June 7, 2012
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Possibly the most overlooked natural treasure in Alabama is within 30 miles of Birmingham, the most densely populated area of the state.
Rickwood Caverns State Park is only a short distance from Interstate 65 in Blount County near Warrior, but folks zipping by on the interstate often have no idea such natural beauty is only a few minutes away.
The area first opened to the public in the 1950s with the caverns as strictly the main attraction. The swimming pool, gift shop and snack bar/office were built in 1962. It was privately operated until June 10, 1974, when the State of Alabama purchased it for $347,000.
Four years after the state bought the caverns, Jim Russell went to work there as a 21-year-old and never left.
“My first daughter was a week old when we moved out here,” said Russell, the park manager. “We raised three daughters out here.”
The limestone cave is about a mile long; the path is 4,962 feet and goes 175 feet underground. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to take the tour of the caverns, which are estimated to have been formed during the Mississippian period about 260 million years ago.
“You have all kinds of formations,” Russell said. “You have your stalactites and stalagmites and columns. We have beehive formations. About 60 percent of the cave is still active. As long as the water is dripping, it’s still forming. You have quartz and calcite and flowstone, which is basically runoff with the minerals clinging to the sides.
“There’s a lake at the end of it, which is where we get the water for the swimming pool. We try to fill the pool a couple of weeks ahead of time in the spring to let the water warm up. That water is usually between 45 and 50 degrees when it comes out of the cave. It’s a little chilly.”
The temperature in the cave is 58 to 62 degrees year-round, which is similar to the temperature at Cathedral Caverns, a sister cave near Guntersville that gains a lot more exposure.
“Cathedral is a little more level than Rickwood, and the paths are considerably wider,” Russell said. “They are able to use golf carts at Cathedral. Rickwood is strictly walking. We’ve got a lot of steps and narrow passages. People think all caves are the same, but each one is different. In Rickwood, you don’t know what’s around the corner.”
Once we had descended to the lowest level of the cave, Russell asked, “Want to see what it’s like when you cut the lights?”
Of course, there is no “see” when the lights are off. You’re plunged into an eerie, ink-black darkness that makes you wish you were the one with the flashlight in your pocket.
“It is dark,” Russell understated. “When we turn the lights out, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Your eyes don’t adjust to that kind of darkness.”
Russell had the unfortunate luck to be on a tour with a group of school kids when he really appreciated the fresh batteries in his flashlight. Alabama Power Company was doing some work in the area, but neglected to alert the park about the impending power outage.
“I was on a field trip with some children and the power went out,” Russell said. “The power company pulled a transformer and didn’t let us know. After I got through talking to them, they promised that would never happen again. If they’re working in our area now, they let us know.
“When the power went out, the kids started screaming, but I got them calmed down. We just had to wait until other employees came down with flashlights to take them out in groups of four. The teacher was a young lady and she was scared to death. She was in my group to be carried out. She had a death grip on my right arm. I lost the feeling in my right hand on our way out, and my hand was white when we got to the surface. She had cut the blood flow off she had my arm gripped so hard. She refused to go back in the cave after the power came back on. The kids were fine. They wanted to go again. It was just an adventure to them.”
Other than the caverns and Olympic-sized swimming pool, the park has two picnic shelters suitable for different family gatherings. There is an indoor meeting room with air conditioning with a capacity of 50 that can be rented for family reunions, church picnics or other meetings.
“We just started renting it out last year, and it’s rented every weekend in June and most of July,” Russell said. “We’ve got several weekends in the fall booked, too.”
The park recently added a gemstone panning facility where visitors can purchase bags of soil with gemstones and then sift through the dirt to find a wide variety of gemstones.
Rickwood has 13 improved campsites with water and electricity with four tent sites with just water. An additional 30 campsites were on the drawing board before the economy started to falter.
This year will be especially difficult with the Alabama Legislature eliminating $2 million from state park funding to try to deal with budget shortfalls.
“We’re having to cut back everywhere we can,” Russell said. “We’re cutting back on personnel and expenses wherever we can and try to stretch every dollar we can. It’s going to be tough the next few years just to keep everything going.”
Randy Jinks, State Parks Promotions Section Chief, has increased the advertising through a billboard on I-65, and he lined up coverage from several TV stations in the area. The increased exposure definitely helped the park.
“We had the best Memorial Day in the last 10 years,” Russell said.
More than 1,500 people visited the park during the holiday weekend, which beat last year’s numbers by more than 300.
Despite its awe-inspiring caverns, Rickwood continues to suffer from an identity crisis.
“People just don’t know we’re here,” Russell said. “Or they’ve forgotten about us. We had people come in who saw the billboard and said they’d been living over at Smoke Rise, which is only 6 or 8 miles away, for the past seven years and didn’t know about us. They’ve since been coming over and using our pool and facilities and have really enjoyed it.”
For those who like steps, Rickwood Caverns has one for every day of the year with 102 steps in the final ascension out of the cave. The tour is not for everybody, and Russell and the tour guides make sure the visitors know what’s in store.
“We have a sign at the entrance to the cave telling people about the cave, that it’s a mile long and 175 feet below ground and how many steps there are in the cave,” he said. “We make sure they’ve read that sign. If we think somebody might have a problem, we explain what’s going to happen.
“The kids love it. It’s not only the kids, though. The adults and kids just say ‘Wow’ when we go into the first room.”
The cave features the Bridal Room, where once couples chose to exchange wedding vows. There’s the Diamond Room, named for the sparkling quartz and mineral deposits on the ceiling, while the Animal Room gets its name from the formations that appear to be different animals – a rabbit, bear, alligator, shark and Daschund dog.
The main season is Memorial Day through Labor Day when the cave is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The cave is open on weekends from March until Memorial Day and then from Labor Day until the end of October. The cave is closed November through February. Cave admission is $13 for adults and $6 for youth ages 5 through 11.
“There’s just not enough traffic to pay for the help and utilities during the winter,” Russell said. “It’s expensive to light the cave.”
Of course, if the traffic the park experienced over Memorial Day becomes a trend, Russell will be a happy park manager.
“We’ll be in good shape if we can keep that up,” he said.
Visit www.alapark.com for more information on Rickwood Caverns or the other 21 state parks in Alabama.
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Rickwood Caverns opens up into a variety of rooms filled with stalactites, stalagmites, columns and flowstones. Park Manager Jim Russell shows one of the cave’s narrow passages called “Fat Man Squeeze.” A new attraction for the park added this year is the gemstone mining, where visitors can purchase a bag of soil and pan for a variety of gemstones.