight crawlways, fascinating rock carvings, rooms of sparkling crystals and alabaster halls of dolomite that looks like exquisite Italian marble.
When chill winter winds whip across the rolling cedar- and oak-covered countryside above, the cavern’s constant 68 degrees warms visitors who come to tour this geological gem. And during hot-weather months, 21st-century visitors to Longhorn Cavern State Park can only imagine what the cavern’s natural “air conditioning” meant to sweltering Hill Country inhabitants back before hydroelectric power from Buchanan Dam on the nearby Colorado River first made refrigerated air possible in 1937.
The cavern’s cultural history rivals its natural history. Local legend holds that the Comanche held council meetings in the cavern’s largest room, which today is known as the Indian Council Room. Early Texas frontier settlers, Confederate soldiers, Wild West outlaws like Sam Bass, Roaring 20s “party animals” and the Civilian Conservation Corps followed over the years.
It took eight years (1934-42) for the CCC “boys” of Company 854 to carve a state park out of the rocky Hill Country terrain and transform the silt-filled cavern into a tourism draw. Using picks, axes, shovels, dynamite and wooden wheelbarrows with iron-rimmed wheels, the 200 laborers removed several tons of river sediment, bat guano and debris deposited over the millennia. Much of the excavated material was used to build Park
Road 4, which dips and winds its way the 6 miles from U.S. 281 to the park entrance. In all, the young laborers explored and lit more than 2 miles of the cavern, built limestone rock walls and arches, and erected several park structures.
In the visitor’s center snack bar, the boyish faces of the CCC workers stare out from beneath jauntily cocked cowboy hats in a series of vintage photographs. Other vintage CCC images are exhibited inside the state’s only CCC Museum, which is housed in the rustic, rock-and-timber administration building. Grainy pictures of soup kitchens and unemployment lines help put the desperate plight of young men during the Great Depression into proper perspective. Be sure to check out the fireplace hearth constructed with large calcite crystals from the cavern that reach to the ceiling and fan out in a band around the top of the room’s wall.
The State of Texas acquired the land that Longhorn Cavern State Park occupies from rancher D. G. Sherrard in 1932. The park opened to the public in 1938 and in 1971 was designated a Registered National Landmark. The state park is owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and operated by concessionaires (Shawn and Michelle Devaney) who also run the popular Vanishing Texas River Cruise on nearby Lake Buchanan. While visiting the park, ask about the Great Escape Package that includes a cave tour, river cruise, accommodations and breakfast, or phone (800) 728-8735.
Though the park offers picnic facilities, a nature trail and three-story rock observation deck with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside — including a good view of Faulkenstein Castle, a private residence built to resemble a medieval Bavarian castle — most park visitors come to Longhorn Cavern State Park to take the guided tour of the cavern. Guided tours cover a mile and a quarter and take just under an hour and a half. Camping is available at nearby Inks Lake State Park.
Visitors access Longhorn Cavern through what is known as the Sam Bass Entrance, one of five cave entrances and the only one open to the general public. Blasted out with dynamite in the 1930s, the main cave entrance lies 36 feet below a picturesque land bridge framed by towering cedar elms and dangling vines. A cut-block rock wall and arches mark the location of stairs leading to the cavern entrance.
Guides such as Al Gerow greet groups of amateur “spelunkers” just outside the gated cavern entrance to give a few pointers about the do’s and don’ts inside the cave and a brief orientation about what they’ll be seeing within the cave’s dank labyrinth of trails and halls of rock. “Cavers” are admonished not to touch active formations — that is, the living stalactites and stalagmites, fragile crystalline formations dangling from the ceiling or rising from the cave floor, formed by dripping water carrying dissolved limestone. He warns parents to keep their children under control lest they get lost or fall into pits and ditches, some 15 feet deep, which parallel many of the paths.
On a recent summer cave tour, Gerow shared his knowledge of geology and cave lore with a group of two-dozen adults and youngsters.
Gerow explains how it took eight years for CCC workers to excavate the cavern that is open to the public today. He says workers filled wheelbarrows by hand, hauling out more than 20,000 cubic yards of dirt, rock and gravel.
The park guide, equipped with a flashlight, leads the way through a series of small rooms, hallways and paths, flipping on lights as he goes to reveal the cave’s more noteworthy features. The first stop is Crystal City, where sparkling calcite crystals adorn the walls. As the group exits an area, he turns off the light to reduce the growth of algae that light can produce on the cavern’s white-and-tawny limestone walls.
“We’re heading due north,” Gerow points out. “Burnet is eight miles ahead of us. We’re going under Park Road 4 now.”
