Onyx Cave has been open to the public for more than 100 years
EUREKA SPRINGS, ARK. – The “Natural State” is known for its scenic beauty, sparkling lakes and streams and abundant wildlife. But there’s a lot more Arkansas to see underground.
There are thousands of caves in Arkansas, with only a few open to the public for tours. The oldest among the “show caves” is Onyx Cave, located just a few miles outside of Eureka Springs, Ark.
Onyx Cave Park manager Noah Hutchison said the cave was discovered in 1891 and began offering tours in 1893.
“According to the history, there was a brief history in the late 1920s, early 1930s where it was abandoned,” Noah said. “Since the 1950s, it has been open continuously.”
Onyx Cave is not a sprawling cavern, with the cave being only about 325 feet deep. “On average, it takes about half an hour to 45 minutes to explore the cave,” he said, adding visitors cannot get lost because there is one way in and one way out.
The name may be Onyx Cave, but it is not made of onyx.
“Like most caves around here, it is a limestone cave,” Noah explained. “The ‘onyx’ comes from onyx flowstone. They call it cave onyx, but it is a calcite flowstone that makes the formations. We have spots where it’s new, meaning it formed in the last couple hundred years, with bright white cave onyx forming. Formations dull in color over time.”
The cave may be small, but it is filled with awe.
“We have the formation called The Fireplace,” Noah said. “It’s a large column where stalagmites and stalactites formed. At some point, it was broken open, so there have been lights placed inside it. When the lights kick on, it’s pretty dramatic. There is a piece of celling that has fallen that looks like a dragon’s head, so we call it The Dragon’s head. That gets a lot of photos.”
Noah added some of the formations in the cave date back to 10,000 to 12,000 B.C.
“They were just little drops on the ceiling then,” he said.
Many show caves do not allow photos to be taken inside, but it is encouraged at Onyx Cave.
“We just ask that people don’t touch anything,” Noah said. “It’s still a living, growing cave.”
The cave also has unique features called “boxwork” formations.
“Normal formations are stalactites and stalagmites formed by accumulation; the minerals are building up and building up,” Noah explained. “Boxwork is formed, usually, by a big shift in the Earth.”
Visitors venture into the cave for a self-guided tour, and each guest is given a headset.
“Each group goes down individually, so you are just there with your group,” Noah explained. “There are seven little stops along the path, and the audio talks about that area of the cave and the history. On the way back out, you can take all of the time you want and enjoy the cave.
“People really like not being in a big group, and you can take all the time you want, all of the pictures you want; there’s no rush. The recording is from 1975, but it is still incredibly informative, and most people don’t know it’s that old until the voice mentions the flash cubes. Each year our attendance has increases, so people seem to enjoy it.”
In addition to the cave, Onyx Cave Park offers a few other attractions for guests, including a gift shop, ax throwing and a smash room. Visitors can also try their luck at gemstone panning.
“We have a sluice and we have pre-loaded gemstones in bags. When you pick it up, it looks like a bag of dirt, but you rinse it off in the sluice and wash the dirt away, you reveal the gemstones. We see a lot of parents get bags for the kids, then in about 5 minutes, they are back buying a bag for themselves or another one for the kids. It’s a good time.”
Noah, who has been with Onyx Cave Park for five years and grew up in the area, said Onyx cave is special in many ways.
“I guess I was about 16 and high school the first time I came,” Noah recalled. “When I interviewed for this job, we walked through the cave. I remembered it as being a small cave, but I was just taken back by the various formations in there. While it’s small, you get basically everything packed into one little trip. Walking in there, for me, and thinking about how long its been down there. When you set into the cave, you are stepping back millions of years.”
The public is welcome to tour the cave, but some visitors may find it difficult to navigate.
“There are 14 steps down into the cave,” Noah explained. “There are five or six gentle steps throughout, but it’s pretty much a gentle path. The real journey is from the parking lot, down the hill to the gift shop. It’s a fairly steep, a switchback ramp, then a set of stairs.”
Onyx Cave Park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., during the peak season, but goes to weekends only after Thanksgiving, then closing the month of January.