Timpanogos Cave | Cave Discovery | Geologic Setting | Geologic History | All Photos

The World of Timpanogos Caves

For thousands and thousands of years, Hansen Cave, Middle Cave, and Timpanogos Cave, were dark ... silent, except perhaps for the sound of water dripping ... and unknown. Then the first light of a candle, a lantern, a flashlight flickered in these underground realms, and their secrets were revealed. Imagine the excitement and disbelief of the early explorers as light fell on the many colorful and delicate sculpted forms of the caves. There must have been a childlike delight in discovering and naming incredible features such as the Frozen Sunbeam, the Chocolate Fountain, and the Great Hand of Timpanogos.

How did this fantasy world come to be? Speleologists - scientists devoted to exploring the mysteries of caves - search for answers to such questions. Of particular interest in the caves of Timpanogos Cave National Monument are the strange formations called helictites. In most caves helictites occur in only small numbers, or not at all; why do thousands of helictites occur here? What makes helictites twist and turn in their odd way? With research come answers to these and other questions ... and always more questions.


Over 100 years ago no one knew that there were caves hidden in American Fork Canyon. Then, on a fall day in 1887, 40-year-old Martin Hansen, a Mormon settler from American Fork, Utah, accidentally discovered the first cave. Hansen was cutting timber high on the canyon's south slopes when, according to one popular version of the story, he came across the tracks of a mountain lion. Following the tracks to a high ledge, he found an opening in the rock - the entrance to the small cave that would be named after him. Hansen did not enter the cave that day, but he returned to later explore. To allow others to get a firsthand look at the cave, Hansen and others hacked out a rough and hazardous trail straight up the mountainside. By all accounts, the first visitors found the cave exceptionally decorated with colorful deposits of flowstone and other formations. Within only a few years, however, souvenir hunters and miners had stripped the cave almost bare, selling much of their stolen treasures to museums and universities and to commercial enterprises who made decorative objects from the cave deposits.

Not until 1915 was a second cave discovered. That summer a group of families from Lehi, Utah, came to American Fork Canyon for a day's outing. While the rest of the group explored Hansen Cave, teenagers James W. Gough and Frank Johnson climbed around the rocky slope outside. By chance, they stumbled across a hole not far from the entrance to Hansen Cave. It was the entrance to Timpanogos Cave. Many persons explored the cave, seeing its exquisite formations, including the Great Heart of Timpanogos, but for some reason knowledge of the cave and its whereabouts faded. Then on August 14, 1921, Timpanogos Cave was rediscovered. An outdoor club from Payson, Utah, had come to American Fork Canyon to see Hansen Cave and investigate rumors of a second cave. It was Vearl J. Manwill, a member of the club, who confirmed the rumors by rediscovering the Timpanogos Cave.

That very night, "...by the light of campfire, [we] discussed our find," Manwill wrote, "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."

The people around that fire dedicated themselves to the cave's preservation.

The excitement of rediscovering the natural wonders of Timpanogos Cave had not yet died when a third cave - Middle Cave - was found that fall. George Heber Hansen and Wayne E. Hansen, son and grandson of Martin Hansen, were in American Fork Canyon hunting deer. As they looked through binoculars at the south slope of the canyon from the opposite side they spotted an opening near the other two cave entrances. Within days they returned to this new cave - Middle Cave - with a large exploring party equipped with ropes, flashlights, and candles. In the party was pioneer cave-finder Martin Hansen, by then 74 years old.

The hopes of all those who sought to protect and preserve the caves of American Fork Canyon were realized a year after Timpanogos and Middle Caves were discovered. In 1922, at the urgings of Utah citizens, the US Forest Service, and others, President Warren G. Harding issued a proclamation establishing Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Since that time the caves have been officially recognized as natural features of national significance and extraordinary scenic and scientific value.

(Information courtesy of the National Park Service)

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