Farmington Stories and Tips

Laurel Caverns, an Underground Playground

Travel Photo by IgoUgo member

Tucked away in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania lies the 435-acre Laurel Caverns Geological Park, the largest cave in the state. There are three cave options; family tour, wild caving expeditions, and repelling. My husband and I sign up for the 3-hour guided cave expedition. Jason, our guide, explains the rules and checks to see that each person has at least two working flashlights. After signing release forms, everyone is issued hard hats.

Single file, the group moves down a passage lit with glowing chandeliers. The air begins to feel cooler and the space around us grows darker and smaller. At the end of the stone corridor, we slide one at a time between two flat, horizontal rock slabs, entering the Ball Room on the other side. Hearing echoes of a babbling brook, we find it with our flashlights and follow the stream through the area.

Jason shows us three passages that lead into the next room. He labels them easy, medium, and hard. Everyone chooses a path, and we meet at the next checkpoint, not far away. (I’ll warn you in advance, easy doesn’t mean "easy," it means easiest of the three choices.)

Crouching on a wide rocky ledge at Sleepy Rock, our flashlights scour the damp, dark cavity. The spotlights dance across this cavern stage, creating a spectacular show of boulders, deep crevasses, and shaded layers of red, brown, and grey rock.

Laurel Caverns has been explored since the late 1700s. An a-frame section where hundreds of early visitors scrawled their names on the walls is known as the Post Office. After reading a few names, we cross through it, then follow a narrow passageway on the other side to the bottom of the cave. We have now descended 46 stories down the inside slope of the mountain.

Jason checks his watch and asks where we want to go next. He gives us a few choices, and the Beach wins– a unanimous decision. Resting on boulders along the incline of thick, damp sand, everyone turns out their lights and listens to springs trickling through the darkness. After a short rest, we venture behind the walls of the Beach, then slide down a tunnel of flowstone resembling soft-chocolate ice cream. Passageways packed full of sand look like rock walls but crumble with a little pressure from our hands. This area is still being excavated.

On our way out of the cavern, my husband and I hang at the back of the group. As the others climb upward in the pitch-black, their twinkling lights in a broken "S" chain are all that remain visible to us, still at the bottom. The beginning of the group waits for the rest of us on a rock ledge leading to the next passage. Looking up, the flashlights portray shimmering stars on a clear night.

With over 3.5 miles of passageways, Laurel Caverns is the 16th longest cave in the United States. The 52-degree cavern contains only 30% Loyalhanna limestone. The other 70% is a mix of sand and clay. Most passages and rooms have ceiling heights of 10 to 40 feet.

I highly recommend this thrilling spelunking adventure. It is a bargain at only $19 per person. Teenagers will love it. There are many areas of the cave to explore, so go more than once and do a different section each time. The climb back up is a little strenuous, so being in good physical shape is a must. You’ll work up a sweat, so don’t overdress. Participants must be at least 12 years of age, and ages 12 through 17 must be accompanied by a parent.

Wear long pants, long sleeves, sturdy boots with good tread, and cheap gloves. Take along a water bottle, two flashlights (Size "D" battery or larger) per person, and a small first-aid kit. (TIP: Using a headlamp keeps your hands free for climbing. Inexpensive ones can be bought at Wal-Mart for a few dollars.)

On the family tour ($9.50 adult, $7.50 youth), you observe some pretty interesting phenomenon, such as strands of white fungi that bend in bright light, an optical illusion that defies gravity, and a tunnel of colorful lights that respond to loud noise. The family tour runs an hour in length and departs every 20 minutes.

Although repelling ($35) has been available for youth and scout groups for some time, it is now being offered to everyone 12 years of age and up. You repel three times off a 45-foot cave cliff.

The geological park, located on Route 40 between Uniontown and Farmington (50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh), is open May through October everyday from 9am to 5pm. During mid-March, April, and November, Laurel Caverns is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. The cave closes during the winter months. The cave is within a 3.5-hour drive from many places in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. For more information click on: Laurel Caverns, or call 724/438-3003.

The Laurel Highlands offers a variety of other activities to do during your stay, such as biking trails, whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, golfing, historical sites, amusement parks, and six state parks. The region’s website link is: Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau .

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