Longtime Timpanogos ranger comes down from the cave
Jay Allen began working at the Timpanogos Cave National Monument every summer in 1968. This photo shows him in 1968.
Jay Allen began working at the Timpanogos Cave National Monument every summer in 1968. This photo was taken in 2019.
If you have visited Timpanogos Cave National Monument in the past 53 years, you have likely come in contact with Ranger Jay Allen, learning from and catching a love for the caves from him. Allen retired this spring after working as a guide at the cave every summer since he graduated from college.
“I started in 1968. I had just finished my pre-med program at BYU and got a job at the cave during the summer and I liked it. I decided that going on working in the park was a lot better than working in a doctor’s office or hospital, so that’s where I stayed,” Allen said. “I was a guide through the caves. I liked being outside all day long and hiking up the cave trail. It was good exercise and I enjoyed taking people from all over the world through the caves.”
When Allen first got the job, he was called a cave guide. Later, the guides were referred to as cave rangers. Allen eventually became a lead ranger in charge of tours and setting tours up at the top. Occasionally, he would dress up and tell stories as American Fork Canyon historical figure George Tyng.
Allen said he isn’t sure how many tours he has given, but it must be many thousands. “As a matter of fact, when I started, we’d work about 100 days, make 100 hikes through the season up to the cave. Each day, we’d walk about 10 miles. If you add it up, it was tens of thousands of miles of hiking and we were doing five or six tours a day, each one of us. That’s a lot of cave tours,” he said.
There are actually three different caves that tours are taken through, including Hansen Cave, Middle Cave and Timpanogos Cave. “The caves are very unique, especially the helictites that the caves have and the different minerals that give the colors in the caves,” Allen said. “The other thing that people have loved from all over the world is the actual hike up to the caves on a paved trail, to be out on the mountainside and be up hiking 3 ½ miles up and back.”
When Allen graduated from BYU and got his job at the cave, he realized that he had to have something to do to support his habit of being a ranger. So, he began teaching. Allen taught biology, zoology, botany and human biology bioethics — a course he developed himself — at American Fork High School, teaching for 46 years. Interestingly, the high school’s mascot — the Caveman — pays homage to Timpanogos Cave.
Allen was born and raised in American Fork. His father also worked as a cave guide in the 1940s. “I am linked to the cave through him. My dad and mom lived in a house right where the maintenance yard is now. They lived there for a summer or two,” Allen said. “That’s a link that, somewhere deep down inside of me, drew me there.”
Cami McKinney, Timpanogos Cave program manager, has worked with Allen since 1997. “He has spent his summers up at the cave since I started here and long before. He coaches every ranger about how to give a program that is meaningful and informational and that visitors can learn about the cave and learn to love to cave,” she said. “It’s not just that you’re getting a lecture or seeing pretty things. We’re taking the remarkable nature of Timp Cave and making it personal and meaningful for everyone.”
McKinney said that in just the few weeks that the caves have been open this year, visitors are already asking about Allen. “The cave is a part of a lot of family traditions and people expect to see him. We have staff that are really missing the things that he does and the things that he knows. He’s not replaceable,” she said.
Now that Allen is retired, he still might be spotted at the caves. “There are days I like to just go up there and sit and talk to people,” he said. “I actually went up there last week. I went up and walked to the second bench and just watched the sun come up and talked to the morning hikers, just to see some of my old friends that hike it regularly.”
“I couldn’t quit doing it. I loved being up on the mountain. As my kids and my grandkids grew up, I’d take one of them up with me to stay the day and help me do tours,” Allen said. “When I first started working at the caves, I would leave after work and go fishing in American Fork Canyon. I love the canyon,” he said. “I would think, ‘It doesn’t get better than this.'”