While many of West Virginia’s foremost natural attractions tower thousands of feet skyward, residents and visitors also have an ongoing opportunity to enjoy the Mountain State’s compelling natural depths at four of its most prominent underground wonders — and a fifth for truly rugged subterranean adventures.
Lost World Caverns
Two miles north of the Greenbrier County seat of Lewisburg, Lost World Caverns on Fairview Road lets intrepid spelunkers travel 120 feet below ground to marvel at stalactites and stalagmites galore.
Prominent Lost World formations include the Snowy Chandelier, a 30-ton compound stalactite; the Bridal Veil, a sparkling white calcite column; and the War Club, a 28-foot stalagmite.
Tourists are welcome to take the approximately 45-minute, self-guided and self-paced tour throughout the year.
Lost World Caverns is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays only from Jan. 1 through Feb. 28; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 1 to Memorial Day Weekend; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day; 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Labor Day through Thanksgiving Day; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m . the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day.
Lost World Caverns adventurers receive a guide sheet that describe the various formations along the half-mile cavern loop trails.
The 45-minute tour costs $12 per person. More daring (and less-pressed-for-time) explorers can opt for the four-hour wild cave tour, which starts at $79 per person.
For additional information, visit www.lostworldcaverns.com or call 304- 645-6677.
Designated as a National Natural Landmark and a National Landmark of Historic Places, Organ Cave in Ronceverte reveals more than 45 miles of mapped passages (and even more still being explored).
The second longest commercial cave on the East Coast, Organ Cave possesses sweeping limestone formations that can be experienced on reservation-only tours from November through April. Organ Cave doubles as a museum, delineating its various uses during the Civil War and for centuries prior.
For example, Organ Cave lies alongside the ancient buffalo trail, the Old Midland Trail. Archaeologists have posited Native Americans used the cave as early as 800 B.C. The caves were a rich source of flint, sourced for making fires, knives and arrowheads. European settlers along the Greenbrier River used the cave to store and naturally refrigerate nitre, an ingredient of gunpowder.
Visitors can go on the Formation Trail Tour (which features the namesake rock organ) or the combined Walking Museum/Civil War Trail Tour. More advanced (and strenuous) wild caving tours can be booked, as well. Jackets and appropriate footwear are advised.
“No matter what the weather is above ground, the temperature below ground remains around 52 degrees,” Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau Communications Manager Valerie Pritt said. “The area has two commercial caves for visitors to tour. A self-guided tour of Lost World Caverns gives people the opportunity to go at their own pace to observe the 1,000-foot ‘room’ filled with unique geologic formations.
To make reservations or learn more about rates and services, go to organcave.com or call 304-645-7600.
The history of Seneca Caverns in Pendleton County dates back to at least the early 1400s, when Seneca Indians used them for shelter, storage and special ceremonies along a Native American trading route through the Appalachian Mountains. Privately owned by the Teter family from 1742 until 1928, the caverns were opened to the public in 1930.
Reaching depths of 165 feet underground, the Seneca Caverns guided tour, along a one-mile trail, takes around 45 minutes to traverse. Designed for explorers ages 12 and above, the optional Stratosphere Cavern tour requires special lighting and some climbing, for more adventurous and more athletic souls.
Admission per tour is $15 for adults (13 and older), $10 for children ages 5 to 12 and free for those 4 and younger. AAA members, seniors and military personnel receive a 10 percent discount on ticket prices. Group rates are also available for schools and others.
Gemstone mining is also available at Seneca Caverns.
Seneca Caverns is located three miles southeast of Riverton, off Routes 33 and 28. Nearby above-ground attractions include Dolly Sods, Seneca Rocks and Spruce Knob.
The website address is www.senecacaverns.com and the telephone numbers for reservations or further information are 304-567-2691 or, toll free, 800-239-7647.
