In 1937, a hurricane ripped through the Marianna area. Its blustering winds downed a tree. While the tree didn’t fall on anyone or even damage anything, the event was nevertheless significant.
When the tree’s roots spilled up out of the ground, it revealed the large cavern that had been hidden underneath. Oliver Chalifeaux, surveying the property, blundered across the discovery. I can only imagine how he must have felt staring into the maw of what would become known as the Florida Caverns
Thanks to Mother Nature, Oliver’s accidental discovery and years of work by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the Florida Caverns State Park - a National Gold Medal Winner - has thrilled countless visitors since it opened to the public in 1942.
Guided tours are offered every day except Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Christmas and Thanksgiving, and run hourly from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a first-come, first-serve basis. Don’t arrive too late, though! The tours are popular and often fill to capacity. The prices are a great value for this awesome tour: only $8.00 for those 13 and older, and less for children. You don’t need to be a fitness freak to enjoy the tour, but expect it to last about 45 minutes for a half-mile trip. You’ll also need to be able to bend over for a short distance to fit through the section of the cavern called “Tall Man’s Torture.”
On my tour, our guide, a down-home sort of guy with a Southern drawl, led our little group down the cavern’s twisted paths, which plunge as deep as 50 feet below ground level. Sometimes the ceilings were so low that I gasped and had to double over at the waist to squeeze under them; sometimes the ceilings were gloriously high, odd and beautiful. Stalactites reached down from above, often bleeding into the stalagmites poking from the floor, forming pillars and columns painted in vivid hues.
Our guide didn’t rush us, but graciously answered questions. Once, he flipped off the lights so we could experience the blacker-than-black, utter darkness of the cave’s depths for ourselves.
Some of the few creatures that live full-time in this strange world (like salamanders) are blind, and lack pigment. The formations grow at a rate that would make a turtle look like a track star, forming an area as big as an ice cube every hundred years. They are damaged by human touch, so it was a strictly hands-off experience, with the exception of one stalagmite that we were allowed to feel. However, we could get very close to the soda straws, flowstones and draperies and feast our eyes all we wanted.
While the cavern tour is the highlight of the place, there’s a lot more fun to be had there. You can explore the numerous trails on foot, bike, or horseback. They don’t rent horses but you can bring your own and stable them in the park’s safe, roomy stalls.
The trails are more interesting than they might sound. They’re quiet except for the occasional screech of a hawk and the wind stroking the trees, and the air is perfumed with pine, but what I thought really made them special were the limestone bluffs and flood plain. It’s like strolling through a fairy land, filled with tiny caves and sinkholes and rocks in shapes I’ve never seen before. Trees stretch towards the sky, their trunks splayed to give them stability.
You can rent a canoe and paddle the Chipola River and try to spot a heron, egret, or beaver, or one of the many ‘gators that call it home. The whole place is magical. As soon as my husband Paul and I arrived, two deer trotted across the road. When we pulled in to park by the canoe rental racks, I photographed a family fishing. The kids were having a great time (though not doing much to threaten the bass population). I marched up to a more serious fisherman a little ways upstream who obliged me by hooking a respectable fish immediately. I sneaked up on a hawk with my camera; however, he soared off and his picture blurred.
The history of the area is extensive; evidence of human occupation in the area dates back ten thousand years. The historic Visitor’s Center chronicles much of it, and has Indian artifacts highlighted in its many informative displays. The concession downstairs provides refreshment and cheesy postcards (which I happily purchased to send off to my friends).
The park is a wonderful place to camp, but you’d be wise to make reservations as they often are full. It even boasts a nine-hole golf course, though I saw no reason to spoil my day by trying to play a game of it.
If you’re looking for fine dining, sophistication and rock-and-roll nightlife, this ain’t the place to be. It would be easier to stumble across a fabulous cavern while striding around a fallen tree than it would be to stumble across a Saks Fifth Avenue or a Hard Rock Café in Marianna. However, if you have the yen to leave your stiletto heels or tie in the closet, the Florida Caverns State Park is right up your neck of the forest. This is a genuine place to enjoy a family vacation, snuggle up to nature, and draw a deep, satisfying breath.