Established in 1922, Timpanogos Cave National Monument preserves three caves located high up above the canyon floor on Mt. Timpanogos. Located on the outskirts of the Salt Lake City metropolitan area, visitors will find it easy to get to the park. Getting to the cave, well that’s another story.
If you’re going to visit a national park site that preserves a cave, you probably want to actually do a cave tour. Here, at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, that requires a 1.5-mile hike with a 1,092 foot elevation gain. It’s not exactly an easy hike! You’ll also need reservations for your cave tour.
As Grant found out when he first tried to visit in 1998, you can’t just swing by this park because you saw a sign. You’ll likely need to reserve a cave tour in advance. And you definitely need to prepare yourself, both mentally and physically, for the hike up to the cave entrance.
Whether you have a fascination with caves, are interesting in visiting all the national park sites or just love a grueling high-elevation hike, read on for everything you need to know about visiting Timpanogos Cave National Monument.
The History of the Caves
Timpanogos Cave National Monument actually preserves three caves, all connected by tunnels. You will explore all three with a cave tour. In 1887, Martin Hansen discovered the first cave, appropriately named Hansen Cave.
Unfortunately, he not only offered cave tours but allowed visitors to take “souvenirs” from the cave. For this reason, Hansen Cave really is not all that impressive as many of the interesting formations no longer exist. Still, it’s a good introduction to the caves and certainly a different environment than the one right outside the entrance!
The namesake Timpanogos Cave actually was discovered twice. A couple of teenagers first discovered the cave in 1915. The two families decided to keep it a secret hoping to mine the cave. In fact, they even hid the entrance behind a bunch of rocks. Thankfully, word got out and, eventually, there was a big push to find this “lost cave.”
In 1921, an outdoor club rediscovered Timpanogos Cave and, soon after, Middle Cave. The following year, in 1922, President Harding established Timpanogos Cave National Monument, preserving all three caves for future exploration and enjoyment.
Planning a Visit to Timpanogos Cave National Monument
Some parts of Timpanogos Cave National Monument are open year-round. However, the visitor center and cave tours are only open in the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Cave tours are offered throughout the day and require about a three-hour commitment, including the hike to the cave entrance and the cave tour.
Typically, the park offers several different cave tours. In 2021, the park is only doing basic cave tours, due to COVID-19. Honestly, this is the main tour that most visitors will want. Check the park website for other possible tours and information.
Your tour time is actually the time that you will check in at the visitor center and start your hike. The actual cave tour will be 1.5 hours after that. If you think you’ll need more than 1.5 hours for the hike, be sure to check in and start hiking early!
The Hike to the Cave
Yes, the hike to the cave really does require about 1,100 feet of elevation gain in 1.5 miles!
Grant and I are no strangers to moderately strenuous hikes. I’ll be honest, though, we typically don’t do a lot of strenuous hikes, especially hikes involving a lot of elevation gain. But, we figured if we were visiting a park that preserves a cave, we should actually tour the cave. And, well, the only way to do that is to hike up to the cave entrance!
Originally, we scheduled a tour at about 1 p.m., thinking it’d be great to be inside the cave during the heat of the day. Once we realized that actually meant hiking at 1:00 and that the temperatures were forecast to be near 100 degrees that day, we changed our tour to 10:15 a.m. Wow, are we glad that we were able to get our tickets changed!
We started our hike at about 9:30, which was 45 minutes early. We figured we wanted time to take it easy and take pictures along the way. Also, anything we could do to beat the heat was worth it. At that time, we were hiking mostly in the shade, as the sun had not yet made it over the mountain. Thankfully, we also found many more trees than I expected along the route.
The hike is not easy by any means. But it is paved which makes it not quite as bad. You’ll find benches and shaded areas along the way. There are also a few interesting exhibits. And the views are fantastic! Just make sure you carry plenty of water and rest when needed and it’ll all be worth it in the end.
What if You’re Early (or Late)?
We actually made it up to the cave about 45 minutes before our scheduled tour time. Since we started hiking early, we expected this and were prepared to just wait for our tour time. Thankfully, there was room on an earlier tour so we didn’t have to wait too long.
Of course, we can’t promise that will happen. But, the rangers were very nice and accommodating. If you arrive early or late, I’d expect that they will do what they can to get you on a tour as soon as possible.
That said, if you aren’t used to strenuous hikes, I’d certainly give yourself extra time. And it’s certainly not worth pushing yourself too much and overdoing it on the way up. Seriously, it’s better to be late and miss the tour than end up in the hospital!
