Timpanogos Cave

A Geologic and Historical Treasure

Perhaps Timpanoga hunters, as their ancestors referred to themselves, were the first to discover the cave that now bears their name. Without a written language, there is no such recording. “Timpanogos” comes from the Timpanogos tribe who lived in the surrounding valleys from AD 1400. The name means “rock” (tumpi-), and “water mouth” or “canyon” (panogos). The Timpanogos are a proud tribe of Native Americans who once lived in central Utah, from Utah Lake in the east to the Uinta Mountains in the west, and south into Sanpete County. In the 19th century, Mormon pioneers came by wagon trains into the Utah territory. During this time, the Timpanogos were a principal tribe here, based on population, land occupied, and influence. Their languages included broken Spanish and English, while Timpanogos leaders spoke several dialects of the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Today, most Timpanogos live on the Uintah Valley Reservation. They are enrolled in the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

Mount Timpanogos (or ‘Mt. Timp’ as some locals call her), is the second-highest mountain in Utah’s Wasatch Range. Timpanogos rises to an elevation of
11,752 ft (3,582 m) above sea level in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Nearly all of the exposed layered walls of the mountain are made up of limestone and dolomite; remnants of an ancient sea that once covered large swaths of Utah and Nevada. Older rock lies under the limestone. All were later thrust over 12,000’ above sea level — Mount Timpanogos itself is the tallest peak in the southern Wasatch Mountain Range, formed and shaped by basin and range “block” faulting. At its northern flank are embedded a series of caves that now make up Timpanogos Cave National Monument. The author highly encourages his readers to visit this magnificent Cave, and take a guided tour into the heart of the sacred mountain that thunders. The Cave is open from May through September, depending on snow conditions of course, since the Wasatch Mountains can receive up to 800 inches of snow a year.

In the midst of all the excitement of rediscovering Timpanogos Cave, that Fall, George Heber Hansen (1884-1951), Martin’s son, and Wayne Hansen (1903-1989), Martin’s grandson, were hunting on the other side of the canyon. Using binoculars to find deer, they saw yet another cave entrance between the other two caves. A few days later they brought the 74-year-old pioneer cave-finder, Martin Hansen, back to the entrance — Martin was the first to enter the cave, now called Middle Cave.

The Cave

Mount Timpanogos National Monument and all cave tours are managed by the National Park Service. A 1.6 mile paved trail leads to the cave entrance with an elevation gain of 1,092 feet. The three caves that make up the Timpanogas Cave system — Hansen Cave, Middle Cave, and Timpanogos Cave — are only viewable on guided tours when the monument is open. They are interconnected through tunnels which were blasted from the limestone in the 1930s by President Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Wear a jacket or sweater as cave temperatures hover around 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the cave features include colorful speleothems and helictites (hollow, twisting and spiraled tubes of deposited calcite and aragonite which is the same mineral sea shells are made up of). These helictites and anthodites are found in Timpanogos than other caves worldwide. The Timpanogos speleotherms include: cave bacon, cave columns, flowstone, cave popcorn, cave drapery, stalactites and stalagmites. Having been in a lot of caves as a former geologist and spelunker (cave explorer), this covers a wide gambit of cave formations.

One enters Timpanogos Cave through a manmade entrance that is close to the entrance discovered by Martin Hansen. Walking down a tunnel, tours continue on to Middle Cave, before passing through another manmade tunnel to Timpanogos Cave. Finally, tours return to the surface through a manmade exit near the original entrance.

The cave system is embedded in Deseret Limestone, a Mississippian age limestone, as old as 340 million years, according to some geologists. The cave cavity resulted from a series of offset faults of the larger Wasatch fault. After this, acidic hydrothermal water action and uplift of the Wasatch Mountains, completed the cave system as we explore it today.

The Great Heart of Timpanogos is a large speliotherm formation with a few legends associated with it that involve two young lovers: Red Eagle and Utahna. Red Eagle plans to marry beautiful Utahna, but many braves have the same idea. Red Eagle decides he will say he’s a god in order to convince her. However, Red Eagle is killed by a bear (or warrior dressed as a bear) and Utahna, in despair, leaps from the precipice of Timpanogos. The real god of Timpanogos is touched and melds their bleeding hearts together, placing them in the cave for eternity.

For 100+ years the legend and stunning natural wonders of Mount Timpanogos have drawn people from all over the world. How grateful we are to our predecessors who sat around a fire and dedicated themselves to preserving the majesty of our mountain princess and her cave that thunders.

Cave Discovery

According to the Timpanogos Cave National Park website, the official discoverer of the first of three cave entrances into the mountain that thunders was Martin Hansen (1847-1934). Martin accidentally discovered what is now called Hansen Cave in October 1887. The story goes something like this: Martin was cutting timber when he came across some cougar footprints. Following the tracks, he discovered an opening — the entrance to the small cave that would eventually be named after him. He did not enter the cave that day, but he did come back to explore and, with others, created a rough trail straight up the mountainside. Unfortunately, within a few years of the incredible discovery, “souvenir hunters and miners had damaged the cave, selling much of their treasures to museums, universities, and commercial enterprises who made decorative objects from the cave deposits.”

Several years later, in 1913, a second cave, not far away, was found by two teen boys, James Gough and Frank Johnson. The teens were climbing up a dolomite slope and found a natural entrance to the larger Timpanogos Cave. Inside, they discovered amazing limestone formations; including the Great Heart of Timpanogos. Although, many people came out to explore the cave, interest in it died away, and the cave and its location faded into folklore. Thankfully, on August 14, 1921 an outdoor club from Payson, Utah came to investigate the rumors of a second cave. One of the club’s members, Vearl J. Manwill, rediscovered the opening to Timpanogos Cave. Manwill wrote, “[That very night] by the light of campfire, [we] discussed our find, and talked about ways and means to preserve its beauty for posterity instead of allowing it to be vandalized as Hansen’s Cave had been.”

Getting to the Cave

Take the Alpine Scenic Loop in American Fork Canyon up to the Timpanogos Cave National Monument Headquarters and parking area.

On the way home, consider completing the Alpine Loop, heading east to visit Cascade Springs then down into Soldier Hollow Golf Course for lunch. Alternatively, take the Alpine Loop south visiting and eating at Sundance Mountain Resort then exiting back to Heber Valley via Hwy 189 /
Provo Canyon.

Fun Facts

Uintah or Uinta? Early maps spelled the name as Uintah with an “h.” Major John Wesley Powell left off the “h” in his publications, deeming it unnecessary for pronunciation. Throughout the area both spellings are still used. For example: Uinta Basin and Uinta Mountains, but Uintah County and Uintah Lake.

The “Real” Legend of Timpanogos: At least twelve recorded versions of the Legend of Timpanogos exist today. Though the legends vary, most explain the curious outline of a woman that can be seen in the peaks of Mount Timpanogos or the origin of the Great Heart found in the Timpanogos Cave System.

The first print version of “The Legend of Timpanogos” was told by Eguene Lusk “Timp” Roberts in 1922 while gathered around a bonfire in Aspen Grove the night before an annual hike to the cave. This version was quickly accepted as an authentic Indian legend. However, the story would continue to take on a life of its own throughout the years; a compilation of Timpanogos legends was published in 1988 by Effie W. Adams, and The Timpanogos Storytelling Festival features three versions. The legend was used as the basis for an opera by Professor William F. Hanson that premiered in 1937, and was adapted into a ballet in 1994 by Jacqueline Colledge of the Utah Regional Ballet Company. The ballet, Legend of Timpanogos, was performed at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and is still occasionally presented by URBC.

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