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3D Perspectives from Digital Elevation Models


Of particular interest here is one of Colorado Springs most exciting geologic features. The Cave of the Winds is an adventurous way to explore the local geology of the area and learn about the processes included in karst topography . It is filled with mysterious tunnels leading to caves into the mountain allowing casual visitors to expert level spelunkers to physically see how powerful groundwater can be in creating cave formations and eroding certain kinds of sediments inside of a mountain. The Cave of the Winds is one of the most fascinating field trips in Colorado Springs, and the best part about this stop is that it is open 364 days a year!

Cave of the Winds

This is one of the most magnificent
rooms in the Cave of the Winds. It
has columns, stalactites, stalagmites,
draperies, and cave bacon.

The Cave of the Winds is one of the greatest wonders of the Front Range of Colorado and has lived up to its legacy for many years. In fact, there are "[e]arly legends of the Jicarilla Apaches, who migrated through the Pikes Peak region around 1000 AD, tell of a cave in this area where the Great Spirit of the Wind resided" (Cave of the Winds.com). Many believe that these caves have been known for thousands of years by the Native Americans who inhabited the area; however the caves were officially discovered in the late 1800?s by two brothers who were exploring the area with their church group. George and John Picket are the modern founders of the caves, and it really was unintended and by accident that the Cave of the Winds was ever discovered. Ever since, the Cave of the Winds has been famous for being one of the most important show caves America has to offer. It is a "geo-venture" for everyone who goes through to see what amazing effects karsts processes can create in an area.

The Cave of the Winds is a type of karst topography which is a type of landscape that is formed from the chemical weathering and dissolution of carbonate-rich soluble rocks, including limestone, gypsum and dolomite. The most common landscapes that result are sinkholes, shafts, tunnels, disappearing streams, springs and caves. For this field trip, the focus is cave formation. There are four processes that form caves: waves, lava, rainwater and bacteria. First, waves crashing into a cliff face can create a cave. Second, lava flows can form cavities that become hollow. Third, rainwater picks up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and becomes acidic enough to dissolve the soluble rock. Lastly, bacteria, which form a more corrosive acid than rainwater, dissolve soluble rock deep within the Earth and feed off oil deposits.

Cave of the Winds

This is one of the most magnificent
rooms in the Cave of the Winds. It
has columns, stalactites, stalagmites,
draperies, and cave bacon.

Most of the caves in Colorado are limestone caves that formed millions of years ago when ancient shallow seas once covered the area. The limestone rock was created by the remnants of marine animals that gradually became cemented and solidified. The seas eventually receded and the land was uplifted throughout the Colorado Plateau. Because of this change in elevation and slope, there was a change in groundwater tables and an increase in the velocity of stream flow throughout the area. Many limestone caves are a result of the increased velocity in ground water movement; however, the caves in the Colorado Plateau are mainly a result of rising groundwater from deep oil fields and mineral-rich underground springs. If the groundwater originates from oil deposits, it is likely to be rich in hydrogen sulfide. If the water originates from a mineral spring, it is usually rich in carbon dioxide. When spring water combines with rainwater there is a chemical reaction that produces a solution rich in sulfuric acid and carbonic acid that dissolves limestone. The combination of these corrosive waters eroded the limestone as it flowed through the rock. When the Colorado Plateau uplifted the groundwater table lowered leaving behind the resulting caverns.

Resources for this information: Colorado Caves, Hidden Worlds Beneath the Peaks, Richard J. Rhinehart

Geomorphic Processes
The Cave of the Winds is a result of the chemical weathering of limestone formations beneath the surface near Manitou Springs. "Local tectonics (study of the movement of the earth?s crust) indicates the initial stages of Cave of the Winds dissolution started between 7-4 million years ago" (caveof thewinds.com). The natural springs that ascend from the Ute Pass Fault play a huge role in the formation of these caves. The mineral-rich spring underground water mixes with the near-surface meteoric water that picks up carbon dioxide from the environment as it travels through the atmosphere before saturating into the ground. These two waters mix underground and the combined solution becomes rich in sulfuric and carbonic acid strong enough to dissolve limestone over time. Over millions of years, large caverns form along fractures in the rock. When the groundwater drains away, it leaves the caves behind.

