Caves in America

History,On the Road,This Week in History,Traditions,Travel Destinations
May 19, 2011

Exploring the natural wonders beneath our feet

New Mexico’s colorful Lechuguilla Cave is one of the world’s most exciting underground discoveries in recent decades.Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico features enormous chambers and diverse formations.Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the world’s most studied and longest known cave system.Luray Caverns in Luray, Va., is one of America’s most visited caves.Diamond Caverns in Kentucky is among 120 privately operated show caves in America.A bluegrass band performs inside of Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tenn., as part of the cave’s Bluegrass Underground broadcasts.Environmental researcher Patricia Kambesis maps a sea cave in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.In Grand Caverns, the oldest show cave in America, the signatures of Civil War soldiers mark the walls. The Grottoes, Va., cave opened to tours in 1806.“Caves are like a sanctuary,” says Grand Caverns guide Daniel Greenawalt. “It’s a whole different world underground.”
Kevin Downey
NPS photo by Peter Jones
David Mudd
Courtesy of Luray Caverns
Courtesy of the National Caves Association/Gary Berdeaux
Marta W. Aldrich
Dave Bunnell
Marta W. Aldrich
Marta W. Aldrich
New Mexico’s colorful Lechuguilla Cave is one of the world’s most exciting underground discoveries in recent decades.
Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico features enormous chambers and diverse formations.
Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the world’s most studied and longest known cave system.
Luray Caverns in Luray, Va., is one of America’s most visited caves.
Diamond Caverns in Kentucky is among 120 privately operated show caves in America.
A bluegrass band performs inside of Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tenn., as part of the cave’s Bluegrass Underground broadcasts.
Environmental researcher Patricia Kambesis maps a sea cave in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
In Grand Caverns, the oldest show cave in America, the signatures of Civil War soldiers mark the walls. The Grottoes, Va., cave opened to tours in 1806.
“Caves are like a sanctuary,” says Grand Caverns guide Daniel Greenawalt. “It’s a whole different world underground.”
http://pgoaamericanprofile2.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/a-luray-caverns-giants-hall-virginia.jpg

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.”

New Mexico’s colorful Lechuguilla Cave is one of the world’s most exciting underground discoveries in recent decades.

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.

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