Elery Hamilton-Smith, Department of Leisure Studies, Phillip Institute of Technology

During the first part of 1985, among other activities, I visited some 60 parks and related attractions, and at least 20 of these were based upon caves or other underground attractions. The main thrust of my research was concerned with some of the underlying assumptions of park managers and is part of a longer-term study which will reported elsewhere.

This paper simply describes some aspects of cave management which I saw and which may be of interest to cave managers in Australasia. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I am not one of those who believe that things done in the Northern Hemisphere are automatically better. In fact, during this journey, I certainly saw the worst examples of cave management for tourism which I have yet endured, guiding worse than I would have believed was possible, and the most revolting examples of enviro-pornography and managerial vandalism that I ever want to see. In effect, one of the major realisations from my journey is that on the whole, we do things at least as well, and sometimes better, than other countries.

However, with one or two exceptions, I am not going to talk about the bad things, but rather about ideas and experiences which had at least some positive appeal. Some of these are not necessarily innovative in their home setting - but they may be somewhere else. We can certainly learn from them.


I am often struck by the uninteresting way in which uninteresting admission tickets are sold to visitors. There seems to be an almost universal rejection of starting off on the right foot. So, it was pleasant to find a few places where the 'booking-in' process really did try to welcome one to an enjoyable and interesting experience. In these places, not only were tickets sold over an open counter rather than through a hatch-type arrangement, but the sale process included giving some information about the visit arrangements. Even better, this information was NOT given with the diction of a recorded time announcement on the telephone as it so often is.

My favourite hobby-horse was only being ridden at two of the parks we visited. This is the idea that an admission ticket should be an interesting souvenir in itself. At Lewis and Clark Caverns (Montana State Park), we received very nicely designed tickets, the stub of which one got to keep as a souvenir, and which replicated the design on the front of the information leaflet. Even better, at Lehman Cave (US National Park Service), the ticket was a small map of the cave, and again it was seen as a souvenir.

Carlsbad Cave (US National Park Service) offered probably the most elaborate introduction - if one cared to notice it. A series of display panels in the visitor centre were located between the ticket counter and the doorway leading out towards the Cave entrance. These gave an initial interpretation of some of the features people might expect to see together with some safety warnings and park expectations of visitor behaviour. Being subject to an essentially bi-lingual, and often multi-lingual audience, there was considerable use of Spanish and some signs relied entirely on graphics.


Many places I visited had either never been very aware of environmental quality issues, or had given up trying, or had recently discovered them and were desperately trying to catch up on past misdeeds.

One of the more interesting attempts is the very strong drive at Carlsbad Caverns National Park to discourage the throwing of coins into cave pools. A part of the introductory display in the visitor centre explains the deleterious impacts of coins, in both reducing the level of aeration in cave waters and introducing, for instance, copper salts which are poisonous to micro-organisms. This display also draws attention to the very real costs of cave cleaning, and asks visitors to refrain from throwing coins. At present, notices also appear in the cave at a couple of the spots most often affected, although it is planned to phase these out in due course. On the whole, the notice is being effective, although littering generally still remains something of a problem, largely as a result of such monstrosities as the underground lunch-room.

The anti-coin program is only one aspect, however, of the mammoth clean-up taking place at Carlsbad. The techniques are basically similar to those used at Jenolan and described by Bonwick and Ellis. One important difference is that the upper level of mechanisation at Carlsbad seems to be the knapsack spray and much is done with plastic squirt bottles (Kerbo 1983). The scale of the Carlsbad operation is immense, encompassing the immensity of the Big Cave, but also taking in some 12 other 'back country' caves. The results are indeed impressive. Literally tonnes of junk have been removed from the cave and what were uninteresting flat, often muddy floors are now beautifully sculpted pools, rimstone walls and the like (Crisman 1985).

There is an increasing awareness of the importance of cave climate, and many caves have now instituted air-locks wherever artificial entrances have been constructed. Others are looking towards low-temperature lighting for the same reason. However, it is saddening to see some management authorities continuing to ignore this issue. Wind Cave National Park is a case in point. Both a top walk-in entrance tunnel and a lift from the lower levels have been provided, with air-locking in neither case. In spite of representations, the Park Service have not made funds available. This seems quite inexplicable when the entry tunnel has been subject to frost wedging, and can only be described as unpredictably hazardous.

One of the impressive programs at Wind Cave is the data-collecting system in use as part of developing better management. An integrated base-map (of some 41 miles of tunnel) and inventory system is being developed. Caving parties, or any staff members entering the cave (even trainees) are given trip report outlines and reminder cards of feature which should be identified and noted. These are providing a progressive accumulation and updating of inventory data (Rohde 1985).

However, one of the most impressively managed caves is Lewis and Clark Caverns, already referred to above. This cave has had an air lock on the low-level exit tunnel for many years. Every effort seems to have been made in this case to ensure minimal impact on the natural environment in all ways. Bats are to be seen alongside the trail, still present in something of the same numbers as recorded years ago; trackways are single-file and very carefully and sensitively located; lighting is low-key.