Millions of years ago the water table was much higher than it is today in Manitou Springs. Before the area was uplifted, the Cave of the Winds was located within the water table. The caves formed because the limestone was full of acidic waters for a period of time. As the land was uplifted, the water table consequently lowered and the stream velocities increased. As a result, the stream that is in Williams Canyon eroded deeper and deeper into the mountain and over millions of years it formed a canyon that is there today. "[T]he caves drained off the acidic water and allowed the slow mineral deposition of dripstone and flowstone to begin. Caves lower in the canyon, such as Manitou and Narrows, have had less time for such decorative features to form. Drier climates also affected the deposition of stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave features" (Rhinehart 58).

Within Williams Canyon, the most prominent erosion feature is the river. The river erodes the sides of the canyon walls carrying sediments as it flows down the mountain eventually going to Fountain Creek. Slope movement is another key erosion feature. Rock fall is the main feature as well as small landslides in the area.

It is hard to come up with a conclusion of the main erosion and weathering processes in the area because there are so few publications on the specifics of the Cave of the Winds. The few resources that are available do explain some of the main processes, however it is sometimes easier get the bigger picture of what is going on in that area by visiting it in person and seeing it firsthand. Resources for this information here: Colorado Caves, Hidden Worlds Beneath the Peaks, Richard J. Rhinehart

These are some common cave terms and some of the features found in the caves:

  • Aragonite: A calcium carbonate mineral occurring in a different crystalline form than calcite; in Colorado, commonly form beaded helictites.

  • Ascenders: A variety of metallic mechanical devices used to climb ropes.

  • Blowhole: A natural hole in the ground from which air flows; can indicate a cave if barometric.

  • Botryoids: Calcium carbonate formations that resemble a bunch of grapes.

  • Breakdown: Rocks in a cave; can be large or small, alone or in piles.

  • Calcite: A calcium carbonate mineral forming most speleothems such as stalactites and stalagmites; also primary mineral in limestone.

  • Carbonic Acid: A weak acid formed from carbon dioxide and water that chemically dissolves limestone.

  • Cave, Cavern: A naturally occurring cavity in the surface of the earth large enough to admit humans and extend into total darkness.

  • Cave Bacon: Colorful flowstone strips with parallel bands resembling bacon; found along cave roofs or walls.

  • Cave Coral: A calcite speleothem that resembles popcorn or grapes; sometimes called botryoids.

  • Cave hunting: Seeking new, undiscovered caves on the ground?s surface.

  • Cave pearls: A rare, spherical, calcite speleothem resembling pearls: formed through the action of water.

  • Cavelet: A small solution hole or other feature too tiny to admit humans or extend into total darkness; sometimes called a shelter cave.

  • Caver: An individual who visits the underground, including cave scientists (speleologists), photographers, explorers, conservationists, and surveyors; neophyte visitors may be called "spelunkers," an antiquated 1950s term for cavers.

Cave of the Winds

This is a cavern in the Cave of the Winds
rich with speleothems, including stalagmites,
stalactites, cave bacon (in the foreground near
the top of the picture) and a column. A
column connects a stalagmite (source).


Cave of the Winds

Here is a caver. Notice the gloves
she is wearing as a precaution to
protect the formations from any oils
on her hands that may damage
the cave (source).


  • Chimney: A natural crevice or passage in which cavers must climb horizontally or vertically with their feet or hands on one wall and backs on the opposite wall; these features can be narrow or wide, sometimes with great depth.

  • Column: A carbonate speleothem formed when a stalactite and a stalagmite grow together, often connecting the ceiling

  • Commercial Cave: A cave open for public tours as a paying business; may include developed trails and electric lighting.

