“You enter the caverns through this great big cathedral room. It’s as tall as a football field and there are lights everywhere. It’s just breathtaking,” said Caprece Clinton, marketing director for DeSoto Caverns Park.
The cave is named after Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto, who arrived in the area in the fall of 1540. As a result of his visit, the nearby city of Childersburg claims the title of the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States.
DeSoto Caverns was the ancestral cave of the Coosa Indians, who inhabited the region at the time.
A 2,000 year-old Woodland Indian burial ground was discovered in the cave in 1965 by archaeologists from the University of Alabama. The remains were reburied several years ago by a group of Native Americans in an undisclosed area of the cave.
U.S. agent Benjamin Hawkins described the beauty of the cave in a report to President George Washington in 1796, making DeSoto Caverns the nation’s first cave to be officially recorded.
During the Civil War, the men of Childersburg mined the cave for saltpeter, which was desperately needed by the Confederate Army for making gunpowder.
In 1912, Ida Mathis purchased the cave with the intent of mining it for onyx, a colorful semi-precious stone.The venture was abandoned after it was discovered that the grade of the onyx was not high enough for mass production.
During Prohibition, the cave was used for moonshining and gambling. It became known as “The Bloody Bucket” because of the number of shootings and fights that occurred and was shut down by federal agents.
In the 1920s, Ida Mathis’ son Allen bought the property and began developing it into a show cave several decades later.
It opened to the public in 1965. In 1980, back areas of the cave became accessible and a laser light, sound and water show was added.
DeSoto’s Shipboard Playground was the first outdoor attraction to open at the park.
Among its current list of activities are gemstone panning, a maze, bumper cars, several rides and water attractions as well as a butterfly house.
The cost of the one-hour guided tour is $19.99. Tickets for other attractions are $5.99 each.
Other options for nature lovers this summer:
Lake Guntersville State Park is one of the best places in Alabama to see migrating bald eagles during the winter, but some of the birds stay in the area year-round.
Guntersville is home to Alabama’s largest lake with more than 69,000 acres and 30 miles of water.
High Falls Park, located in nearby DeKalb County, features a 35-foot waterfall that has a 25-foot natural bridge at its base.
Another highlight in the area is Cathedral Caverns. Its natural attractions include Big Rock Canyon, Mystery River, Stalagmite Mountain, The Frozen Waterfall and Goliath.
The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail in Baldwin and Mobile counties features more than 50 birding sites.
The first stop is Fort Morgan, where a banding station is open for two weeks each spring and fall.
The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is located nearby.
The 7,000 acre refuge has been named one of the 10 Natural Wonders of Alabama, according to the Alabama Tourism Department website.
Across Mobile Bay is Dauphin Island, which is considered one of the top bird watching sites in the United States and was designated as a bird sanctuary in the 1980s.
The Estuarium and Sea Lab on Dauphin Island has an educational facility that highlights the four key habitats of the Alabama coast.
Dismals Canyon is an 85-acre natural conservatory that is privately owned and operated. According to its website, the canyon floor runs 14 degrees cooler than the state’s average during the summer and has the added benefit of being absent of mosquitoes, flies and poison oak.
One of the highlights of the canyon at this time of year are guided night tours of the dismalites, glow-in-the-dark “cousins” of rare glowworms in Australia and New Zealand.
Dismals Canyon and the dismalites are expected to be featured on the Discovery Channel series Wild Horizons later this year.