Ohio Caverns a day-trip destination
Story and photos by Sarah Allen
Rolling hills dotted with trees and farmland — a typical, but still scenic view while driving along many Ohio roads. But at the Logan and Champaign county lines, the landscape is only part of the picture… because below the ground is a network of caves known as “America’s most colorful caverns.”
The Ohio Caverns earned that name, according to manager J.D. Harshfield, because of both the array of colors on the cave walls and the “pure whiteness of the formations.”
One example of a “pure white wonder,” as described on the Ohio Caverns website, is the Crystal King. Harshfield said it is the largest stalactite in the state. The website further explains that the King is “nearly five feet long, (weighs) an estimated 400 pounds, and (is) estimated to be over 200,000 years old.”
The King, Harshfield added, is definitely one of the most memorable sights in the Ohio Caverns.
But it is still just one part of the vibrant underground labyrinth. According to the website, guests can also visit areas called “Fantasyland,” “Palace of the Gods” and the “Big Room,” all of which include formations of varying size, shape and complexity.
And the backdrop to these formations is an array of natural colors. The cavern walls range from purples to oranges to reddish-blacks. This vivid palette is a result of three minerals found within the caves, Harshfield said.
He added that guests are often surprised to find such a unique geological treasure in “Middle of Nowhere, Ohio.”
But, in many ways, surprises have always been a part of the Ohio Caverns experience.
The caves were originally discovered in 1897 when a farmhand noticed a sinkhole developing. After digging, he found a crack in the bedrock and lowered himself in. At that moment, he “(became) the first living thing in the caverns,” Harshfield said.
Since that time, the caves have been a tourist attraction. As such, “We have tried to keep (the caverns) as natural and protected as possible,” Harshfield said.
In 1922, the Smith family bought the area and developed it into the Ohio Caverns. To this day, the caverns are still privately owned.
Tours have changed some over the years — from self-guided explorations in the caverns’ earliest days to a current offering of two distinct tours. Since 2012, guests can go on the Natural Wonder Tour, which focuses on the rocks and minerals of the area, and the Historic Tour, which highlights the history of the caves as a tourist destination.
Harshfield described some of what guests will learn on the Historic Tour, saying that, when the caves were first opened to the public in 1897, visitors crawled in the caves. Many would add their names to the cave walls. This “historical graffiti,” Harshfield said, is a visitor favorite.
“It’s neat because … you get a feel of how those original tours were given,” Harshfield added.
Harshfield also described the Natural Wonder Tour, saying that, true to Ohio Caverns spirit, guests get a surprise the moment they begin. The entrance was originally a sink hole that was filled in and then reopened in 2012. Harshfield said guests “go from a nice, well-manicured lawn to a cave.” Visitors are often surprised by “how quick and unusual it is,” he said.
But the real surprises are the varied formations and colors that wait around every bend of the tour. “The sheer amount of formations,” Harshfield said, often amazes guests. Many visitors, he said, have been to other caverns, and so they often think they know what to expect. But, instead, they are “shocked by the amount of color and white formations.”
Above ground, the Ohio Caverns is also home to gem mining, a picnic area, and a playground. “It’s always a pretty good day trip,” Harshfield said.
Visitors of all ages, he said, can “make a neat little memory out of it.”
Ohio Caverns is located at 2210 East State Route 245 in West Liberty. It is open every day of the year, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the winter. The caverns are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. To learn more, visit www.ohiocaverns.com.