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Exploring one of Virginia's wild caves

Erin Pitts stands wearing a helmet and a headlamp, looking up. She's inside a dark cave with slimy rocks on the ground beneath her feet.
Roxy Todd
Erin Pitts is New River Trail's Chief Ranger of Visitor Experience. She's standing inside Bertha Cave, looking at the ceiling, where there are glowing specks of bacteria, which look almost like stars.

May marks the season’s reopening of several caves across Virginia.

If you’ve been curious about exploring a wild cave, but aren’t sure what you’ll expect, Roxy Todd suited up in a helmet and knee pads to bring us this preview.

Bertha Cave is right off the New River Trail, but there’s a locked gate at the entrance to protect people from disturbing bats and salamanders that live here. Winter and early spring are hibernation and mating seasons, so the park waits till late spring to let visitors inside.

“In Virginia we have something in the general neighborhood of about four thousand caves,” says Tom Malabad, a karst expert with the Virginia Natural Heritage Program.

Most of these caves are on private land, and others are inaccessible because they have no natural entrance. Luckily, there are some wild caves that even an inexperienced caver can visit, but helmet, knee pads, and headlights are required. The park provides them to visitors.

We walk through the gate, and hunch down on hands and knees and crawl over craggy rocks to get inside the cavern. One inside, we can stand. Mud coats the floor and water is dripping from stalactites.

In the center of the cave is a rock ledge. The edge of one rock juts out, making a goofy grin. It looks like the earth is sticking its tongue at us.

“The tongue is really dripping today,” laughs Erin Pitts, chief ranger at New River Trail State Park. She explains that as water flows down into the cave, it moves limestone down with it, forming all kinds of strange rock shapes, like this one.

“And it quite very much looks like a tongue. And the tongue is just gonna keep growing,” Pitts says.  

She points to the ceiling. Above us are glowing speckles of what looks like stars. She explains this is actually bacteria that glows in the dark.

Darkness is one of the things that makes caves spooky. So is the stillness. But Pitts says, the feeling of being inside a cave can be a mindful, meditative experience.

“Where you’re just listening to the water droplets. It’s a unique experience because oftentimes our lives are chaotic and busy and loud,” Pitts says, after suggesting we briefly turn off our headlamps. “It kind of transports you into a space that very few of us have in our regular lives.”

Caves are also signals of the health of the environment above ground. The water that flows through caves is part of what we as humans drink, says Malabad.

“And healthy waters in the cave are a good indicator that some of the groundwater is also potentially healthy,” Malabad says. “And vice-versa, you know, if you see contamination in a cave environment, then that is pretty much going straight into the groundwater.”

Pollution can show up in cave systems, often before it’s discovered above ground. Karst ecosystems, like this, are fragile, and can be damaged, explains Malabad. But they can also recover over time.

Inside Bertha cave. Puddles of water where small crustaceans and beetles live, surrounded by reddish peach sand and mud. It could almost be another planet.
Roxy Todd
/
RadioIQ
Inside Bertha cave are puddles with crustaceans and water beetles. Tiny salamanders also lay eggs inside the cave

As he’s talking, Malabad spots a rare cave beetle in the mud. Like many caves, the animals here have rarely been studied by scientists.

Meanwhile, Pitts peers into a mud puddle to see if there’s salamander larvae.

“And they’re very tiny and kind of inconspicuous,” Pitts says. “So just like Tom right now who’s looking for a cave beetle, that’s probably the size of a top of a pin, you kind of have to crawl around on your hands and knees and get a really up close look.”

After about thirty minutes, it’s time to leave. No sightings of salamander babies, but we do see a lot of tiny crustaceans inside puddles.

Then we edge our way back over the slippery mud and rocks, and make our way back out to the cave’s entrance. We emerge into the blinding sunlight. On the boulders overhead, yellow and pink wildflowers are growing, probably soaking up the same water we’d seen dripping inside the cave.

New River Trail State Park is hosting guiding tours of Bertha cave on June 12, June 25, July 24, Aug. 7, Aug 20, Sept. 2, Sept 20. There is a $20 registration, and visitors must be at least 10 years old. The Aug 7th event is free.

Natural Tunnel State Park hosts wild cave tours May 25, June 2, June 5, June 6, June 8, June 22, June 29. There is a registration of $10- $12. Visitors must be at least 10 years old.

Gear is supplied, but visitors should wear clothing and boots that can get muddy. These hikes will require physical activity, including climbing and crawling.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

 

Updated: May 16, 2024 at 12:26 PM EDT
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referenced Bertha cave as being in New River State Park. The correct name of the park is New River Trail State Park. Bertha cave is located close to the Foster Falls portion of the trail.
Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.