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The story behind Utah's Danger Cave

The story behind Utah's Danger Cave

(Justina Parsons-Bernstein)


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Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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WENDOVER — Located north of Wendover and west of the Bonneville Salt Flats lies a hidden historical treasure that opens to the public only once a year — Danger Cave.

Danger Cave State Park Heritage Area was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and became an official state park on Dec. 3, 1968, according to Utah State parks heritage resources coordinator Justina Parsons-Bernstein. Due to ongoing excavation, the cave is only opened to the public once a year.

Danger Cave dates back 13,000 years and was formed by wave action underneath Lake Bonneville, Parsons-Bernstein said. When the lake began to recede, it exposed the cave and early people in the area moved in and lived inside it during the winter months.

“Throughout its 13,000 years of utility by people, they pretty much filled it up,” Parsons-Bernstein said. “Humans are kind of messy beings and we leave a lot of garbage around from our existence. So they processed a lot of plant and animal food in it.”

As a result, by the early 1900s, Danger Cave was mostly filled up and wasn’t easily accessible. It became known by locals as “Hands and Knees Cave,” Parsons-Bernstein said. The cave was later renamed by archaeologist Elmer Smith and his crew.

Smith began doing excavation and exploring the cave in 1941. One day after the crew walked out of the cave for a lunch break, several huge boulders fell from a rocky ledge overhang above the cave, Parsons-Bernstein said. No one was hit or injured, but as a result of the near-death experience, they decided to rename the cave “Danger Cave” and it stuck.

“You can still see those rocks that fell,” Parsons-Bernstein said. “They are right there. They are huge.”


One day after the crew walked out of the cave for a lunch break, several huge boulders fell from a rocky ledge overhang above the cave. No one was hit or injured, but as a result of the near-death experience, they decided to rename the cave, "Danger Cave."

In the late 1940s, world-famous archaeologist Jesse Jennings began excavating the cave and began taking out the 15-feet of the built-up materials, layer by layer, Parsons-Bernstein said. He discovered ancient artifacts like sandals, baskets and a 70-yard net made from plant fiber. The artifacts are all displayed at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Jennings excavated the cave for five years and was credited with using some of the first radiocarbon-dating techniques and technology.

“He was years ahead of his time from what other archaeologist were doing,” Parsons-Bernstein said. “He made use of this brand-new technology and he sent off layer by layer by layer anything they found that could be radiocarbon dated to get dates on these layers as he went down. He was the first person that did this.”

Jennings was able to tell the timeframe and details of the civilizations who lived in the cave during the 13,000 years, including even telling changes in their diets during that time.

The public guided tour will be held Saturday, May 9 in conjunction with Archaeology and Heritage Month. The tour is limited to 25 people and is offered through first-come, first-served reservations. Parsons-Bernstein said the morning tour is already full. Those interested in doing the afternoon tour of Danger Cave can email Justina Parsons-Bernstein at jparsonsbernstein@utah.gov. She will provide details of the time and directions to get to the tour.

However, Parsons-Bernstein said people should be aware that the road to Danger Cave is unpaved and has erosion damage, requiring a high-clearance vehicle to get to the tour. People should also be physically able to hike a very steep .25-mile incline to the cave. Due to the physical exertion, everyone must sign a waiver before taking the tour.

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Faith Heaton Jolley

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