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Wendover • Ken Linares made his way down a wooden ladder and, along with roughly 20 other tour guests, admired the rock formations of Utah's Danger Cave on Saturday.

The Grantsville man grew up in the area and said he used to visit the cave with his family when he was young.

He said Saturday's tour, one of only a few held each year in the renowned archaeological site, was the first time he had stepped into Danger Cave in more than 40 years.

"I can remember sliding down the dirt to get in," he said of his last visit. "There were no stairs or anything like that."

Danger Cave, and the nearby Jukebox Cave, sits roughly 5 miles northeast of Wendover. The twin caves were gated shut in the late 1990s, leaving only sporadic access to what Utah State Parks resources manager Justina Parsons-Bernstein describes as "one of the most important archaeological sites in all of North America."

That's because buried within Danger Cave lies evidence of some of Utah's oldest human inhabitants, with artifacts recovered dating back more than 11,000 years to when the waters of Lake Bonneville first receded to expose the banquet hall-sized space.

"You are sitting at beachfront property," Parsons-Bernstein told Saturday's tour group. "This was high-end real estate back in the day."

First investigated in the 1930s by Elmer Smith, Danger Cave gained its prestige after a series of digs led by the University of Utah's Jesse Jennings between 1949 and 1953, Parsons-Bernstein said.

Jennings was among the first archaeologists to employ the then-nascent technology of carbon dating, and his work led to discoveries of the culture and diet of the area's human settlers.

"He's the pre-eminent godfather of Great Basin archaeology," Parsons-Bernstein said of Jennings.

The caves show evidence of relatively constant human occupation during the past 11,000 years, Parsons-Bernstein said, from basketry, tools and fossilized fecal matter to the more recent addition of a concrete floor, laid before World War II by airmen from the nearby base in Wendover, which was used for the dance parties that gave Jukebox Cave its name.

More recently, some gaming sticks were dated last spring as being 5,000 years old, which Parsons-Bernstein jokingly referred to as the first seeds of the gaming industry in West Wendover, Nev.

"Gambling was happening here," she said. "We're on the Utah side, but they didn't know that then."

Linares said that most longtime Wendover residents know about Danger Cave and have likely visited it in the past. But he said he wasn't familiar with details of the cave's historical significance before Saturday's tour.

"Being here as a kid," he said, "I wasn't even aware of that."

Tours of Danger Cave and Jukebox Cave are typically held twice each year in the spring and fall. Parsons-Bernstein said space is limited, but she expects to take another group through the space in May.

Twitter: @bjaminwood —

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