If you’re already in Metaline Falls, there’s an underground treat waiting for you just a bit farther north. In Crawford State Park – which is so close to the Canadian border that you can walk there – you’ll find Gardner Cave.
“We are kind of in the Siberia of the Washington parks system,” said Julia Mathison, interpretive assistant at the caves. “I don’t have a TV signal, I have no Internet, no cell phones work up here, I barely have radio, but I love it out here.”
Mathison is finishing a degree in forestry and said she couldn’t ask for a better place to work for the summer – and she loves talking to all the visitors.
“We’ve had people from Italy and from the Netherlands, and from all over the U.S.,” said Mathison, standing at the bottom of the cave. “They all say the same thing: why do you keep this a secret? And we don’t – we are on the Internet through the park service, but we don’t have a gift shop and T-shirts and postcards and all that. Maybe that’s why people don’t know about us.”
In July the cave had 2,000 visitors – enough to raise the temperature inside by one degree, Mathison said.
The drive up from Metaline Falls is about 12 miles; just follow the signs south of town, off Route 31. It’ll take you through beautiful mountain landscape and an area known for its mountain goats, which, if you are lucky, can be spotted high up on the mountainside. You’ll also pass Boundary Dam – tours are available there, too.
Gardner Cave was discovered in the late 1800s by Ed Gardner, who used it to store moonshine. All was fine until Gardner took on William Crawford in a late night poker game.
“Gardner ran out of money and put the cave on the table,” said Mathison. “He lost it.”
Crawford donated the cave and surrounding 40 acres to the state in 1921.
Today,the cave is under lock and key. Mathison and her colleagues conduct guided tours every two hours from morning to dusk all summer, ending on Labor Day.
The cave is 1,055 feet deep and has been forming over hundreds of thousands of years.
Stalagmites and stalactites have a beautiful, milky-white color and in some places, streaks and glimpses of minerals catch the light. Remember, don’t touch anything – over the years the cave has been vandalized by visitors breaking or hammering off rock samples – it takes millions of years for a big limestone formation to take shape.
“At the very bottom, there are a lot of graffiti from back in the ’30s,” Mathison said. “It’s lasted that long because pencils back then were actually lead. People wrote their names and dates. Stuff like that.”
One woman scribbled her name on the giant column in the middle of the cave when she was a child visiting in the 1920s. It’s still faintly visible under a layer of limestone as thin as a windowpane.
“She sent us a letter telling us how sorry she was for what she’d done,” Mathison said. “She became a teacher and wanted to be a good example for her school children, I guess. She just had to tell us.”