450-year-old Mystery Cave

Visitors marvel at the wonders of the 450-year-old Mystery Cave.

If like me, you find 48 degrees to be a nearly perfect temperature, visit the cave and beat the heat.

If like me you seek a family-friendly day trip that offers something valuable for both children and adults, visit the cave. If like me you have a strong affection for all things historical in Minnesota, visit the cave first discovered in 1937.

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in far southeastern Minnesota is 40 miles southeast of Rochester. The park features hiking and horseback trails, trout streams, campgrounds, and lots of plant and wildlife. It also features a nearly 13-mile long cave, the longest cave in Minnesota. This was my first venture into the park and then into the cave that came complete with damp air, a pool, stalactites and stalagmites and ancient fossils.

A word of advice first. Cell use can be iffy in this remote region, so don’t rely on a GPS to get there because the maps are often inaccurate. More on this later. Also, take a sweater, do not wear sandals or open-toe shoes, and register ahead of time online for your tour tickets to be ensured of a place. There is a charge for tours.

A variety of tours are offered throughout the summer, some are physically challenging and require crawling. We were on the easier one-hour scenic tour. The length of tours varies quite a bit, so plan ahead. Also, age limits may apply depending on the level of difficulty so be sure to check online for all details of your tour.

On our tour day and before entering the cave, our guide gave a short history lesson on the age of the cave, when it was discovered, and why it’s called “Mystery” Cave, which has nothing to do with anything mysterious.

We entered the cave and felt the clammy air, our eyes adjusting to the cave lighting. The route was over metal grate bridges and cement-paved trails. We walked down corridors past massive stone walls shiny with moisture in many places. Massive, too, were the many stalagmites and stalactites throughout the cave. Often you can see and hear dripping water.

I wanted to see the turquoise pool, which was worth the walk. It’s a small pool, dimly lit and quite pretty. Of interest, too, was a small fossilized cephalopod shell in the wall estimated to be as old as 450 million years. Yes, 450 million. I spent a couple of minutes taking that one in.

What became apparent by tour’s end is the way the cave was and is a living, breathing entity once covered by a shallow sea 200 to 500 million years ago. Later, the cave formed in rocks left behind by the sea. For those with an interest in geology, the cave is a wonderland. It may appear to be rugged and lifeless, but the cave has a delicate ecosystem that must be protected. For decades DNR staff have worked to remove artificial fill and to reverse other alterations so the cave returns to its natural state.

If you have a full day to explore, be sure to take in the park with its spring-fed streams, and both tallgrass prairie and deciduous forest topography. History buffs will enjoy the Forestville village settlement founded in 1853 and operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. You can walk the many trails past wildflowers, enjoy wildlife and bird sightings, or even bring in your horse for a ride on the ridge tops and through stream valleys. A visit in the fall includes beautiful forest leaf color; winter visitors may ski or snowmobile the bluffs.

In short, it’s well worth the drive. Last summer my cousin and his wife took their young grandchildren to the cave; they still talk about that great day at Mystery Cave. You’ll find a map online at the park website, but I would also recommend use of a printed Minnesota highway map. As you get closer to the park, watch for the “Mystery Cave” brown sign.

You don’t need a reservation to go into the cave as some tickets are sold on a first come, first served basis. There may be a longer wait for a tour without a reservation. If you do have a reservation, be there 15 minutes early to check in and get your tickets. For tour reservations, call (866) 857-2757. For a reservation to the Wild Caving Tour, call (507) 937-3251.The park website may be seen at www.mndnr.gov/forestville.

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