  • Dig: A place in a cave filled with dirt, mud, or rock that can be excavated to reveal additional passage.

  • Dogtooth spar: A crystalline feature resembling teeth.

  • Dolomite: A magnesium carbonate sedimentary rock less soluble than limestone.

  • Dome: A cylindrical shaft in a cave ceiling, sometimes accompanied by a pit below.

  • Draperies: A calcite speleothem that looks like curtains, often with folds; one variety is called cave bacon, as it resembles strips of bacon.

  • Dripstone: A speleothem formed through the dripping of water, includes draperies, stalactites, and stalagmites.

  • Flowstone: A calcite speleothem formed by films of moving water that can cover walls, rocks, and floors of caves.

Cave of the Winds

Image shows dripstone, bacon,
stalactites, stalagmites and
other formations in the Cave
of the Winds (source).


Cave of the Winds

The Silent Splendor Room, which contains
numerous rare crystalline speleothems.
Here, there are small totem poles (large
stalagmites), draperies, and stalagmites.
The room is closed to the public to
preserve its delicate environment (source).


  • Grotto: A chapter of the 11,000-member National Speleological Society; also a small shelter cave.

  • Guano: A solid waste from bats.

  • Gypsum: A hydrous calcium sulfate sedimentary rock more soluble than limestone; can be found as crusts or deposits in caves.

  • Gypsum Flower: A gypsum speleothem growing in flower-like forms; variants include "hair," crystals and needles.

  • Helictite: An aragonite or calcite speleothem, erratically developed in defiance of gravity; can be in many forms, including beaded, root, needle, and quill.

  • Joint: A fracture in the rock that does not include displacement but is favorable to cave development; often associated with faulting.

  • Karst: A landscape containing caves and other subsurface features such as sinkholes, springs, and disappearing streams; often, the limestone or other soluble rock is directly exposed in the surface as pavement (a type of exposed bedrock), pillars, and cliffs.

  • Lead: A cave passage that might be extendible through squeezing, climbing, digging, or simply investigating.

  • Limestone: A calcium carbonate rock of marine origin composed of mud, algae, and other shallow sea remains; this rock can be more or less soluble, depending on the amount of calcite present.
    Moonmilk: A curious mineral consisting of hydromagnesite and water. Appearance generally ranges from plaster of Paris to cottage cheese; may be related to biological processes.

  • Pit: A natural shaft in the floor of a cave that may be vertical; sometimes beneath domes directly above.

  • Rappel: A method of descending a vertical pit or steep incline using rope and mechanical descenders; cable ladders and body rappels are seldom used by cavers today, though hand lines are used in less exposed or shorter pits.

  • Rimestone: A calcite depositional wall that holds, or has formerly held water.

  • Sinkhole: A natural bowl- or funnel-shaped depression in the ground that may lead to a cave passage or drainage below; these features can sometimes be opened through digging.

  • Solution: The chemical process of acidic water dissolving limestone and other soluble rocks and minerals.

  • Speleology: The science of caves and karst.

  • Speleothem: A secondary mineral deposit usually of calcite, aragonite, or gypsum; also called formations.

Cave of the Winds

This is in Canopy Hall, the entrance
cavern to the public tours. Notice there are
not many stalactites on the ceiling. This
is because when the caves first opened,
people were allowed to take them home
as souvenirs (source).


Cave of the Winds

This is one of the largest stalactites
in the caves and has been repeatedly
fixed (source).


  • Stalactite: A speleothem hanging from the ceiling of the cave or a mine; forms through the slow dripping of mineral-rich water.

  • Stalagmite: A speleothem growing from the floor of the cave or mine; forms through the slow dripping of mineral-rich water.

  • Virgin Cave: Cave passageway that has never been visited or explored by humans.

  • Water table: the top level of the water-saturated zone of the Earth?s crust; caves formed below this level are called phreatic.

