Cover Story

The Beauty Beneath Your Feet

by Deborah R. Huso, Contributing Writer

 

Bath County resident Matt Campagna navigates a narrow passage in one of Virginia's multitudinous non-commercial caves. 

While Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is renowned for its scenic beauty, one of its most stunning features is actually under the ground.  

Living in Highland County, I find it difficult not to be intrigued by what’s under the ground. Our landscape here, just west of the Shenandoah Valley, is one where sinkholes attest to a world existing beneath us — a world full of dark chambers, flowing water, and formations of flowstone never yet seen by man. Once, behind my house near Bolar Springs, I came across a hole in the ground, its mouth marked by a ring of rock, a crooked tree just above it with an old rope attached, a rope that extended down into the hole. I peered into the blackness wondering who had been brave enough to crawl into that dark netherworld. Many times I returned to the spot, trying to imagine what might be down there. A single dark chamber? Tunnels curving beneath the mountain for miles? Formations that would glisten against the illumination of a flashlight?

Venturing into a wild cave alone seemed too much for me. But that’s how many of Virginia’s show caves were discovered — once a boy, or a dog, or an adventurous farmer found an entrance into the earth, then someone went in and discovered a vast, strange world dripping with the life of slowly growing stalactites. That’s how Virginia’s most popular cavern at Luray came to be — discovered by a local tinsmith and his friends in 1878. It has been a show cavern almost ever since, even drawing the attention of North Pole explorer Jerome J. Collins and the Smithsonian Institution.

How the Valley’s Caves Began

Given the ease with which we can visit a place like Luray Caverns today, it’s difficult to imagine just how ancient the caves of the Shenandoah Valley are. They’ve been formed over millennia, starting with the movement and breaking-up of continents 600 million years ago. Caverns like those in Luray formed when a prehistoric sea drained out of a massive basin running from Newfoundland to Alabama. With the uplift of the Appalachian Mountain range and the drainage of vast areas of water, caverns began to form and inside them a multitude of otherworldly formations.

When one considers that at Luray Caverns, deposits of crystallized calcite, which form stalactites and stalagmites, grow at a rate of one cubic inch every 120 years or so, the insignificance of a human lifespan becomes clear. Perhaps that’s part of what draws half-a-million visitors a year to this Shenandoah Valley attraction.

Luray Caverns

"Frozen Fountain" at Luray Caverns. All formations in the caverns are calcite, a crystalline form of linestone, the result of linestone dissolved in water, then re-depositied in the hollowed-out underground chambers as stalactites and stalagmites.

Luray Caverns’ history is almost as interesting as its formations. In 1901, 23 years after the cavern’s discovery, Col. T.C. Northcott leased the property and used the caverns to generate air conditioning by putting a five-foot-diameter shaft with an electric fan into one of the cave’s chambers to push cool air into the sanitarium he built over the caverns. Northcott called it the first air-conditioned home in the U.S., as the fresh and clean cavern air maintained a temperature of about 70˚F throughout the building.

Today visitors to Luray Caverns can still enjoy natural air conditioning. The caverns maintain a temperature of about 54˚F year-round. A designated National Landmark, the caverns are the largest in the East and feature a variety of aptly named chambers, including Giant’s Hall, which is dominated by 10-story- high gold columns. Luray is perhaps best known for its stalacpipe organ, a real organ that creates sound through the use of stalactites as organ pipes. Over three-and-a-half acres of stalactites are fitted with rubber mallets wired to the organ to bellow out eerily beautiful music. (540) 743-6551, www.luraycaverns.com.

Shenandoah Caverns

Shenandoah Caverns, near Mt. Jackson, was discovered in 1884, during construction of the Southern Railway when local blasting activity exposed vapor rising from a crevice in the earth, drawing some boys to explore the crevice. What they found, with only the help of some candles, was a vast underground room with dripping, glistening formations. Today the caverns is known for its 17 underground rooms, accessible via elevator. The site has been open to the public since 1922.

Among the unique features of Shenandoah Caverns is Rainbow Lake, where a pool is surrounded by multi-colored dripstone, and Diamond Cascade, a massive pointed calcite crystal formation all in white. Visitors also enjoy Shenandoah’s bacon formations, which literally look like massive strips of pink bacon stretched out against the walls. Visitors should also be sure to look for Shenandoah Caverns’ pixie, the cavern mascot developed in the 1960s, who can still be found hiding at various places among the underground formations. (540) 477-3115, www.shenandoahcaverns.com.

