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.
Most caves of significance have been mapped or are being mapped, with more than 4,900 miles documented thus far, according to the National Speleological Society.
They range from the 7-mile-long McFail’s Cave near Albany, N.Y., to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, which with its 390 mapped miles is the world’s longest known—and most studied—cave system. “Every week, people are inside Mammoth exploring and mapping,” Kambesis says. “It’s exciting because, for the cave explorer, it’s all about finding more cave. It’s an insatiable journey.”
Among America’s more recent and spectacular underground discoveries is Lechuguilla, which was thought to be a small cave in New Mexico until explorers in the 1980s discovered large passages filled with extraordinary formations, vibrant colors, and large gypsum and sulfur deposits. Today, the cave is managed by Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which limits Lechuguilla’s access to scientists and exploration teams. “It is the mecca for any caver,” Kambesis says.
Boasting America’s largest underground chamber, Carlsbad Caverns is another national jewel. “It is one of the world’s great caves—enormous chambers, diverse [formations], and a long history of association with original inhabitants of what is now West Texas and southeastern New Mexico,” says Ronal Kerbo, 66, a retired National Park Service cave specialist in Littleton, Colo.
History Runs Deep
Most of the world’s caves were formed during the last million years as groundwater flowed through openings and dissolved rock. In America, most caves in the East are privately owned, while most in the West are on public lands. About 10 significant cave systems are managed by the National Park Service, and 120 are privately operated as show caves. Missouri and Tennessee have the most caves.
Kastning defines a cave as a natural opening in the earth. “If a human being can go in there and get out of the rain, it’s a cave,” he says, noting that most caves are less than 100 feet long.
Little surprise, then, that animals and humans have used caves throughout history both for refuge and resources, beginning in prehistoric times.
In Mammoth Cave National Park, bare footprints of American Indians from 3,000 years ago are preserved, along with climbing poles, baskets, woven shoes and reed torches left behind. During the War of 1812, some passages were mined for saltpeter to make gunpowder. Later, slaves were used to explore the cave and serve as cave guides.
“Caves are treasure troves of history,” Kambesis says. “The archaeology is phenomenal and, because of the constant climate, it’s well preserved.”
At Grand Caverns, the signatures of more than 200 Civil War soldiers mark the walls, including a prominent one by Capt. W.W. Miles, a Union officer killed in action three months after etching his name in limestone in 1864. One room is named in honor of Gen. Stonewall Jackson, whose Confederate troops camped nearby and toured the caverns for recreation.
“Even in the middle of the most terrible conflict in history, people took the time to come down here and appreciate the beauty of this cave,” Greenawalt says. “After a noisy and deadly battle, they could come to this quiet place that has been here for thousands of years and seek sanctuary. It makes me wonder if we’ll have to use these caves as a refuge again sometime.”
Today, some caves are used as venues for concerts, parties and weddings. Others are major tourism attractions, such as the privately owned Luray (Va.) Caverns, one of America’s most visited caves, because of its location near Washington, D.C., and its dramatic formations sculpted by nature over thousands of years.
Touring Luray’s caves last year were David Early, 42, and his son, Quinn, 8, of Falls Church, Va., finding refuge from the summertime heat underground where the temperature is a constant 54 degrees. Together, they viewed illuminated formations that mimic giant redwood trees, shaggy dogs, totem poles, and even slices of bacon and fried eggs. Quinn especially was intrigued by calcite deposits that “look like wavy ice.”
“You think everything is above the ground,” says Quinn, preparing to exit the cave and return to the sunlight, “but now I know there is something below me, too.”