When I was a kid growing up in Kansas City, nobody had air conditioning. A great summertime treat was going to the movies. Corrugated cardboard icicles trimmed the tiles with the message: “It’s good inside!”
Today, almost every building is air-conditioned, and on hot days, we all stay indoors. If you’re looking for a way to get outside and still stay cool, Oklahoma has a unique state park that fits the bill.
Alabaster Caverns State Park can be hot at the top, but enter the cave and you’ll enjoy not just 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.
Earth was rocked by earthquakes and volcanoes, and eventually, large chunks of the planet were pushed above the surface of the water. The drying created cracks in the rocks.
Eventually, the water penetrated the rocks and began to wash the caves underground. Water rushed through these underground spaces, carving more and more passages. Caves formed in this way are classified as dissolution/erosion caves.
Unlike more common limestone caves, Alabaster Caves are formed in a solid form of gypsum: alabaster. In the cave there is alabaster, gypsum and selenium.
Both limestone and gypsum caves are created by water erosion. Chemicals in limestone caves create stalactites, stalagmites and other fantastical formations.
Gypsum caves like Alabaster caves do not have these characteristics. Alabaster Cave, 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 the Alabaster Caves. Other caves, not open for tours – although magicians can arrange visits – include Owl Cave, Bear Cave, Hoehandle Cave, Ice Stalactite Cave and Water Cave.
Caves like the Alabaster Caves develop in six stages. The caves here are in the fourth stage, when the rushing waters have receded, leaving more dry areas and allowing more air into the cave. This is the maturity stage.
Phases 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, and tents and RV campsites.
But the main reason to visit is to take a guided tour of the cave. I hadn’t visited the park in a few years, so I was surprised to hop on a tram instead of walking to the entrance.
The new input is actually the old output. In 2018, landslides brought down 2,200 tons of rock, blocking the old cave entrance and making it impossible to walk through the entire cave. Instead, visitors walk about halfway in and back.
Unfortunately, some of the most unusual features are in the closed part of the cave. Here one could see the rare, black alabaster, found in only three places in the entire world.
However, there is much to see in the rest of the cave. Features with names like George and Martha Washington’s Upside Down Tubs, Cathedral Dome, and Keyhole Dome provide interest.
And you’ll learn some history of the cave, once a haven for outlaws. In the 60s, it was designated a shelter of consequence. It even appeared in a small-budget film.
This is an easy cave to visit. While visitors are warned that there are 330 steps in the cave, they are well placed and easy to kneel on.
Only about 30 steps in and out are a bit challenging. They are a little irregular, but there is a solid handrail there and throughout the cave.
Make sure you wear good walking shoes – no flip-flops. The trail can be a little bumpy and there are some slick wet spots. The temperature in the cave stays in the mid-50s.
If you’re a fan of bats, you might be disappointed – we only saw one bat. Winter, when they are hibernating, is the best time to see bats here.
State park admission and parking are free. There is an admission fee for the guided tour. There is no charge for children under five, but they need a reservation.
Fares for ages six to twelve are $5; 13 to 61, $10; seniors and active military, $8.
Tours are given hourly from 9am to 4pm. Trips take about 45 minutes, with about three-quarters of a mile to walk.
For the more adventurous, wild passage is allowed in the other caves.
Strict regulations require permits, a minimum number of magicians and a fee. Overnight camping is allowed in the Water Cave, also with a number of conditions.
Call the park for specifics at 580-621-3381.
The drive to Alabaster Caves from Norman is approximately 180 miles, about three hours and 45 minutes.
For me, road trips of that length will definitely require a stopover.
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, it also got high marks for clean bathrooms. It’s no Buc-ees, but it’s one of the nicest facilities I’ve visited (and, believe me, I visit a lot!).
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 bucket list. It’s cold inside.