Grand Caverns

The "Ski Slope" at Grand Caverns.

Located near Natural Chimneys, Grand Caverns is the nation’s oldest show cave, having offered public access since 1806. Despite its name, it’s not the largest in the Valley, but does have the most well-documented history. During the Civil War, both Confederate and Union soldiers visited the caverns and wrote their names on the walls. 230 of those signatures have been verified, and some are visible to visitors on the cavern tour. Legend says that General Stonewall Jackson refused to tour the caverns, explaining, “I fear I shall be underground soon enough, and I have no desire to speed the process.” Today visitors to the caverns can explore Cathedral Hall, a vast underground room 280 feet long and more than 70 feet high. Drapery-like flowstone garnishes the walls, while thick and massive columns stretch from floor to ceiling. Other signature formations of Grand Caverns include the Bridal Veil, Stonewall Jackson’s Horse, and Dante’s Inferno. (888) 430-2283, www.uvrpa.org/grandcaverns.htm.

a one-of-a-kind attraction

Luray Caverns’ Great Stalacpipe Organ is the world’s largest musical instrument. This one-of-a-kind wonder was conceived by Mr. Leland W. Sprinkle of Springfield, a mathematician and electronics scientist at the Pentagon. After visiting the caverns with his son and experiencing the sounds of a stalactite being tapped, Mr. Sprinkle submitted a complex plan for the instrument. It took 36 years of research, design and experimentation to build. Three years alone were spent searching the caverns to select and carefully sand stalactites to precisely match the musical scale; only two stalactites were found to be in tune naturally. The four-keyboard console was constructed by the Klann Organ Supply Company of Waynesboro to meet the peculiar needs of a subterranean installation. The organ is connected to various stalactites by over five miles of wiring. Today, the organ is played by an automated system, but can also be played manually from the console, as Leland Sprinkle did for many years.

A Glossary of Formations

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Stalactites are flute-like formations that grow down from the cavern ceiling.

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Stalagmites grow from mounds on the cavern floor formed as a result of the dripping stalactites and grow up toward the ceiling.

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Pillars, also known as columns, occur when a stalactite and stalagmite meet to become one.

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Dripstone is the watery, pointed type of formation that covers ceilings in limestone caves. It is formed from seeping mineral water.

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Flowstone occurs when mineral water spreads out over the cavern’s limestone walls or floors to create formations that look like pooling draperies or frozen waterfalls.

More Shenandoah Valley Caverns To Visit

Natural Bridge Caverns

Natural Bridge

(800) 533-1410

www.naturalbridgeva.com

 

Endless Caverns

New Market

(800) 544-CAVE (2283)

www.endlesscaverns.com

 

Skyline Caverns

Front Royal

(800) 296-4545

(540) 635-4545

www.skylinecaverns.com

 

Crystal Caverns

Strasburg

(540) 465-5884

www.waysideofva.com/crystalcaverns

Virginia’s Wild Cavers: Why They Love the Underground

Seasoned spelunker Rick Lambert.

Many of us have experienced a trip into the earth via one of Virginia’s many commercial caves, our path happily brightened by hundreds of strategically placed lights and paved walkways leading us into underground rooms of brightly colored formations, clear spring pools, and artifacts of man’s earliest trips into darkness. But this isn’t all there is to exploring Virginia’s underground world. The mountains west of the Blue Ridge, rich with limestone eroded into tunnels and rooms by centuries of seeping groundwater, are home to caves by the hundreds, most of them privately held and not accessible to the general public.

But for those among us who are serious spelunkers, who have no fear of mud, water, slime, and darkness, the wild caves of Virginia offer endless opportunities for discovery, scientific research, and a view into a world untouched by time.

Serious Spelunker: Phil Lucas 

It is an understatement to say that Phil Lucas of Burnsville takes caving seriously. He has been president of the Virginia Speleo­logical Survey (VSS) since 1974, and now retired, he devotes himself full-time to the exploration, mapping, and surveying of Virginia’s caves. He says there are 4,378 known caves in the Commonwealth, most occurring in 26 limestone-heavy counties west of the Blue Ridge. One of those counties, Highland, is where Lucas has made his home for the last six years, appropriately enough on a 160-acre farm that holds entrances to six caves.

