When the hoist doors opened after the 70-second, 650 foot descent down to the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, I found myself literally standing in the middle of what was once an ancient Permian Sea and a one of a kind adventure for the family. The Kansas Underground Salt Museum is built within one of the world’s largest deposits of salt rock and the only attraction of it’s kind in the Western Hemisphere. The 100,000 square ft museum is located in the Hutchinson Salt Company mine, which began operation in 1923 as the Carey Salt Company. There are just 14 other salt mines in the United States – none of which are accessible to tourists to this day.
Before starting the tour, each person watches a short safety video and is given a hard hat and breathing apparatus in case of an emergency. After that, we boarded a large, steel, double-decker elevator with a tour guide. Our tour guide, Cary (which I highly recommend you hunt down and spend some time with) told us before riding down that "the biggest fear people have is coming down here in the first place". Which I completely understand why. The elevator ride down is a pitch black decent with nothing but the sound of banging, clanging, grinding, and rattling. "It’s the best we could do" says Cary, "given we had to drill through 222 feet of rock, 128 feet of aquifer(which first had to be frozen), and another 300 some feet of salt" – which is so hard that you can’t even drive a nail into it.
Once inside the mine, however, everything is calm, comfortable, spacious, and beautiful. As we exited the hoist we were welcomed with a sign that read "Welcome to the Permian Sea" and invited to touch a 6,000 lb. crystal salt rock and play in the Permian Playground (a touch and feel exhibit with three compartments of different salt found in the mine). From there we were on our own to leisure at our own pace and experience the different exhibits the gallery had to offer.
First stop was the mining gallery - where we learned about all aspects of the mining process used in the early 1920’s, 30’s, and so on. Over the past decades, numerous no-longer-used items have accumulated throughout the mine, creating sort of an ever-expanding time capsule. Included in those items is several equipment used during those early time periods. Some vehicles are at least 70 years old. Miners would purchase a vehicle needed in the mine, disassemble it to take it down, weld it all back together once in the mine, and then abandon the vehicle/equipment once it was no longer in working order. The miners have a saying, "what goes in the mine … stays in the mine".
Next stop in the mine is the geology gallery – which holds information on the physical and geological characteristics of the Kansas salt bed and focus on the Permian period and animals that lived during that time. In this exhibit we saw the world’s oldest living organism, estimated to be about 250 million years old.
The final gallery holds the underground vaults and storage. A company named Underground Vaults & Storage has been stashing stuff for businesses there since the 1940’s. Film companies, hospitals, and many many other businesses prefer this way of storage because of the constant temperature (a cool 68 degrees) and a comfortable 45% relative humidity, the high security level, and the mine’s safeguard from natural disasters and nuclear and terrorists attacks. Visitors aren’t allowed in the vaults but you can take a tour of a small secured exhibit which holds memorabilia like Mr. Freeze and George Clooney’s Batman costume from the movie Batman and Robin, the snowman prop from the 1998 movie Jack Frost, Will Smith’s gloves from the movie Ali, and costume props from the movie Talladega Nights.
After our gallery tour, we boarded a small train, the Salt Mine Express, which took us through a part of the mine that was used in the early 1920’s and 1930’s. The museum employees literally left the mine as they found it and built tracks through to allow visitors to experience the life of a miner. The most entertaining (and my favorite part of the entire tour) was seeing the trash left by the miners. As I told you earlier, due to the temperature, the salt, the lack of humidity, and the lack of pests – everything in the mine is basically "preserved" in its natural state. So as museum workers were building the train tracks, they came upon the early miners trash pile which held hundreds of water cups, sandwich wrappers, chip bags, magazine articles, etc. It was neat to get a feel for what a miner read, ate, and drank during that time.
From the tour, the most information I learned was on a tram ride called "The Dark Ride". I was a little nervous from the title and expected to be on a fast roller coaster type ride in total darkness through the cold halls of the mine. While that would be exhilarating, The Dark Ride is actually a very gentle tram ride lit by a headlight with frequent stops lit by spotlights at exhibits that the tour guide gave extremely informative background of the mine. You come across more trash piles left by early miners as well as their "restroom facility" (or lack thereof). Heaps of toilet paper and a throne made from plastic and dynamite boxes line the side of the wall. The tour winds its way past a wall made of old dynamite cases and a sinkhole that formed when water got into the mine. Towards the end of The Dark Ride, you even get to pick out your own palm-size piece of salt.
The mine itself is one endless room. We were told by an employee of the museum that there is enough salt down there to dig for 2000+ years. The tunnels go on forever. I say "tunnels" as a description. Some of the tunnels are there to direct airflow down the halls. And I say "mine" loosely. When I think of a mine, I think of claustrophobic passages, deadly gasses, and filth. But not the salt mine. It is crisp, clean, quiet, and nostalgic. There is even working plumbing for restrooms – which I must say, are incredibly nice.
The nearest working face of the mine was 2 miles over from where we were at in the museum. And blasting is restricted until late at night when only two miners stay to blast the salt that the crews have prepared that day.
Overall, even with the elevator of scary sounds, the Kansas Underground Salt Museum is a perfectly happy habitat to spend the night in during the end of the Mayan calendar. Advanced reservations are recommended so make sure to check out their website for a complete list of prices, hours, and exhibits. The museum does not allow children under the age of 4 to visit the mine and museum – which, I 100% completely agree with. I know for a fact that my toddler would not enjoy the mine (nor would I if he were there). But I’m sure that my 4-year-old would get a kick out of touching the giant "rock", playing in the Permian Playground, riding the underground train, having fun with Cary (the tour guide), and pretending he’s in a cave with the possibility there’s a dinosaur around the corner, etc.
The Kansas Underground Salt Museum is located less than an hour from Wichita, Ks. So next time you’re crossing over or through the Kansas prairies, make a stop with the family (or solo) at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson, Ks. Afterall, it’s been there for almost 275 millions years …… don’t you think it’s time you've seen it?!
Disclaimer: This was not a paid post. My husband and I had the opportunity to have a day date without our kids and the Ks Underground Salt Museum provided us two tickets to visit the museum gallery. All opinions expressed in this article are my own. Top left photo credit: KS Underground Salt Museum. All other photos are my own.
Amanda is a freelance writer and blog owner of "The Procrastinating Mommy" - a PR friendly family blog. She is a self-proclaimed addict to travel and has no intention of going into recovery for it. The more she sees it, the more she wants to see what else is out there. Follow her on Twitter for more tips and techniques on traveling with a toddler as well as her personal rants and raves about her life: @Amanda_aka_Mom