Several million years ago, long before Asheville grew its reputation for good eats and mad beats, some of the coolest underground rooms in the area were steadily gaining ground.
Deep within Humpback Mountain’s porous limestone, trickles of water began carving out Linville Caverns. Eventually, the waters widened out a series of rooms large enough to house Indian explorers, Civil War deserters and, now, troops of tourists who make Linville Caverns one of the top tourist destinations in Western North Carolina.
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ocated at the northern end of McDowell County’s North Cove community, about an hour’s drive from Asheville, the caverns and their constant 52-degree temperature are a cooling respite from summer’s heat. Merely driving down the destination’s shady, forested entranceway from U.S. 221 brings relief, as do the free-flowing, cold waters of the Catawba River’s North Fork. Picnic tables beside the river by the caverns provide a pleasant perch for a pre-tour snack. And then begins the tours into some seriously cool caves.
Guides escort small groups along the lighted path, pointing out Frozen Niagara, The Volcano, and the Total Darkness Room; rooms and formations that sound like zombie drinks made by bartenders in suspenders. Twisting natural sculptures fill crevices and niches, created over millions of years by the steady drip, drip, drip of rainwater above, and by the swirl of the bracingly cold creek that runs through the caverns. Linville Caverns, the only caverns open to tours in North Carolina, have fascinated people since the first Native American noticed an opening in the mountain that spilled forth a trout-filled creek.
The caverns have gone by several names through the years, including Humpback Cave, McGhee Cave, Gilkey Caverns, The Cave beneath Sunnalee, and Catawba Cave. One of its first known literary references was made in 1849. In his book “Letters from the Alleghany Mountains,” Charles Lanman wrote: “Catawba Cave, situated on the Catawba River, is entered by a fissure near the base of a mountain and is reported to be one mile in length. It has a great variety of chambers, which vary in height from six to twenty feet. Its walls are composed of a porous limestone, through which the water is continually dripping, and along this entire length flows a cold and clear stream, which varies from five to fifteen inches in depth. This cave is indeed a curious affair.”
Lanman noted that there was an arm of the caverns that had not been explored. “An admirable opportunity is therefore offered for the adventurous to make themselves famous by revealing some of the hidden wonders of nature,” he wrote. By then, the area around the caverns had been attracting daring souls for decades. Settlers moved into what is now McDowell County in the years leading up to the American Revolution, making Davidson’s Fort, for which Old Fort is named, the westernmost post in the colonies, author Cato Holler notes in his book “Hollow Hills of Sunnalee: The Linville Caverns Story.” Linville Caverns, whose name came from the early settler William Linville, may have housed some of the “Over The Mountain Men” on their way to the 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain. It likely provided shelter to Confederate and Union army deserters during the Civil War, Holler explains.
“What they were doing when they were hiding here was making shoes,” Kyle Dyson, assistant manager of the caverns, said on a recent tour. He was speaking deep inside the caves, in front of a slightly hollow bowl in the travertine limestone wall. It’s here where the soldiers, sleeping on the sandbar above the flowing waters, made their fire. “We know that because in the late 1800s when they found the fireplace, they found a small cobbler’s bench and all the tools necessary to assemble shoes,” Dyson said. “They believe that the soldiers were trading shoes locally for supplies or possibly to support their families back home.” Dyson doubts the Confederate and Union soldiers occupied the caverns at the same time. Local lore has it that the soldiers were captured inside, betrayed by the wood smoke that worked its way out of the ground.
[quote float=right]Twisting natural sculptures fill crevices and niches, created over millions of years by the steady drip, drip, drip of rainwater above, and by the swirl of the bracingly cold creek that runs through the caverns. [/quote]The caverns were a mostly local phenomena for years, attracting brave boys in as far as their nerves allowed. In 1884, Thomas Edison sent a mineralogist to look for platinum. None was found, but the scientist and his guides scrawled their names on a rock in back of the cave. The so-called Signature Rock isn’t part of the tour, but photos of it exist in the gift shop. A group of businessmen bought the caverns in 1937 and opened them to tourists two years later.
Hundreds of stalactites were broken off in a massive flood in 1941 and prompted the building of the low retaining walls inside now. Sections of the walkway stay wet from the water that trickles upon visitors in places, an indication, Dyson said, that the caverns are still very much in their prime. He has seen the cave nearby bone dry (during the yearlong drought a few years ago) to halfway filled with water from hurricane-driven storms that flooded the mountains a decade ago. “They’ll eventually repair themselves,” he said of the broken stalactites, “but none of us will be around to see what that looks like.”
In 1988, the state registered the caverns as a Natural Heritage Area, which regulates what the caverns’ private owners can do with it. The protection means that visitors can’t pick the delicate, vibrant wildflowers on the rock face outside the entrance. In winter, the caverns are home to hibernating bats. Trout swim in the stream year-round, except for the times when otter come in and wipe them out, Dyson said.
The caverns stay a constant temperature year-round, making them pleasant during winter as well. Nearly all the tunnels that people walk through are natural, in that little rock was removed to create the walkway that runs through the attraction. The rooms and passageways were created by rainwater that picks up carbon dioxide as it seeps through the mountain. The carbon dioxide dissolves minerals in the ground, sending them into the caverns, said Dyson, who has picked up a good bit of geology in his many years on the job.