Lucas says he first became interested in caves as a young boy growing up north of Harrisonburg, where, by age 7, he had already spent some time in commercial caves and had traipsed along with his brother and a friend who discovered a cave near Lucas’ boyhood home. “I was enthralled,” he says of his first trip into that wild cave that he later revisited as an adult. “As a kid, I stuck a bunch of candles in my hip pocket and hopped on my bicycle to go caving.”

Lucas’ spelunking is a little more sophisticated these days. “Most people think of caving as caving for sport or as a hobby,” he notes. “But caves are a finite natural resource deserving of protection.” Lucas says the mission of the VSS isn’t to go tramping around the state’s wild caves but “to collect, protect, and disseminate information on caves.”

The basement of Lucas’ home is VSS database central. Here he has some 1,900 maps of Virginia caves, almost all of them surveyed by volunteers like himself. He also keeps on file information on individual cave lengths, formations, features, artifacts, and organisms. But all of this data isn’t publicly accessible. VSS doesn’t advocate sending the general public into the state’s fragile cave systems, and most of the data is col­lected for the purpose of scientific study and to provide assistance to government agencies like the Vir­ginia Department of Conser­vation and Recre­ation and the Division of Mines and Minerals.

In his lifetime of spelunking, Lucas says he has surveyed or helped survey hundreds of wild caves, noting geological formations, hydrological patterns, as well as archaeological and historic features. “It’s a very slow, tedious process,” he notes. But it’s also a process rich with discovery. “A cave is like a time capsule,” he explains. “Generally, it doesn’t have weather, so everything inside is so well-preserved.”

Preserving Virginia’s Wild Caves

Gregg Clemmer, president of the Butler Cave Conservation Society, completely understands the timelessness of this underground world. It’s not unusual to find fossils in caves. “You have to get into the mindset,” Clemmer says, “that the stuff you’re seeing may go back to the age of dinosaurs.” Clemmer had an up-close and personal experience with the ages when he found footprints of a fisher, a fox-like marten, about 400 feet from the entrance of a cave he was surveying. “Fishers haven’t been seen in Virginia since 1810,” he explains. So he knew he had discovered footprints that were at least 200 years old. After further investigation, Clemmer discovered that flowstone in the cave had covered some of the fisher’s tracks, which appeared to stop abruptly at a steep drop-off. “The flowstone came after the fisher,” he explains, “and that flowstone was thousands of years old, meaning those well-preserved footprints were also thousands of years old.”

Remarkable discoveries like this inspire cavers like Clemmer and Lucas to preserve this fragile underground environment. That’s why a core group of interested cavers joined forces in 1968 to form the Butler Cave Con­servation Society (BCCS), designed to help protect Butler Cave, which was discovered in 1958 by CIA cartographer Ike Nicholson and has 16 miles of mapped passages. At the time, Butler Cave was Virginia’s largest, but has since been eclipsed by three others. In 1975, the BCCS raised enough money to buy Butler Cave and 65 surrounding acres. “The purpose,” says Clemmer, “was to control access to the cave to preserve it. And it’s worked. After nearly 50 years, the cave is a good reflection of good cave-management policy.”

Today the BCCS has about 45 members, all of whom have a key to the cave entrance. This doesn’t mean the cave is off limits to non-members, but BCCS members must accompany any visitors into the cave.

While it’s illegal in Virginia to take or touch any biological or archaeological artifacts in caves, not everyone is respectful of this law. Clemmer notes that caves feature “very delicate environments” that should be treated with care. “Plus, caving is arduous,” he says. “You have to be in good shape to do it.”

If You’re Serious About Caving, Be Prepared

Seasoned spelunker Phil Lucas has logged countless hours in the Commonwealth's wild caves.

Rick Lambert, owner of Highland Adven­tures in Monterey, knows all about the rigors of spelunking. He’s been leading wild cave tours in western Virginia and West Virginia since 1991. He, too, cannot emphasize enough the need to be physically fit to enjoy caving. “You need to be able to pull your own weight up over a door,” he says. “If you’re over 200 pounds, you probably shouldn’t do it.”

