When I was a little kid growing up in Kansas City, nobody had air conditioning. A great summer gift was going to the movies. Corrugated cardboard icicles cut out the canopies with the message, “It’s cool on the inside!”
Today, almost all buildings have air conditioning, and on hot days, we all stay indoors. If you’re looking for a way to get outside and stay cool, Oklahoma has a unique state park that fits the bill.
Alabaster Caverns State Park may be hot at the top, but enter the cave and you’ll enjoy not only the temperature, but a fascinating geological feature.
Millions of years ago, this part of Oklahoma was covered by the Permian Sea, a shallow ocean. During the 47 million years of the Permian period, this sea rose and fell, creating layers of sediment.
The earth was shaken with earthquakes and volcanoes, and finally large pieces of the planet were thrown above the surface of the water. The drying created cracks in the rocks.
Eventually, the water seeped into the rocks and began to clean the caverns underground. Water ran through these underground spaces, cutting more and more passages. Caves formed in this way are classified as solution/erosion caves.
Unlike the more common limestone caves, Alabaster Caverns is formed in a hard form of gypsum: alabaster. In the cave there is alabaster, gypsum and selenite.
Both limestone caves and chalk caves are created by water erosion. Chemicals in limestone caves create stalactites, stalagmites and other fantastical shapes.
Chalk caves like Alabaster Caverns do not have these characteristics. Alabaster Caverns, one of the largest gypsum caves in the world, is the only gypsum cave in the United States open for public tours.
There are actually several caves in the state park. The main cave is known as Coves d’Alabaster. Other caves, not open for tours, although cavers can arrange tours, include Owl Cave, Bear Cave, Hoehandle Cave, Ice Stalactite Cave and Water Cave.
Caves like Alabaster Caverns are developed in six stages. The caves here are in the fourth stage, when the flowing waters have receded, leaving more dry areas and allowing more air into the cave. This is the mature stage.
Stages five and six describe the deterioration and collapse of the cave.
In fact, some scientists believe that the park’s Cedar Canyon is the result of a collapsed cave.
There is a nice overlook at one end of the parking lot where you can get a good view of the canyon.
There are also hiking trails in the park, picnic tables, a playground, tent and RV sites.
But the main reason for the visit is to take a guided tour of the cave. I hadn’t visited the park in several years, so I was surprised to get on a tram instead of walking down to the entrance.
The new input is actually the old output. In 2018, the movement of the earth caused 2,200 tons of rock to fall, blocking the ancient entrance to the cave and making it impossible to walk through the entire cave. Instead, visitors walk about halfway in and out.
Unfortunately, some of the most unusual features are found in the enclosed part of the cave. This is where you could see the rare black alabaster, which is only found in three places in the entire world.
Still, there’s plenty to see on the other side of the cave. Features with names like George and Martha Washington’s Upside Down Bathtubs, Cathedral Dome, and Keyhole Dome are interesting.
And you’ll learn some history of the cave, once a hideout for outlaws. In the 1960s, it was designated as a precipitation shelter. He even appeared in a small budget film.
This is an easy cave to walk through. Although visitors are warned that there are 330 steps in the cave, they are well spaced and easy on the knees.
Only the 30 or so steps in and out are a bit difficult. They are a bit jagged, but there is a sturdy railing there and throughout the cavern.
Make sure you wear good walking shoes, no flip flops. The trail can be a bit bumpy and there are some slippery wet spots. The temperature in the cave stays in the mid-50s.
If you’re a bat fan, you might be disappointed: we only saw a lone bat. Winter, when they are hibernating, is the best time to see bats here.
State park admission and parking are free. There is an entrance fee for the guided tour. There is no charge for children under the age of five, but they do require a reservation.
Rates for ages six to twelve are $5; 13 to 61, $10; seniors and active military, $8.
Visits take place every hour from 9 am to 4 pm. The tours last about 45 minutes, with a walk of about three quarters of a mile.
For the more adventurous, wild caving is allowed in the other caves.
Strict regulations require permits, a minimum number of caving and a fee. Overnight camping is allowed at Water Cave, also with a number of stipulations.
Call the park for more information at 580-621-3381.
The drive to Alabaster Caverns from Norman is approximately 180 miles, about three hours and 45 minutes.
For me, road trips of this length will definitely require a pit stop.
I was pleasantly surprised when I stopped at Gore’s Travel Plaza northwest of Seiling on US 270/OK 3. A combination gas station, Sonic, convenience store, bistro and coffee shop also earned high marks for clean bathrooms It’s no Buc-ees, but it’s one of the nicest facilities I’ve ever visited (and believe me, I visit a lot of facilities!).
In short, if you’re looking for a full day trip, a look at one of Oklahoma’s most interesting features, and an escape from the heat, put Alabaster Caverns on your list. It’s cool inside.