“By the time the rainwater gets to where we are—as it hangs from the ceiling, trickles down the walls, hits the floor—it’s packed full of minerals and it makes little deposits,” he said. It takes years to create cave formations. “The process is really slow,” he said. “It’s estimated that it takes 125 years to build up a cubic inch. You could come here every day of your life and never really see a difference in the size of the formations.”
Walking behind a group of tourists, Dyson walked past cave coral, sponge rock, and ribbon formations with fluted edges called “cave bacon.” “It feels as if you’re on a different planet,” he said. In the John Quincy Gilkey Room, named for the man who opened the caverns to the public, Dyson pointed out a column made by a stalagmite and stalactite fused together after thousands upon thousands of years of accretion. “The easiest way to remember the difference is that stalactites hold ‘tight’ to the ceiling,” he said. The caverns are full of color, from silverly white calcite crystals to bluish-purple smears of zinc cobalt, from the rust-like streaks of iron and to jet-black manganese fields. Pyrite (fool’s gold) and quartz deposits throw off bits of brightness.
There are far larger caverns in the United States, but one of the advantages of Linville Caverns is that they are small enough so that visitors can see the formations really closely, often standing beside them while they snap away with their phones. In the hopes of minimizing the impact on the caverns, guides ask visitors not to touch the walls, except for in one area, where they’re invited to run their fingers over the wet, surprisingly smooth rock.
Dyson walked through a narrow passageway and stood on top of a grate affixed over a sliver of glowing water. That’s the Bottomless Pool, he said, many people’s most vivid memory if only because it’s so mysterious. It really is bottomless, or certainly seems that way. Cave divers have made it down about 40 feet before the crevice got too narrow. A weighted rope descended 250 feet before it hit something and stopped. Nobody knows what’s down there, except for visitors’ keys, cameras, and cell phones, Dyson said.
“We had a lady one time, she had one of those thin wallets that fell out when she was squeezing through here,” he said. Somehow the wallet made it past the bars into the water. “It just kept slowly sinking, sinking, sinking. She had a couple thousand dollars of vacation money in there.” No telling where it is now, he said.
Dyson joined a tour group in the Total Darkness Room, 2,500 feet below the top of Humpback Mountain. “There are only two places in the entire world where you’ll get total darkness naturally,” tour guide Alana Waller told the group. “One place is underground, like we are right now, and the other is in the abyss of the ocean too far down that light cannot penetrate. But I can guarantee you, you won’t get to the abyss for under $10 on a Saturday.” In 1915, two local kids lighting their way with a lantern made it deep into the caverns, she said. One of the boys slipped in the water, plunging them into darkness so complete that they were able to get out, two days later, only by following the frigid water exiting the cave.
Waller, illuminated by a few small floor lights, announced that she was about to demonstrate how dark total darkness could be. She told the group to grab on to someone if they need to and then disappeared around the corner and flipped off the lights. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. In this kind of darkness, you’d go blind in three months, she said. You’d go crazy in two weeks.
Despite the thousands of visitors the caverns attract every year, there’s still some mystery to them. No one is quite sure where the creek comes from that runs through the passageways. Dyson’s not sure that all the rooms have been discovered. Explorers have been to the very back, far beyond the public tour, to where the stream rises from the ground. Behind that opening may be small cavities, big ballrooms, or huge domes of chilled, silent darkness.
That’s just speculation. But who knows, Dyson said. Many of Linville Caverns’ rooms were discovered by spelunkers squeezing past the impossible, into small crevices and water-filled openings. The caverns are alive, in the sense that water is still seeping through their porous walls. “Eventually, this cave will dry out completely,” Dyson said. That might not be for thousands of years. “But when you’re talking about caves, that’s no time at all,” he said.
DIGGING IN, STAYING OUT
On U.S. 221 north of Linville Caverns is Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant, in an old stone building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. At the N.C. 183 junction, the restaurant offers diners a chance to sit in the county of their choice—Avery, Burke, or McDowell. The kitchen (located on the Avery County side) serves straight-up American food—burgers and biscuits, all generously proportioned.
In Spruce Pine there’s Knife & Fork, whose chef Nate Allen was one of 100 nominees for Food & Wine magazine’s “The People’s Best New Chef” competition. The recipient of national press, the restaurant sources nearly all of its ingredients locally and gives comfort food an adventurous spin. Scheduled to open before summer is the craft cocktail-themed Spoon Bar, located next to the restaurant.
If you’d like to make a night of it, The Parkview Lodge is about a mile from Famous Louise’s. Rooms are inexpensive and make an excellent base for exploring other nearby attractions that include Grandfather Mountain, Linville Falls, and the Pisgah National Forest.
The Tuscan-style tasting room of Linville Falls Winery is near the motel on U.S. 221. The winery makes a Syrah, a Chardonnay, and several other wines, as well as cherry bounce, a fortified wine that Martha Washington kept around for husband George.
TIPS FOR NAVIGATING LINVILLE CAVERNS
Tours last about 30-35 minutes.
A jacket or sweater is recommended.
Bring a raincoat after a heavy rain.
Wear shoes with soles that grip.
High heels are not recommended.
Flash photography is permitted.
External light sources are not allowed for videography.
Tripods and monopods are prohibited.
Strollers and child-carrying backpacks are not allowed inside.
Front-facing baby packs are allowed.
Most of the caverns are wheelchair-accessible.
Visitors may carry their pets during the tour.