Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Desert Destination: Crystal Ball Cave

Located in the west desert of Utah is Crystal Ball Cave, so named because the interior is filled with calcite crystals called nailhead spar. It's a little-known wonder well worth a visit.

For part of the Millikin University Spring Break 2009 trip, we headed out to Crystal Ball Cave.

The trip starts at the end of the driveway framed by hundred-year old Lombardy poplars. Jerald and Marlene Bates lead tours through Crystal Ball Cave, so if you want to go you need to call in advance (435-693-3145). The cave is on BLM land, but they have the mining rights so manage the cave.

After meeting Jerald, you follow him to the parking area for the cave and immediately realize he has a good sense of humor. He's lived out at Gandy for his entire life, and it was an uncle that found the cave in 1956. The uncle dragged young Jerald with him to help explore it. Jerald wasn't too enthusiastic due to previous unproductive trips, but this hole in the ground turned out to be different from the rest.

To reach the entrance of the cave requires a short hike. Jerald realizes when the group needs a break and points out plants and other things of interest.

At the cave entrance, he gives more background and tells everyone not to touch cave formations. Then it's time to go in. Jerald unlocks the door, and everyone walks into the dark cave.

A bunch of stalactites are near the entrance. There are no lights in the cave, so everyone needs to bring one.

I thought this weathered formation looked very interesting.

Patches of cave popcorn decorate some cave ceilings and walls.

Most of the cave formations are calcite, but some gypsum is also found in the cave.

Jerald was good at explaining the different types of formations in the cave, as well as the history of it.

This tall stalagmite was taller than everyone on the tour.

The trail goes next to this primitive ladder, leading up to an upper chamber. Jerald said he wouldn't go up it today.

The tour route is on the cave floor, next to more formations. Everywhere you look there's something interesting to see.

Although Crystal Ball Cave is only about 45 miles from Lehman Cave, it looks totally different. After the cave was dissolved away by carbonic acid, the cave filled several times with water supersaturated with calcium carbonate. The calcium carbonate precipitated out in a crystalline form, called nailhead spar. These crystals cover most of the surfaces in Crystal Ball Cave (hence the name of the cave). Walking into the cave is sort of like walking into a huge geode.
Over time, many of the crystals have been covered with sand and dirt, so they're not shiny, but they are large.

Ceilings, walls, and floors all have the nailhead spar coating. 

Sometimes it's more translucent and glows when you put a flashlight next to it.

Further into the cave are interesting formations called cave cones or raft cones. They are the remains of calcite rafts, thin layers of calcite on top of the water. When water dripped onto the calcite rafts, the rafts broke apart and formed into these mounds.

Besides the amazing cave, another appeal of the cave tour is Jerald's quick wit and funny jokes.
He enjoys showing people the cave.

Further into the cave the ceiling drops and requires some stoop-walking. 

Then the cave opens up again and you see what looks like moonmilk decorating the cave ceiling. Moonmilk looks sort of like white cheese that has oozed out of the carbonate rock. It may form due to chemical or bacterial causes. 

Near the exit is a very large rock that has some beautiful crystals exposed. There are a variety of colors.
A close up of the crystals reveals even more beauty.

Besides the geologic wonders, Crystal Ball Cave is a treasure trove of biologic wonders. A paleontological survey of the cave revealed bones from numerous animals. Some are no longer found at this low an elevation (like bighorn sheep), while others are now extinct. These animals lived in the cave vicinity tens of thousands of years ago, when the climate was much different. Roughly 15,000 years ago, the arm of a huge lake, Lake Bonneville, filled the bottom of the valley, and trees extended down near the lake margins. In this landscape, large-headed llamas, camels, small horses, helmeted muskox, American sabercat, and more roamed. 

Crystal Ball Cave is the first location that a new, extinct species of skunk (Brachyprotoma brevimala) has been described.

The cave tour exits from a different place than the entrance, and then it's time to walk back to the vehicles, looking out at the vastly different valley than was there not all that long ago. It would be interesting to come back in 15,000 years and see what it looks like then.


The Incredible Woody said...


Corey Shuman said...

awesome tour... gotta make it out there.

eped said...

this cave looks spectacular. thanks for posting. I'll try to visit this summer.

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