SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. - Rainy lullabies and thunderous freefalls make water one of nature's best musicians. But it's the quiet sculptures, produced a drop at a time over eons, that can take your breath away.
Boyden Cavern, on the South Fork of the Kings River about two hours east of Fresno, Calif., is a good place to marvel at this ancient artwork. The cave's stalactites and stalagmites evoke visions of icicles, wedding cakes, snow-laden trees and other enchanting images. And the rugged canyon leading to this fantasy world bears witness to the power of water to cut and shape the Sierra's rocky spine.
Where the Middle and South forks of the Kings River meet, not far from the cavern, lies the deepest canyon in the United States. Spanish Peak towers nearly 8,000 feet above the roiling water, making that section of Kings Canyon some 2,000 feet deeper than Arizona's Grand Canyon.
Kings Canyon was formed over millions of years as glaciers, moving with the force of massive, frozen rivers, carved a path through the mountains. Then the river took over, pounding what was left with rushing water and sweeping everything it could carry.
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It was the river that formed the cavern 100,000 years ago, said Stephen Fairchild, owner of Boyden Cavern Adventures and Tours, which operates the cave on U.S. Forest Service land. The water eroded a fissure between deposits of marble and schist, creating an opening that extends 1,000 feet into the marble walls of the Kings Gates.
Over the centuries, water has continued to flow into the cavern, bringing dissolved minerals to ceilings, walls and floors.
"When rain falls, it absorbs carbon dioxide, which forms carbonic acid," Fairchild said.
The acid dissolves microscopic amounts of minerals and the water carries these minerals into the cave. As the water drips from the ceiling and evaporates, the minerals re-crystallize, forming icicle-like structures called stalactites. Water that drips to the floor and evaporates forms cone-shaped deposits called stalagmites.
Some of the younger deposits resemble upside-down city skylines. Older, ceiling-to-floor formations resemble draperies. Many of the formations look like food and remind viewers of taco shells, lasagna or popcorn. One of the most memorable formations is a large flowstone deposit in the shape of giant pancakes drenched with syrup.
Walking tours of the cavern last about 45 minutes and are conducted every hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily throughout the summer. The temperature inside the cave is a comfortable 55 degrees and provides a refreshing refuge from the central San Joaquin Valley heat.
Walking through the well-lighted cavern is fairly easy, although some stooping is required to squeeze under low-hanging formations. It takes about five minutes to reach the cavern entrance, about 250 feet above the river. The path is paved, but steep in places. Infants can be carried in front carriers, but strollers and backpack carriers are not allowed in the cavern.
Visitors also should keep in mind that to reach Boyden Cavern on Highway 180, they must pass through Kings Canyon National Park, which charges a $20 per vehicle entrance fee.
"This is a small, humble cave that's a perfect place for bats," Fairchild said.
But summer visitors aren't likely to encounter any of the creepy, flying mammals during a tour. Bats work the night shift, you know, and spend their days sleeping in the cavern's bat grotto.
Although no Indian artifacts have been found in the cavern, Fairchild said the Monache Indians probably knew of its existence long before outsiders entered the Kings River Canyon. There is an old Monache campsite not far from the cavern and a large rock with acorn grinding holes can be seen in the river, a few hundred feet downstream, he said.
A survey crew discovered the cavern in the late 1800s, but it was Putnam Boyden, a logger from the Hume Lake area, who had the idea of opening it up to sightseers. In 1907, Boyden built a wooden gate at the cavern entrance and offered tours for about 5 cents a person.
Inspecting the cavern is much easier today. Electric lights have replaced Boyden's candles and lanterns. But the cavern's darkness remains as intimidating as it must have been when the first explorers ventured inside.
"Always take at least three sources of light when you explore a cave," Fairchild said. "I carry six."
During a recent cavern tour, Fairchild had his assistant turn off the lights so visitors could experience total darkness.
As the group members waited with feet frozen to the cavern floor, Fairchild invited them to wonder how it would be if they had to find their way out with no light.
With the lights back on, everyone walked to sunlight by following the streambed that carries water through the cave during spring runoff. Several people stopped at the gift shop to cool off with some ice cream after reentering the summer heat.
"The tour made me hungry," said Jeannette Hays, 12, of San Francisco, referring to the many food images used to describe the formations inside the cave.
"I thought it would be a lot colder inside," said Owen Wagner, 9, of Claremont, Calif.
Delbert Hein, 50, who moved to Rancho Cucamonga three months ago after spending his whole life in Parlier, was amazed at the cavern's natural beauty and the fact he had waited so long to see it for the first time.
"It's like Disneyland," he said, referring to the whimsical world inside the cavern. "But the thing that impressed me was that the river carved it out of the mountain."
IF YOU GO
What: Boyden Cavern tours
When: On the hour, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through mid-September, then 11 a.m.-4 p.m. until snow closes the road
Where: About two hours east of Fresno, Calif. on state Route 180.
Tickets: $11, $6 for ages 3-12
Contact: 209-736-2708 or www.caverntours.com