Editor’s note: This story first published on Dec. 1, 2017.
Full of wonder with its showcase of colorful crystal formations, Ohio Caverns is a hidden treasure in West Liberty.
Here are five things to know about Ohio’s largest cave system:
1. Accidental discovery
The caverns are hidden under green grass and surrounded by corn fields but were found when a large sinkhole on William Reams’ farm filled up with rainwater one night in August of 1897 and rapidly disappeared. Reams ordered farmhand Robert Noffsinger to begin excavating the sinkhole.
While digging, Noffsinger broke through into the caverns and became the first person to explore them. Ten days later, Reams opened the caves up to family and friends and shortly after that to public tours.
2. Tour options
There are four tours, but the two main options are the Natural Wonders Tour and the Historic Tour.
The hour-long Natural Wonders Tour takes guests down a winding path overlooking the Mingo Valley and through a sinkhole entrance to the caverns opened in 2012. The tour covers areas discovered after excavation of the passages in the 1920s, and guides provide information about the geology of the cavern as they describe the wide variety of visible formations.
The 45-minute Historic Tour includes parts of the caverns viewed by visitors from 1897-1925, beginning with a shuttle bus trip to the original entrance. Guests descend 44 steps into the cavern at the site of discovery, and guides provide information about the history of the cavern and point out “historic graffiti” left behind by the early explorers.
3. Cave environment
Regardless of the weather conditions, the temperature of the Ohio Caverns remains a constant 54 degrees throughout the year, and the air inside the caverns is cleaner than the air above ground — filtered by the water that formed the caves and still drips today.
The caverns are the largest in the state, with over two miles of surveyed passageways ranging in depth from 30 feet to the deepest point of 103 feet. The tour route is a mostly level gravel path changing to concrete near the end, but it is not wide enough in many spots to accommodate wheelchairs or strollers.
4. Crystal formations
The caverns are full of crystal-white stalactite and stalagmite formations and colorful walls and ceilings.
Among the main attractions is the 200,000-year old Crystal King, which is the largest free-hanging stalactite in Ohio, measuring almost 5 feet long and estimated to weigh more than 400 pounds. The Crystal Sea is an inch-deep artificial water-retention pool that holds excess water out of the walkway and got its name from the reflection of the beautiful ceiling above.
The “Palace of the Gods” is the most photographed room in the caverns because of its variety of colors and formations, including examples of every type. Hundreds of formations can be found in the “Big Room,” including many that are so close to the pathways they have been permanently stained from the dirt and oil of human hands that have touched them.
One such formation, a 3-foot-tall stalagmite once called “The Good Luck Crystal,” was touched for good luck by almost every person who came through until 1926, when the staff noticed the developing brown stain and implemented a no-touching rule. The “Jewel Room,” featured at the end of the tour, once helped earn the caves the nickname “America’s Most Colorful Caverns.”
5. Mining for gems and fossils
Bags of mining rough that has been seeded with gemstones, minerals, fossils and arrowheads can be purchased in the gift shop (ranging from $5 to $25) and then taken to the water mill outside for panning. This is a popular activity for groups and children to learn to identify what they find and take home a collection.