Tucked away in rural Monroe County lies Illinois Caverns, the second largest cave in the state of Illinois. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Monroe County has over 100 recorded caves - more than any other county in the state. Illinois Caverns in particular features nearly six miles of passages that can be twenty feet high and just as wide! You’re likely asking yourself, ‘Why in the world haven’t I heard about this place?’ The likely reason why many folks have never heard of Illinois Caverns is because it has been closed to the public for the last eleven years.
In 2010 the Illinois Department of Natural Resources closed the cave to visitors, due in part to White-nose syndrome in bats. White-nose syndrome (WNS) is an emergent disease of hibernating bats that has spread from the northeastern to the central United States. Since the winter of 2007-2008, millions of insect-eating bats in at least 33 states and seven Canadian provinces have died from this devastating disease. The disease is named for the white fungus that infects skin of the muzzle, ears, and wings of hibernating bats. The fungus thrives in cold and humid conditions characteristic of caves and mines used by bats. According to Von Bandy, IDNR’s Director for the Office of Land Management - the prevalence of the disease in bats hibernating within the Illinois Caverns has been relatively low. “A small number of animals exhibiting the white fungal growth on their muzzles was first documented at Illinois Caverns in 2013. Since 2013, instances of WNS at Illinois Caverns continue to be localized and massive, uncontrolled spread throughout the cave has not occurred,” Bandy explains.
The great news is that the IDNR is planning to re-open Illinois Caverns to visitors relatively soon. “At this time we don’t want to speculate on an exact date when the Caverns will be open, other than we are hoping to be open sometime this summer,” Bandy says. “Covid-19 has slowed down our hiring process as well as the ability to move forward on some of the projects we had wanted to complete. However, we are still moving through some of the challenges we’ve faced and are excited about the opportunity to open up this unique site back to the public,” Bandy adds. “We may still be working on some of the new initiatives at the site, but should be able to open regardless. There are obvious annual maintenance priorities needing attention after an 11 year closure, but we should be able to address most of those prior to opening.”
For those who are interested in visiting Illinois Caverns when it opens, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources does have some safety precautions in regards to White-nose syndrome. “The best way to prevent spread of this disease at Illinois Caverns, as humans may inadvertently carry the fungus from cave to cave on their clothing and gear, is to: set limits on the number of individuals entering the cave during scheduled events, ensure that visitors are staying on well-marked trails within the cave, and asking visitors to thoroughly clean all clothing and equipment soon after leaving the cave,” Bandy explains.
After an eleven year closure, the IDNR is excited to draw folks back to the Illinois Caverns for an array of reasons. “We are always looking to think outside the box to reach out to younger generations and this site is like no other IDNR site,” Bandy says. “It presents educational opportunities for school age children as well as adults looking for something other than one of our existing outdoor program offerings. We have already been contacted by Caving interest groups that also have a vested interest in this location and have indicated how their members are looking forward to volunteering time and efforts in a number of ways,” Bandy explains.
Bandy admits that he made his first trip to Illinois Caverns in the fall of 2020. “I was pleasantly surprised how the infrastructure of the site wasn’t as near as dilapidated as I thought it might be after a lengthy closure. That is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the Site Superintendent and his staff and the other IDNR staff,” Bandy adds.
For more information on the Illinois Caverns, you can visit this link. If you’re interested in other outdoor adventures in ILLINOISouth, visit illinoisouth.org.