Approximately one hour east of Asheville on I-40 is the city of Marion. Marion is home to Humpback Mountain, a mountain that lies in both the North Carolina High Country and the Pisgah National Forest. Accessible along Blue Ridge Parkway, Humpback Mountain reaches an elevation of 4,245 feet (1.29 km). While the mountain itself is impressive and beautiful enough for a photo op, it’s what’s going on beneath its surface at Linville Caverns that draws the crowds.
Linville Caverns may have been discovered in the early 1800s, but it has been eons in the making. Slowly, methodically groundwater carved out a fanciful underground labyrinth with rooms that are home to stalactites and stalagmites. If you want to see nature in her rawest form, colors you rarely get to see above ground, an underground stream with blind fish, and a pool of water that appears to be bottomless, this is for you. For just a moment, you can stand in total darkness and watch the cavern put on a magic show.
You may be a little less interest in the Little Brown Bats that hang from the ceiling. They are harmless, but still high on the creep factor.
It is believed that Linville Caverns were unknown to man for centuries. If anyone had run across them, they certainly weren’t talking. As far as anyone can tell, it wasn’t until Henry E. Colton led a fishing expedition to the region in the 1800s that the caverns began to reveal themselves. The fishermen were astounded to see fish swimming in and out of what appeared to be solid rock. Curious, the men followed the path of the fish and once they found a small opening in the mountain, entered into the subterranean space themselves.
Colton, who eventually became state geologist of Tennessee, wrote about the experience in 1858. He talked about seeing wondrous splendors of the hidden world, and of the roof of the cavern being too high to be touched by the glare of their torches. What the men did see were stalactites that hung down so low they could touch them if they wanted. With a poetic flare, Colton described what they found as sublime, and too perfect to be anything made by man.
It would be another 79 years before anyone opened Linville Caverns for public touring. Since that first official public tour in 1937, there have been continual upgrades to the lighting system and pathways, both to enhance safety and to offer a better touring experience.
The day of our tour started out stormy, with a steady rain throughout the morning. By the time we arrived we saw other guests purchasing ponchos and assumed we would need them too. It was a good thing because the caverns dripped continually while we were inside.
Normally, having water drip on our heads during a tour would diminish the experience, but the opposite was true of Linville Caverns. After all, we were there to see what nature could produce and it was a bonus to see how water worked its way down into the cavern, continuing the slow transformation process.
The tour took 30-35 minutes. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and naturally enthusiastic enough about the mountain to get our group interested.
Having explored caverns in other parts of the country, we knew that Linville Caverns are relatively small. Discussing it as we left we decided that it really did not make a difference. We were able to see what we came to see, simply in a more condensed model.
– If you routinely use the GPS on your cell phone, you might want to print off a map to Linville Caverns. Cell service is spotty, at best. It may work for you, but you can’t depend upon it.
– Linville Caverns is partially wheelchair accessible. There is one step at the beginning of the tour with a concrete ramp at a 30 degree slope down to the entrance of the cave.
– If you happen to be on the final tour of the day, consider using the restroom before your tour begins. By the time you’re back above ground, the facility will be closed and locked and there is nowhere else to relieve yourself.
– Make it a point to read cavern rules before entering. Staff is not shy about enforcing them.