- Associated Press - Sunday, August 17, 2014

GROTTOES, Va. (AP) - Seen one cave, seen ‘em all, right?

Virginia’s commercial caves all seem to have their own “Grand Cathedral” rooms, their “Pipe Organ” formations, reflecting pools and stalagmites that look like - take your pick - George Washington, an Indian or Stonewall Jackson.

Look over there! Those sheets hanging from the cave ceiling look like bacon! Mmm, bacon.

All the caves are the same, right? Big holes in the ground that people pay to walk through and see stalactites (that hang “tite” to the ceiling) and stalagmites (that “mite” grow from the cave floor to the ceiling). Seen one column that looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, seen ‘em all. Right?

Well, not exactly. From the Shenandoah Valley to the Cumberland Gap, from Luray Caverns to Dixie Caverns, these “show caves” all have their own distinct features that set them apart from one another. For example, Luray is the largest cavern on the East Coast and features enormous rooms that could accommodate 100 people.

Shenandoah Caverns is filled with towering formations and walls of flowstone that resemble rocky waterfalls. Dixie Caverns has a terrific central “Grand Cathedral” room with a high overlook.

Then, there is Grand Caverns in Grottoes, a fun cave filled with hundreds of giant circular formations called “shields” that geologists can’t quite explain. The shields hang in rooms like hovering UFOs with calcified tentacles hanging down to grab unsuspecting cave-dwellers.

“All of the caverns have different personalities,” said Lettie Stickley, a parks and recreation specialist for the town of Grottoes, which owns Grand Caverns.

Virginia has more than 4,300 documented caves, according to the Virginia Speleological Survey, a nonprofit group that keeps cave statistics. Almost all of those caves are located in the western part of the state.

Why so many caves here? One word: karst.

Karst is the name of the landscape in this part of the state. The term describes a topography where water has eaten away at the limestone surface and formed underground caves. Southwest Virginia’s terrain is layered in limestone.

“In the Appalachian Mountains and west, we’re sitting on giant Swiss cheese,” said Marian McConnell, president of the Blue Ridge Grotto caving club. “I call it ‘hollowed ground.’ “

Limestone is a soluble rock that fractures and dissolves due to the carbon in rainwater. When the limestone is washed away, large openings are left behind. Stalactites, stalagmites and columns are formed when dripping water leaves traces of calcium carbonate, which over many years will add up and lengthen into calcite formations (which imaginative cavern owners will name “Chief One Feather,” ”Liberty Bell,” ”Tower of Babel” and so on). It takes more than 100 years of dripping water to form 1 cubic inch of a stalactite.

Most of the caves in Virginia are what McConnell calls “wild caves,” caverns on private property that can be explored by experienced cavers, who often have to crawl and squeeze through narrow openings to get from one underground room to the next. She said that people who want to learn about caves should first visit one of the show caves for tourists, then check out places such as Blue Ridge Grotto.

“The commercial caves are a great way for the general public to visit a cave and get an appreciation for them,” McConnell said. “They’re easy for people to walk around, they’re safe. When you become a caver, it’s like exploring another planet.”

McConnell and her husband, Dan, have a large cave on their property in Catawba - the famous “Murder Hole” cave. The couple wrote a book about the cave and its many legendary stories of Civil War soldiers, traveling salesman and others who perhaps vanished inside the pit.

The caving club has about 50 members who meet monthly to watch videos of caving adventurers and to talk about what they’ve discovered underground. More than 1,000 of Virginia’s caves have been documented within the past 30 years, which indicates that there are probably even more tunnels, passages and openings underground.

“When you think of all the beauty you see above ground in our region, you’re really only seeing half of it,” she said. “It’s a whole different world underground.”

Grand Caverns is the longest-operating public cave in the United States, having opened to the public in 1806 - so long ago that the Lewis and Clark Expedition was just returning from its voyage west. Grand also lives up to its name by being one of the prettiest commercial caves in the state. Parade Magazine once named it the second-best overall cavern in the United States, behind Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

The town took over the property after a regional authority that had operated the cavern dissolved in 2009. The cave, which is inside a hill and requires an exhilarating uphill walk to the entrance, sits in the town park where visitors can play miniature golf or take a dip in the public pool.

Barbara Loflin led a recent tour that showed off many of the cavern’s features, along with the cutesy names such as the “zoo” where, if you used your imagination, you’d see an alligator, elephant, buffalo, clam and turtle all living in harmony.

History aficionados might get a chuckle out of a formation said to resemble Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, and might gasp at something that looks like a profile of Thomas Jefferson’s face, which was downright creepy.

Loflin also pointed out the impressive shields, which are large, round stalactites whose high numbers are unique to Grand. For reasons geologists don’t quite understand, the calcite formed in wide, plate-like layers, rather than straight down like a regular stalactite.

“Other caverns might just have one of these in their entire cave, so they don’t point them out,” Loflin said. “We have over 250 of them. It’s really rare to have that many.”

Loflin said that an additional 2.8 miles of caverns were discovered in 2004 - nearly double the current cavern’s size - and are not open to the public.

About an hour south of Grand Caverns are the Caverns of Natural Bridge, which are considerably different from other caves. The Natural Bridge caverns don’t have as many formations as other caves, but the passages lead deep underground - almost 34 stories - to where a small stream gurgles through the cavern floor and seeps outside, eventually flowing into Cedar Creek, which carved out the Natural Bridge.

Those bubbling waters are still at work, dissolving limestone which will sculpt new caves many centuries from now. Most of the show caves are still “living,” which means that drops of water are still shaping the formations and passages, as they have for millions of years. That’s why caves are protected by state laws that forbid people from disturbing the formations or vandalizing the caves.

“Caves are cool places to go - literally,” said McConnell. “Kids can learn about geology from a book, but when they go underground, it makes it real.”

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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