Florida park ranger Amanda Glover swings open a heavy metal door and strides into underground passages that stretch deep beneath a slice of northwest Florida. For several years, she has led tours into the sprawling caverns where the only sound is the distant trickle of water.
Near the entrance of the cavern that is the centerpiece of Florida Caverns State Park, Glover aims her flashlight at a bat small enough to fit into the palm of a hand. The black mammal clings to the ceiling of the cavern where for five years, beginning in 1937, a team of Civilian Conservation Corps workers toiled for $1 a day to expand a crawl area into space ample enough for visitors to transcend.
The cavern floor is etched with evidence of the young men's work – ridges that make trekking less treacherous. Overhead, several of the workmen's white dinner plates remain cemented to the cavern's ceiling where they were placed to enhance the light from bare bulbs. Of some 200 CCC workers who once labored at the park, 40 were appointed to the Gopher Gang that was assigned to crawl underground to map the cave, design walkways and string electrical lights.
With chisels and picks, they labored through the limestone, creating passageways, some narrow, some low, but sufficient to allow visitors into a space that would become Florida's only underground caverns open for tours.
Located about 60 miles west of Tallahassee in Marianna, the site opened to the public in 1942, five years after being discovered by Oliver Chalifoux, a National Park Services geologist who crawled through a sinkhole beneath a fallen tree.
Sinking 55 feet with an average temperature of 65 degrees, the caverns are dissected with a series of rooms named for the limestone formations that jut from the floor and dangle from overhead.
The Wedding Room, which several couples annually choose for their nuptials, is accented by water-shaped sculptures that look like a giant wedding cake and a large pipe organ.
Throughout the cavity, columns look like trees in a forest, rippled formations appear to be draperies and a rimstone pool forms the shape of South America. The formations are delicate and not to be touched, lest thousands of years of nature's handiwork be destroyed.
Tours into the caverns include several admonitions: no handrails, no touching, no backpacks, no walking sticks, no infant back carriers.
But also a comforting yes: There is an escape route for those who decide they are uncomfortable inside the earth where walkways slope, ceilings can become low, and bats and scampering mice make their homes.
The caverns are a major draw to the 1,340-acre park, which also includes a hardwood forest that is pocked with swamp and riven by natural springs.
There are a host of reasons to visit. Some are drawn to the large campsites; others favor the places to canoe and kayak (with equipment rentals available) with the sounds of birdlife creating a soft symphony along waterways. For horse lovers, the equestrian camp sites have electrical and/or water hook-ups, tent sites with water and 16 stalls for horses. (Take your own horse; none are available for rent.) Others head to the park to fish, boat, bicycle and golf on a course carved out by CCC workers.
Several trails – ranging from .16 to 3.08 miles in length – lace their way through the park and bypass other caverns whose entrances have been blocked. Evidence within the park and in some of the smaller caves hints of Native Americans who lived nearby and occasionally used the caverns for shelter and respite from scorching temperatures.
Picnic areas and several picnic pavilions are scattered throughout the park that has a small playground, gift shop and a museum that focuses on the park and caverns.
Editor's note: This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.