Smoke Hole Caverns
Smoke Hole Caverns is located 10 minutes miles north of Seneca Rocks and eight miles south of Petersburg in Grant County. The caverns make up a major part of the Smoke Hole Caverns Resort in the aptly named town of Cabins; visitors can rent cabins at the site.
Along with their ancient, natural beauty and allure, Smoke Hole Caverns reveal their historical side, having been used by Seneca Indians, Civil War soldiers and Mountain State moonshiners over the centuries.
The Native Americans used the caverns to smoke wild game (hence the site’s name, given to it by early settlers). Its many “rooms” and cold streams provided choice spaces to brew corn whiskey among settlers and immigrants (an original moonshine still is on display).
Daily guided tours are available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission costs $15 for adults, $13.50 for senior citizens and military personnel and $10 for children ages 5 5 to 12. Children under 5 are admitted free. Group rates can be arranged. The caves are closed to the public on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Cavern tours typically take just under an hour.
“The caverns are open year round, and, of course, they have a wonderful gift shop, as well,” said Eileen Sindledecker, executive director of the Grant County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It really is a wonderful cavern tour. We are just coming into our fishing season; stocking of the fresh waters started last month. So, for the fishermen bringing their families, this is the perfect opportunity to visit a cavern to take a tour.”
More information about Smoke Hole Caverns and its many ancillary attractions is available at www.smokehole.com online or by calling 800-828-8478 or 304-257-4442 between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
NROCKS Outdoor Adventures
For a variation on conventional tourist spelunking (and a true walk on the walk side) in the Mountain State, consider NROCKS Outdoor Adventures in Pendleton County.
Formerly the Nelson Rocks Adventure Center, the guided climbing center offers, among its attractions, half-day wild caving excursions.
Offered in partnership of NROCKs and WILDGUYde Adventures, the wild caves eschew sidewalks and marked paths, gift shops and other amenities and challenge visitors in their naturally formed, primeval majesty.
WILDGUYde Adventures owner Lester Zook, 58, began his outdoors experiences above ground as chiefly a rock climber in his teenage years, but he has led wild cave tours extensively for the past 15 years.
“Some of our wild caves have been sort of adopted and turned into show caves,” the Harrisonburg, Virginia, resident said, “and we have some crossovers, but wild caves are for people who want to see caves as they’ve always been.
“Wild caves tend to be a bit more physical. I do a little bit of a read when I meet a client or client group. I tell them they don’t need prior experience to do it, but they should be fit, because there is some climbing and we don’t want a rescue epic in a cave,” Zook said.
Those undertaking the wild caving explorations receive a cave pack, helmet, headlamp and whistle at the meeting point in Franklin. Beginners’ trips are available, designed with primarily horizontal movement (e.g., walking, stooping, crawling) through the cave. Intermediate wild caving trips entail some elementary vertical terrain.
Along with National Cave Rescue Commission training, the highly experienced NROCKS Outdoor Adventure caving guides possess Wilderness First Aid/Responder certification.
“Folks have a little more physical and emotional challenge” with wild caving, Zook said, “and also my trips are always about learning. It’s not just an adrenaline-rush experience. I talk about how not to get lost, a little about geology, how the caves formed, what makes a cave a cave.”
He said those committed to the caving community are exceedingly protective of the wild caves and their locations.
“The reason is, a lot of the caves are on private land and we have agreements with the landowners. They don’t want just anybody happening along. Once you damage the cave, that damage is pretty much forever. You won’t find a lot of cavers, myself included, freely sharing locations of caves we use. That’s by design.
“In the context of West Virginia adventure tourism, wild caving is really a growing edge in the economy. Wild caving takes its place alongside rock climbing, canopy tours and mountain biking as part of the large array of adventure tourism options West Virginia is starting to have, for residents and out-of-state visitors,” Zook said.
NROCKS is located at 141 Nelson Gap Road in Circleville.
For more detailed information on the wild caving tours (and other outdoor-oriented options), visit www.nrocks.com or call 877-435-4842. (Winter hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.)