  • Wild Cave: A cave that does not have any visitor improvements such as trails, stairways, and lights.

Resources for this information here: Colorado Caves, Hidden Worlds Beneath the Peaks, Richard J. Rhinehart

Caves are very dangerous places. Many times, when people go into a cave they underestimate the risks involved and sometimes they get themselves into situations that are beyond their abilities. Some of these risks include: getting lost, hypothermia, rock fall, getting stuck in tight spots, slipping, dehydration, toxic gasses, and deliria. At the Cave of the Winds, some of the naturally dangerous hazards include flash floods in Williams Canyon, rock fall, and landslides outside of the cave. Inside of the cave, the temperature is constant all year, however outside of the cave in the Williams canyon area the weather can be a hazard as well. Blizzards and below freezing temperatures are common in the winter especially at this elevation. Lightning also is a hazard due to the fact that Colorado is number two in the nation for lightning strikes. Because the area is in a semi-arid climate, forest fires are also hazardous and are an imminent danger. So when going to the Cave of the Winds, it is important to know that there are dangers involved both inside and outside of the caves in order to prevent serious injury or death.

When spelunking there are many dangers that are involved. Here are some caving tips that the Cave of the Winds website suggests before anyone attempts an excursion into the caves: Plan, Stay Safe, Preserve the Cave. Planning for a caving tour can make the difference between a safe trip and a disastrous one:

1. Obtain permission before entering a cave. Check with the owner of the land or with the agency that controls the land. There are Bureau of Land Management and National Forest offices located within most parks.
2. Tell someone where you are going. Make sure a responsible person knows where you are going and when you plan to return.
3. Always keep a minimum group size of three people. In the event of an injury, one caver can stay to aid the victim while the other goes for help. Caving also depends heavily on the buddy system. With three or more people, it is much easier to navigate and negotiate a cave.
4. Always carry three different sources of light: a flashlight with extra batteries and bulbs, cylume light stick, and a candle with matches. You should also have a helmet with a chin strap, a mounted electric lamp, sturdy boots, warm clothing (in layers), and a small side pack with the extra sources of light, water, a high-energy snack and a little food, and a basic first aid kit.
5. Know the cavers in your group! Find out how experienced they are, if they have any medical problems, fears, or phobias such as heights or tight spaces.
6. Make sure you and everyone else knows the cave. Take a map, if at all possible. It is important to know the hazards and difficulty of the cave. Also, it is important that you know the location of very fragile areas or formations. A caver may damage a formation or evidence of ancient creatures without even knowing it.
7. Be aware of your surroundings. Pay close attention to the trail on the way into the cave. Once inside the cave, take note of landmarks. Pick out defining characteristics of a rock or formation. Always look behind you as you are caving. The cave will look very different on your way out!
8. Make sure everyone has the proper safety equipment. Check the working order of all your gear.
9. Practice cave conservation. Make sure everyone in your group knows how to act and how to take care of caves.
10. Don't overdo the trip. It is very easy to lose track of time in a cave. As appealing and exciting as it can be to have more passage to explore, always remember you still have to get out of the cave and back to the car (from here).

Cave of the Winds

This is one of the largest columns
in the cave (source).


Cave of the Winds

Cave of the Winds is filled
with amazing caverns. This
one is open to the public;
however there are many that
are not that are just as magnificent
as this one (source).


Driving Directions and Google Earth .kmz File
Google Earth Placemark File (.kmz) file: link
Driving Directions from Downtown Colorado Springs:

  • From Colorado Springs, CO on East Pikes Peak Ave, go toward N. Nevada Ave.

  • Turn left on S. Nevada Ave and go 0.3 mi.

  • Bear right on S. Nevada Ave (I-25-BR S).

  • Turn right on E. Cimarron St.

  • Continue on the Manitou Bypass (US-24 W) and go 3 miles West.

  • Turn right on Cave of the Winds Rd. and go 0.1 mi. Arrive at Cave of the Winds to the left.