The caves and visitor center at Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah close each winter and usually reopen for the season in early May. If you're planning a visit this year, be aware that schedule will change for 2011 to allow for completion of several projects to improve visitor and employee safety.
As its name suggests, the key features of the park are found underground, and cave tours are a popular activity from May into October. In this case, however, "underground" doesn't mean that getting to the cave involves heading "down" from the visitor center and parking area. A park publication notes,
"The only access to the cave system is by walking a strenuous 1 and ½ mile paved trail, which rises 1,092 ft to an elevation of 6,730 feet above sea level. The round-trip hike and tour of the cave system takes about three hours."
The trail itself is a popular attraction for some visitors, and the park website notes, "The trail provides spectacular views of the geology of the American Fork Canyon and the expanding cities of the Utah Valley."
Popular or not, that steep trail has presented some safety challenges, and the park staff was glad to finally receive funds to deal with some of those issues. "Progress" usually has a price, however, and in this case, one of those tradeoffs is a delay in reopening the park for the coming summer season.
The park historically opens for the season on Mother’s Day weekend, which this year is the first weekend of May. However, due to ongoing construction, the park will remain closed to visitors until at least May 25, 2011, and "Additional opening delays may be necessary if project completion schedules are not met."
“If all the projects conclude on schedule, we should be able to open the park by May 25,” said park superintendent Denis Davis. “Our primary concern is for the safety of park visitors and staff.”
So, what work is taking place? According to the park staff,
"The delay in opening the park results from critical upgrades to the electrical and lighting systems in the caves. Staff will be installing new electrical grounding connections and repairing other connections that have corroded through the years. The park is also placing temporary barriers along about 300 yards of the cave trail where cliffs along the edge of the trail create a high risk falling hazard. Permanent rock walls or hand rails will be installed at these locations in the future."
"Additionally, the shelter at the cave exit is being extended to improve visitor safety from falling rock hazards. The only fatality from rock fall in the park’s history occurred at the cave exit around 1933. This project has been planned for several years and construction is scheduled to begin August 1. When that project begins, the trail and cave tours will be open to the public Friday through Sunday and holidays. Construction work will require closure of the trail Monday through Thursday to ensure safety."
There's no question safety is a concern on the trail. A park employee was killed last year in a fall from the trail, only one day after a schoolgirl was injured in a separate fall.
If you're planning a visit to the park this summer, Davis advises you to check the park website or to contact the park directly at (801) 756-5238 beginning in mid-May for the exact opening date and to buy tickets for cave tours.
He notes, "The National Park Service wants all visitors to enjoy the caves but must limit numbers to protect delicate, irreplaceable cave features. Each tour has a 20 person limit. To purchase advance tickets please call the park up to 30 days before you plan to visit. Because of construction activities and possibility of schedule changes, it is particularly important this year to make reservations in advance."
The caves at Timpanogos are typically open from May through October, but are closed if weather or other factors make hiking conditions difficult or dangerous. The Timpanogos Cave Visitor Center is located in American Fork Canyon on Utah Highway 92, 10 miles east from Interstate 15, and about 30 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. You'll find information to help plan a visit on the park website.