And caving is a dirty sport. Cavers can expect to be covered from head to toe in mud both inside and outside of their clothes, and swimming may be involved as well as crawling through incredibly tight places. “Most first-time cavers come in jeans and a cotton T-shirt,” says Lambert, “but in caving, we say ‘cotton kills.’” That’s because cotton holds moisture close to the body. Lambert says the ideal attire is long polypropylene underwear and a nylon outer coating to keep warm and dry. With the cool temperatures inside a cave, someone who gets wet and cold can find himself suffering from hypothermia very quickly.

Lambert also says one should never go caving alone. “The smallest group should have at least four,” he notes. That way if someone is injured, there’s someone to stay with the injured person and two people to go for help. Lambert rarely takes fewer than 10 people at a time into caves and usually works with organized groups like college classes or corporate groups. His minimum charge for a half-day caving trip is $400, and that’s for a group up to 10.

Lambert says anyone interested in trying out caving should be prepared ahead of time, not just physically and equipment-wise, but also mentally. “Make sure you know what kind of cave you’re going to,” he says. “You could run into a pit where you have to rappel or a place where you have to swim.”

What Can You See?

Wild caving isn’t like touring a commercial cave where everything is well-lit. A wild caver lights his way with a head lamp and/or handheld light source. And what one sees underground can vary from one cave to another. Some are rich with colorful formations; others may be mostly mud and rock. And there’s a lot more to caves than the well-known stalactites and stalagmites so familiar in places like Luray Caverns. One of the caves on Lucas’ property, for instance, is rich with its namesake formation — helictites. These are curious curling calcite formations.

One could also come across human artifacts. Lucas says some Indians placed their dead in caves along with beads and other artifacts that remain well-preserved because of the consistent cool cave climate. Some caves were mined for saltpeter, particularly during the Civil War, and might have remnant artifacts of those operations.

One might also see bats, amphibians, crustaceans, flat worms, insects, and beetles. Creatures who live in caves year-round and don’t just use them for shelter and hibernation (as bats do) are called troglodytes. “The food supply in caves is very limited,” says Lucas. “It’s only what gets washed in there, so organisms in caves are very small.” Lucas says most of the new species discovered in recent years have been discovered underground.

That’s what draws Lucas to caving — the fact that it’s man’s last frontier into the unknown. “When you step into a black void, you don’t know what to expect,” he says. “It’s really special.”

Wild Caving Safely and Respectfully

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Most wild caves are located on private property. Be respectful of others’ property and obtain property-owner permission before entering any cave.

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Remember to take nothing but pictures when in a wild cave. It is against Virginia law to take formations, artifacts, or organisms out of caves or to disturb any cave formations without a permit.

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When visiting a wild cave, make sure there are at least four in your group. Never cave alone. It’s best to go with a professional wild-cave guide.

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At minimum, make sure you have the following equipment: Polypropelene long underwear, nylon outer layer, at least 3-4 sources of light and extra batteries and bulbs, plenty of water, energy snacks, a camera to record your experience responsibly. You can schedule a cave tour with Highland Adventures by calling 540-468-2722.

Virginia cave facts

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Virginia is home to 4,378 known caves, most of them located west of the Blue Ridge.

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The largest known cave is in Giles County, at 22 mapped miles.

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90 percent of caves have no known entrances.

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Caves are formed when groundwater becomes slightly acidic due to the absorption of carbon dioxide and begins to dissolve limestone, forming tunnels, cracks, and crevices. The process can take thousands, even tens of thousands of years.

for more information:

If you are interested in learning more about Virginia’s wild caves or in helping with wild cave research and surveying, check out the sources below. Bear in mind that the Virginia Speleological Survey, which has grottoes (or clubs) in many localities, and cave conservation groups seek dedicated people who don’t mind hard work, getting dirty, and who are respectful of the fragility of cave environments.

National Speleological Society (NSS)

(256) 852-1300; www.caves.org

 

Virginia Speleological Survey (VSS)

www.virginiacaves.org

 

Butler Cave Conservation Society (BCCS)

www.nevtek.com/bccs/bccsweb.htm

 

 

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