So, this brings me to tracks, stairs and the like. The overwhelming impression is one of variety in the materials used. We saw natural floors, concrete (ranging from narrow, carefully silted trails to something like a motorway, complete with an elevated cross-over), concrete tiles or slabs, ceramic tiles, brick, re-inforced rubber strip matting, waterproof carpet, expanded metal mesh both alone and on various substrates, timber and bitumen. As some assessment, the natural floors, where practicable, are probably highly desirable; concrete is only as good as the sensitivity with which it was used; the various brick, tile or slab finishes have the great advantage of flexibility and easy renewal as necessary - but are often a bit obtrusive; rubber strip and expanded mesh are both disastrous unless the cave is one where washing of paths is an easy matter; timber is utter madness from almost any viewpoint - and covering it with fine expanded metal mesh to overcome its slippery character only compounds the problems of both; bitumen is often slippery and is chemically and biologically about the worst choice - there is some evidence that hydrocarbons from bitumen even inhibit the normal mineral crystallisation processes.

Certainly on taking a good critical look at a great many caves over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the material must be chosen in the light of the special environmental conditions of the cave concerned, although one should try to avoid the obvious disasters. The path is intrusive anyway, so wherever an artificial surface is needed, the various slab or tile methods have a great deal in their favour. They are easy to clean, easy to repair, and can be altered readily when required. There are a range of materials available, some of which are about the least likely to become slippery of any possible options.

However, design is a much more important consideration. Much of the remarkable restoration work which is currently proceeding at Carlsbad would have been unnecessary if the early designers had shown just a little sensitivity. They really need not have filled in all the crystal pools with debris and soil to give a level floor and they did not really need to build solid concrete causeways through the larger and more spectacular ones! However, I make this point not to condemn the past, but because such monstrosities are still being executed today.

Just to show that the past was not always bad, Lewis and Clark Caverns are very much as they were developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the early thirties! The paths as noted above, are low-key and sensitively located; lighting is superb in its highlights and shade effects; the overall interference with the environment of the cave is minimal. And just for fun, one very narrow tunnel, passable only by lying on your back and sliding over the flowstone slope, has been left just that way.

This and several other caves, notably Luray (privately operated), have gone to some trouble to display the original visitor entry where this is different from the present-day one. Regrettably, this attention to history is not always applied to other aspects of the past, but at least it gives some recognition to history as an important element of cave interpretation.

One of the few changes to the lighting arrangements in recent years at Lewis and Clark has been the installation of several ordinary power sockets at key points along the tour. These are used to plug in a hand-held spot light, which can then be used by the guide to highlight specific features which he/she wants to discuss with visitors. The comparison with the commonly seen hand-torch with its two D-cells or equivalent hardly needs comment from me.

At least some developers have gone to great lengths to conceal lights. This is often done by constructing a shell of cement laid on wire fly-mesh. If the cement is colour-matched, the effect may be positive, but in general, the shells are just as obtrusive as a carefully chosen light-fitting would be! Some are much more so, particularly where their use is coupled with the cave being over-lit, as so many are.

Back-lit signs have been installed at Carlsbad (in conjunction with the self-guided tour) and the effectiveness of this technique, given good design, is impressive. Having seen these in use confirms my hunch that this is the most positive way to go if underground signs are needed.

Two caves which we visited operate an interesting sideline in that a flash photograph or photographs are taken of each party on the way through the cave, developed and printed on site, with prints available for sale as the party leaves the cave. It is interesting to reflect that this was done at Jenolan Caves in the early part of this century - but today it probably counts as an innovation! The most hideous extension of this idea is an area with banks of floodlights so that visitors can all line up with their instamatics and take pictures of each other. I am glad to say we only saw this once - I still shudder at the long-run impact of all that heat on the cave environment.


It was sometimes a real pleasure to tour with a guide who was truly at home in the cave and enthusiastic about it. Of the guides we encountered to whom this description could be applied, one was a novice (very well trained by a sound manager), another was not-very-intelligent-backwoodsman, and others were well-educated professionals. It was a striking demonstration that guiding need not be a highly intellectual exercise to be very exciting.

Several others managed to introduce a sense of real fun into tours without resorting to corny jokes. The comment I cannot resist relaying to you was the instruction on reaching a long spiral stairway - "Now we don't want you folks to overdo it ... just take your time, and if you feel at all tired, just step to the right and there will still be space for all the folks behind to get past. But only one step - if you take two, you get to start all over again!" (Mammoth Cave National Park: Historic Tour).

The same guide had a nice way of putting people at their ease and generating interaction, even in a very large party. A second quote: "Don't be afraid of asking questions - if you want to know something, don't hesitate. And don't think you'll make a fool of yourself. After one visitor we had here, no-one can make a fool of themselves any longer. He actually said to me 'Say guide, this 300 miles of cave you have here, just how much of that is underground?'"