The Cave Tour
The tour starts in Hansen Cave, then moves to Middle Cave and, finally, Timpanogos Cave. The exit is a different location than the entrance.
As you move through the three caves, you’ll have to bend over and crouch down to avoid brushing up again the delicate cave formations. There also are a few stairs and uneven surfaces that you’ll have to walk over during the tour. I’d image that if you survived the trek up, you’ll be able to handle this. Everyone has different capabilities, though, so talk to a ranger if you think you might not have the flexibility needed for this tour.
If you have limited mobility, the first room of the tour is fairly easy to enter and view. Talk to a ranger to see if there are any other options.
Throughout the tour you’ll see a wide variety of cave formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, columns, flowstone, popcorn and, our favorite, cave bacon! Also, be prepared for the ranger to turn out the lights at some point on the tour. While the tour route is generally well lit, it’s always fun to be in the absolute darkness when all the lights are out!
You won’t find any super unique formations (like the boxwork at Wind Cave National Park) but it is still an interesting tour. And, if you’re new to exploring caves, you’ll certainly learn a lot! We also liked hearing the details about the discovery of the caves and the people who found them.
What to Carry
We always suggest that you carry the Ten Essentials when out on a hike. Since this particular hike is very well marked, with lots of other people, you won’t necessarily need all of the ten essentials, but there are a few things you should certainly carry.
First and foremost, carry plenty of water. The rangers suggest a minimum of 32 ounces of water per person. Honestly, I went through about 2.5 liters of water (about 85 ounces). I think Grant only drank about 2 liters of water. It’s definitely better to have too much than not enough water! There are water filling stations at the visitor center (bottom of the trail) but there is no water at the top. Carry what you need for the hike up and down.
You’ll also want some sort of sun protection. I suggest a hat, sunscreen and, perhaps, a long-sleeve sun shirt. This is particularly important if you are hiking in the afternoon when the sun is NOT behind the mountain.
Finally, you’ll want a jacket or fleece for the cave tour. The cave is roughly 45 degrees inside. Yes, this will feel amazing when you first step in. After a while, though, you’ll need that extra layer to keep you comfortable! In fact, about halfway through the tour, my legs started getting cold.
Depending on the time of your tour, you may also want some snacks. No, you can’t eat in the cave but you can eat on the trail. If you anticipate arriving early, you may also want a book or something to pass the time. Just a heads up – we did NOT have cell service (AT&T) for the majority of the hike.
Other Things to Do at Timpanogos Cave National Monument
Before or after your hike, I certainly suggest a quick stop at the Visitor Center. Honestly, this is one of the smallest visitor centers we’ve seen but there are a few exhibits on the history of the area that are worth a look. You can also buy a couple of souvenirs to commemorate your strenuous hike up to the cave!
If you want a short extra hike, check out the 1/2-mile Canyon Nature Trail across the street from the Visitor Center. This short trail does have a little bit of elevation gain but, overall, is very easy. You’ll see a variety of plants along the way. There’s even a viewing spot to see the cave entrance way up on the mountainside.
At the far end of the nature trail is the Swinging Bridge Picnic Area. This is a small but nice picnic spot with several shaded tables. This is a great spot for lunch before or after your cave tour.
The surrounding area has a few other longer hikes and scenic drives. Check out the information at the Visitor Center if you have more time and want to explore the area.
Final Thoughts on Timpanogos Cave National Monument
Located in the greater Salt Lake City area, Timpanogos Cave National Monument is an easy park to find. That said, you’ll need to book your cave tour in advance. Reservations open 30 days in advance, on recreation.gov.
There are plenty of options for hotels, restaurants and other things to do in the area. As usual, we always recommend Hilton properties.
We actually camped while we were in the area. Unfortunately, we can’t necessarily recommend the campground we stayed at.
Since the park only offers cave tours in the summer, we suggest booking your tour as early in the day as you can. Temperatures can be in the mid-upper 90s or even hotter in Salt Lake City in the summer. A strenuous hike in those temperatures can be downright dangerous. If you must do a tour in the afternoon, take extra water and give yourself plenty of time to make it to the top.
As you might expect, the hike down will be quite a bit easier and faster (it took us about half as long to hike down). That said, the steep downhill was a little tough on my knees.
While this is not a hike that should be done without preparation it, honestly, wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. And the cave tour at the top certainly made it worth it!
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