By MARTA REE TANKERSLEY
For Country Roads Journal
MapQuest and Google Maps can’t seem to agree on how to get there. I must admit the gravel road past the grazing cattle into the countryside had me a little worried. My destination, however, was Lost World Caverns, so it seemed appropriate that the trek was, shall we say, uncertain.
It’s not really too awfully far off the beaten path, just five minutes’ drive outside Lewisburg city limits. Once I arrived at the 3,500 square foot gift shop and natural history museum which houses fossils of prehistoric creatures alongside bones of their modern counterparts and the remains of a massive cave bear, I realized I was in for a treat.
Lost World Caverns, which hosts 20,000 visitors annually, is one of only 600 registered National Natural Landmarks, along with four other caves in the Mountain State. The cavern wasn’t officially discovered until 1942 when some “college kids” from Virginia Tech dropped down into the 120 feet natural entrance by way of a cable ladder to do a little exploring, according to owner and President Steve Silverberg, who hails from San Diego.
Before then, people in and around Greenbrier County thought it was a sink hole and used it as a sort of garbage dump for farm refuse. The expanse of its chambers, magnificence of its formations and the significance of its contribution to science had not yet been unearthed.
In the 1970s, a massive entrance was dug into the cavern to make it easily assessable.
Nowadays, folks take self-guided tours through the major rooms via a well-lighted pathway, complete with stairs and hand rails. The tour usually lasts about an hour, but there’s no rush.
There are also guided “wild cave” tours where patrons wearing hard hats go off the beaten path into the nooks and crannies and through passages known as the “Birth Canal” and the “Keyhole.” It lasts four or more hours and ends with a hot shower and a hot meal. Explorers also receive digital photos documenting their wild cave adventure on CD.
The cavern, visitor center, gemstone mining station and other facilities are open year round and is a popular field trip destination for elementary school children and college students alike.
“We’ve had six weddings here,” Silverberg said. “One couple rappelled down the natural entrance wearing overalls.
“They unzipped them to reveal a tux and wedding dress, then walked over to a flat spot and got married,” he continued.
Summer thunderstorms and winter snows need not deter explorers since the cave temperature remains at a constant 52 degrees.
“It’s been said that if you average the daily high temperature in Lewisburg, it’s equal to the temperature inside the cave,” Silverberg said.
The Greenbrier Valley reportedly has 3,000 caves and caverns, he said; caves being smaller in length and breadth. The West Virginia Department of Commerce lists Lost World Caverns and Organ Cave, both near Lewisburg, as well as Seneca Caverns in Riverton, and Smoke Hole Caverns in Seneca Rocks as commercial caving venues.
Each has its own special charm, according to the website.
Organ Cave, the largest cave system in West Virginia, a National Historic Landmark and National Natural Landmark, is on the Civil War Trail due to its use in the manufacturing of gunpowder for the confederate troops under the direction of General Robert E. Lee. It has 16 tours to accommodate a wide variety of explorers.
Seneca Caverns, once used in Seneca Indian ceremonies, was first opened to the public in 1930. In the 1960s, it was used as a food storage facility and fallout shelter. In 2006, it was re-opened for use as an “adventure style” cave.
Smoke Hole Caverns is located in the Seneca Rocks/Spruce Knob National Recreation Area. The Seneca Indians used it for preserving wild game by smoking it above a smoldering fire. Early European settlers called it Smoke Hole because of the smoke constantly drifting out and up into the sky. It was also used by moonshiners after the Civil War.
Family owned and operated, the caverns have given rise to a resort complete with cabins, camping and a log motel and hunting, fishing and motorcycle adventures.
Lost World is a “wet cave,” Silverberg said. The National Park Service compares it to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico due to the “number and variety of large formations,” he continued.
“There’s a constant dripping from the ceiling and walls, especially after a rain,” Silverberg said. “There’s also an active stream that goes through that has changes in water volume, but never floods.”
This means the formations, the stalactites from the ceiling and the stalagmites from the floor, are growing drip by drip, day by day. It’s an “actively forming” cavern, he said.
“The high rate of deposit means it’s a perfect environment,” Silverberg said.
The Snowy Chandelier, thought to be one of the nation’s largest compound stalactites weighing in at 30 tons, just keeps getting bigger, according to a published brochure.
Visitors will also encounter the Bridal Veil, the War Club, Goliath and other flowstone, curtain, rimstone and domepit formations. There’s even natural waterfalls during certain times of the year.
Whether you are an extreme spelunker or just interested in a quiet stroll inside the cool, dark underworld, West Virginia has a cave, or two, that’s right for you. For information on hours, facilities and tour availability, visit the West Virginia Department of Commerce website at wvcommerce.org where you can link to this and other Mountain State caves and caverns.