On the whole, gimmicks in guiding are a bit painful. But Wyandotte Cave (Indiana State Park) has an impressive one. In the big room known as Rothrock's Cathedral - a magnificent sight in itself - visitors are seated at the base of the dome, then the guide walks to the top 135 feet above, and once out of sight, turns out all electric lights, ignites a small lamp on the floor, and does a slow walk around it. The immense shadows cast on the great ceiling of the room are spectacular.

Several caves we visited had selected a point early in the tour where visitor parties would be asked if anyone wished to take the opportunity to retreat from the cave rather than continuing the tour. This seems to me a very prudent routine, and one which could well save further difficulty. In one case, the point concerned was a large rock, which was introduced to the party as "Decision Rock".

One thing that did not impress me was the radio-guiding at Carlsbad. For those who are unaware of it, each visitor is issued with a small radio receiver which responds to signals transmitted from within the trackway through the cave. One can select either English, Spanish or Childrenese bands. It is a classic case of the gimmick taking over from what it was intended to achieve, or of interpretation distracting attention from the interpreted. We saw an alarming number of people scurrying through the cave with radio pressed firmly to one ear and eyes down to the path. Of course others made constructive use of it but for all too many it was just another technological protection from reality.

Disappointingly few parks offered an adequate introduction to the surface environment. Again, Carlsbad probably was outstanding in its range of nature walks and the famous bat flight viewing. At Lehman Cave, the visitor centre was operated jointly with the US Forest Service and encouraged visitors to walk up the mountain to see the remarkable Bristlecone Pines - the oldest trees known in the world. Quite apart from the Pines and the scenery, the concept of a multi-agency visitor centre was exciting and clearly should be much more widely developed.

A range of tours was available at many caves. Marengo Cave in Indiana (Private: Gordon Smith and Gary Roberton), although only a relatively small cave, offered one long tour with a wide range of interesting features, many of them historical, and a shorter tour which focussed upon beauty and included an audio-visual show in the cave. Wyandotte, as did many others, offered the standard guided tour and two different 'spelunking' tours. One cave which we were unable to visit (California Caverns) includes abseiling, rafting and other advanced caving techniques in its spelunking tour. Carlsbad offers not only the standard self-guided (radio-guided) tour, but an 'undeveloped' cave tour to New Cave, and a range of 'wild' cave tours, three of which are only available in the company of a ranger, and seven of which are available to unaccompanied parties.


Park museums have something of a sameness about them in general. They have photographs, charts, and a few specimens and they tell visitors about history, archaeology, cave genesis, formation of speleothems, cave fauna and perhaps a few other things. I often wish they would do one thing well, rather than everything drearily.

But Wookey Hole deserves a special mention. Firstly, they do everything but do it very well, but I don't really want to talk more about that. What did impress me very much was the fact that for the first time, I saw a display which explained how the cave was managed, why it was managed in the way it was, and what the results and impacts seemed to be. The more I reflect on principles in management of public land, the more convinced I become that this is exactly what we should do - share with the public the ideas behind what we are doing.

Many cave parks make much better use of literature than is generally the case in Australia. Brochures are widely used to make the cave and its location known, particularly in the northeastern US. The better of these carry some interpretive material as well as the advertising and location map. Then one can often obtain further leaflets at the cave - and I was especially impressed with those giving practical instructions on how to photograph what you see, which might save some wasted film - as well as a guidebook or two or three, postcards, posters and the like. Some souvenir shops carried nothing but junk, but many realised that although this would provide most of their sales, good materials did bring much better returns, even though not selling so often. The high quality craft goods and publications in some were a pleasure to see, even when one couldn't afford to buy them.

One privately operated cave (Penn's Cave - Jeanne and Russell Schlieden) had found it profitable to offer free tours to school parties at the beginning of the season, before the normal visitor traffic had built up. They had established that the increased shop sales and increased later family visits together more than made up for the costs involved in offering free tours. It is interesting to reflect that this was the only attempt we found to really do something positive about peaking of visit numbers, which is a problem in almost every cave park.


The most important point to be made in conclusion is the hospitality and generosity of virtually all those we met on visits to cave and other parks. It is probably unjust to single out specific people in some ways, but Ron Kerbo of Carlsbad, Kay Rohde of Wind Cave and Gordon Smith of Marengo all were especially helpful in sharing their extensive knowledge of issues in cave management. And certainly Jeanne and Russell Gurnee, authors of the Gurnee Guide to American Caves were invaluable in helping us to make choices and set priorities.


Bonwick, John and Ross Ellis, 1985, New Cave for Old: Cleaning, restoration and re-development of Show Caves.

Crisman, Bob, 1985, Cave Restoration at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NSS News, 43:177-180.

Kerbo, Ron, 1983, Cave Restoration and Management Project, Internal Memorandum, US National Park Service, 8 pp.

Rohde, Katherine, 1985, Wind Cave : A New Beginning, NSS News, 43:198-203.