Exploring the natural wonders beneath our feet
Standing amid a pitch-dark room of the oldest show cave in America, Daniel Greenawalt strikes a match and lights a wax candle to reveal flickering views of the same stunning limestone formations that early visitors marveled at while exploring the subterranean world beneath Grottoes, Va. (pop. 2,114).
“You can imagine what this would have been like in the early 1800s,” says Greenawalt, 33, a guide at Grand Caverns, where tours began in 1806 when the attraction was known as Weyer’s Cave.
“In those days, people brought candles and lamps on tours that could last for eight hours,” he adds. “But it would have been hard to see the details.”
The details include gigantic stalactites that hang from the cave ceiling; equally imposing stalagmites that jut from the cavern floor; Cathedral Hall, which at 280 feet long and 70 feet high is among the largest cavern rooms in the eastern United States; and magnificent mineral deposits that resemble praying hands, a bridal veil and even the stately figure of President George Washington.
“These formations grow one drop at a time,” says Greenawalt, shining a flashlight beam along rocks dripping with calcite-rich water. “That’s why this is a living cave. The formations are always growing and changing.”
The Last Frontier
Grand Caverns is one of an estimated 20,000 cave systems that collectively stretch for thousands of miles below America.
A mysterious labyrinth that evokes fascinating stories and reveals unique ecosystems, the dark but grand layer of splendor lies beneath the vast mountains, hills and plains most commonly associated with our nation. Yet, in many ways, the hidden rooms and passageways are America’s last great frontier.
“People have traipsed all over the surface of the land, but caves are the only place left on earth where you can still be the first one to see something,” says Ernst Kastning, 67, a New Hampshire water conservationist who has studied caves for more than four decades.
Modern cave exploration, which includes scientific and systematic mapping, started during the 1950s—relatively recently in the context of world exploration. “We’re still very much in a golden age of cave exploration,” says Patricia Kambesis, 58, an environmental researcher based in Cave City, Ky., who has mapped caves in 29 states and 17 other nations.