Daytripping: Brave the Cave
Take a subterranean journey at Laurel Caverns.
photos by chuck beard
Two tiny members of the Eptesicus fuscus tribe sleep soundly above our heads, oblivious to voices and the sweep of flashlights. In the recent past, thousands of brown bats had used this subterranean chamber as a hibernaculum throughout the winter, but the fungal disease white nose syndrome has decimated their numbers in recent years. These two survivors cling to the rock face and wait for warmer nights.
We descend into the three-mile underground labyrinth of Laurel Caverns wearing old clothes, treaded hiking boots, and hardhats with headlamps. Our guide is David Cale, who owns the 435-acre geological preserve and teaches at West Virginia University. He has worked at mapping, clearing and extending the cavern’s natural passages since his teen years. Now 71, he leads us through the more accessible chambers of the caverns (Vallanoren, The Grand Canyon, Hall of the Mountain King) that are seen on the standard tour, lit with colored bulbs and often rising to heights of 50 feet.
Past this point, the going gets tougher. Two caving trips (upper and lower) are offered for the more adventurous; these expeditions are more strenuous and involve lots of climbing, crouching and creek straddling.
David Cale leads a tour through the depths of Laurel Caverns.
Laurel Caverns is the largest natural cave in Pennsylvania, hidden beneath a privately owned geological preserve surrounded by Forbes State Forest. Inside the caverns, most chambers near the entrance are quite large; the Cale’s Canyon Passage is the length of a football field.
Cale leads us down into the lower chambers, through the Flue, the Ball Room and Bat Room. We’re now about 200 feet beneath the forest above, and we see only by flashlight and headlamp. The Flue is narrow and claustrophobic, and often low overhead. My hardhat saves me from a dozen concussions. Once we enter the Ballroom, the rooms and passages open up to an average of 40 feet wide and 40 feet high.
In the Bat Room, we cross a trickling creek and Cale offers to show us something special. Two Laurel Caverns guides have been making excavations throughout the winter and are close to bridging the gap between the lower and upper caves. Once accomplished, this will connect the two passages and allow cavers to make round trips instead of retracing steps to their point of origin. We are far into the caverns now, and I realize that only a handful of people have ever stepped into this deep part of the earth. The passage is wet and dark and full of the sharp smell of loam, a fit place for the meeting of Eptesicus fuscus and Homo sapiens.
Laurel Caverns is closed during the primary months of the bat-hibernation season. The caverns open for visitors on April 19, 2017.
For an adrenaline jolt, Laurel Caverns offers rappelling on Saturdays and Sundays. For a more relaxing experience, take a swing at Kavernputt, a miniature-golf course set in a 10,000-square-foot simulated cave experience.
On the Web: laurelcaverns.com
Drive Time: 1 hour, 45 mins