Through the 1950s and 60s, West Virginia became a nationally—and sometimes internationally—known location for the exploration of caves and karst geology. Interestingly, the skills and gear needed to safely and efficiently negotiate large vertical drops were, in part, developed and perfected within the boundaries and spectacular cave systems of the Mountain State. For caving enthusiasts around the country, the names of places like Hellhole, Schoolhouse, Sites, and Elkhorn Mountain became commonplace. And, with the exception of Elkhorn Mountain, they all have one thing in common: Pendleton County.
Pendleton County is a unique location within the already exceptional geologic setting of West Virginia. It has the same basic limestone layers as the massive flat beds of the Greenbrier and Monroe formations (which gave rise to the immense cave systems such as the 46-mile long Friars Hole Cave System and the 38-mile Organ Cave System), but the rock here has been warped, twisted, and shattered. An example of just how warped it became is spectacularly evident aboveground at Seneca Rocks. Here, the Tuscarora Quartzite Sandstone was folded until it eventually stood vertically on end; erosion later exposed it for the enjoyment of photographers, hikers, and rock climbers. This same folding tilted the limestone layers vertically and allowed deep pits to form along the resulting fractures. For a long time, Sites Cave was one of the deepest known drops in the country at just over 225 feet.
Tucked behind Seneca lies Germany Valley, a small and narrow defile at the base of North Fork Mountain. Here, the limestone folds upwards in a very tight U-bend, producing both vertical and horizontal fractures. This three-dimensional maze of fractures produced one of the most complex and amazing cave systems in the United States: Hellhole. Long known for its 160-foot entrance pit and later for its tens of thousands of rare bats, this cavern’s charted length would stand at around 10 miles until the 1990s and 2000s when exploration pushed it to over 45 miles long. Among the discoveries was the second-tallest dome pit in the continental U.S. at a staggering 535 feet. This rapid expanse of exploration once again put Pendleton County at the forefront of the caving universe.
While the highly advanced and technical nature of Hellhole isn’t kind to amateurs and novices, similar caves and karst features can be experienced by those interested in the underworld. NROCKS, the adventure resort at Nelson Rocks Preserve, leads trips to wild caves within Pendleton County. Here, one can see first-hand the unique karst geology of Pendleton County. With no prior experience needed, a guide can lead you through almost a half-mile of cave passageway that shows off some of the best that Pendleton County has to offer.
Tall canyons lead in multiple directions—the cave formed on fracture lines similar to the ones that helped create nearby Hellhole giving the cave a grid-like pattern of branching passages. Narrow slots and low crawls lead to hidden areas full of delicate and beautiful formations such as, flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, and draperies aptly named “cave bacon.” Your guide can expertly and professionally guide you through this subterranean masterpiece of nature. Enjoy the classic characteristics of the Tonoloway Limestone in which the cave formed—characteristics like large, open rooms with flat ceilings and hundreds of thousands of well-preserved seashell fossils within the rock.
If you finish the trip hungry for more (as many often do), the National Speleological Society and local grottos can help get you involved with caving in other areas within Pendleton County and throughout West Virginia. Local grottos exist in Fairmont (the Monongahela Grotto) and Lewisburg (the Greenbrier Grotto). As is often the case, most of the caves in Pendleton County are privately owned. Permission must always be granted by the owner before accessing the cave. The landowner, as always, has the very final say in the matter.
Ryan Maurer is an aerospace and mechanical engineering student at West Virginia University. He spends whatever time he isn’t working doing things as high in the air or as far underground as possible.