The group passes by the Queen’s Watchdog, a smooth dolomite rock shaped like a small dog, which CCC workers found beneath silt in deep recesses of the cave and brought out to display. Next comes the Queen’s Throne, an impressive mass of flowstone and one of the largest travertine deposits in the cave.
“Watch your head” and “Keep your children with you,” are common instructions from Gerow to tour participants who make their way through sometimes- narrow and often-slippery passageways with low ceilings sporting names like Lumbago Alley. Get hit by a drop of falling water, he tells you, and you’ve just gotten a lucky “cave kiss.”
Cave tours are sprinkled with colorful narratives about who has used Longhorn Cavern during the last 150 years. History records that Confederate troops during the Civil War made gunpowder from guano left behind by the millions of Mexican free-tailed bats that once called the cavern home. He shares a story about a daring rescue by Texas Rangers of a beautiful young San Antonio-area girl who was kidnapped by Comanches and held in the cavern for ransom. You’ll find an account of the rescue in a framed newspaper clipping that hangs in the deli snack bar.
One of Longhorn Cavern’s most interesting footnotes in history occurred during Prohibition, in the 1920s, when owner D. G. Sherrard used the cavern as a dance hall, nightclub and restaurant. Patrons paid handsomely to drink bootleg whiskey, dance to live music and eat elegant meals by candlelight in the Indian Council Room and the adjacent Lunch Room. The onset of the Great Depression, however, brought the Texas entrepreneur’s enterprise to a screeching halt, according to Gerow, and he sold the property to the state.
The big-band sounds from yesteryear have given way to music concerts, poetry readings and choral presentations that benefit from the excellent natural acoustics of the cave. Longhorn Cavern’s twice-monthly “Simple Sounds” concert series has attracted a committed following. Patrons, some packing picnic dinners and drinks, are guided to the Indian Council Room, where they sit in metal chairs or at tables (available for an additional fee) to be entertained for a couple of hours. One regular performer, Alton Rex, has even recorded “Live from Longhorn Cavern,” a CD for sale in the visitor’s center. After all evening concerts, hot chocolate and coffee await concert patrons above ground.
Gerow calls the barbershop-style performance by the Hill Country Blenders, 32 guys singing harmony inside the cave, the “neatest program I’ve seen.” He ranks the annual Christmastime performances — “Caroling Underground” — a close second. This year’s holiday performances are scheduled for Dec. 15, 18 and 22.
A growing number of couples are opting to take their vows or hold their wedding receptions inside the cavern, which can seat more than 250 celebrants. A warehouse-style service elevator serves as an oversized “dumbwaiter” to raise and lower banquet tables, chairs and food into the cavern.
During the guided tour, Gerow notes unusual features, such as the black stains on some ceilings that are courtesy of the oil- and dirt-covered feet of millions of Mexican free-tailed bats that once “hung out” in the cavern. The bats have disappeared and cave crickets, daddy longlegs and the occasional scorpion are the only critters readily seen by visitors.
Gerow also likes to point out the route of the intrepid souls who go on the park’s three-hour Wild Cave tours, squeezing through tight passageways in the cavern’s “basement,” an area of the cave 8 feet below the main cave floor carved out of the limestone by swirling waters.
While much of the first hour of the cave trek delivers a multitude of visual treats such as the Attic, Chandelier Room, Waterfall, Wishing Well, Smokehouse and Rock of a Million Layers, the cavern’s most amazing sights are still to come.
A stooped-over walk through Lumbago Alley rewards tour participants with entry to the Hall of Marble, a narrow room of super-smooth alabaster walls lit up like a Roman banquet hall. Ooos and ahhhs are the order of the day here. Next comes the Giant Icicle, a 14-foot-long stalactite that protrudes from the cave ceiling like a giant upside-down vanilla ice cream cone.
Following in rapid succession are some of the cavern’s most remarkable rock formations — the Eagle’s Wing, Devil’s Footstool and Viking’s Prow. It was here, Gerow points out, in less than 12 feet of dirt, that CCC workers found the Queen’s Watchdog. An active stalactite known as the Skull waits around the next corner. Just past a silhouette of Abraham Lincoln — three quarters of a mile into the cave — comes two flights of slippery, irregular steps leading to the turnaround point in the Pink Room.
Longhorn Cavern tours save the best for last. Near the end of the almost 90-minute tour, visitors enter a multihued crystal calcite hallway — the Rainbow Room — dazzling with its red, white and blue highlights. The room empties into the tour’s pi`ece de résistance, the Hall of Gems, Nature’s own faux diamond mine.
“This is one of the largest crystal rooms that I know,” Gerow says. “When the CCC boys dug in here, they thought they’d discovered a diamond mine. But they found out it was worthless. The calcite is so soft you can almost scratch it with a fingernail.”
Rest assured that any time of year is the right time to explore this diamond in the rough.