Are you afraid of the dark?
Twenty-five hundred feet below the pinnacle of Linville’s Humpback Mountain, North Carolina’s only “show caverns” lie waiting for you to take a plunge into total darkness.
Two places exist in the entire world where people can experience total darkness — at the bottom of the ocean in a deep abyss and inside a fathomless cavern, such as Linville Caverns.
Almost one century ago, two 17-year-old boys found out about total darkness the hard way. While fishing in a nearby stream, the boys spotted the entrance to the cave that had been discovered a century earlier. Fascinated and without permission, the boys ventured deep within the mountain, aided by only one oil lamp. They waded through the cave’s 42-degree streambed, enduring the cavern’s 52-degree air, watching their lamp’s light bounce off the stalagmites and stalactites, seeing what few had seen. Six hundred feet into the cave, their adventure reached new depths — a trip and fall by one of the boys cracked their only light. Total darkness took hold.
According to Linville Caverns tour guides, humans go completely blind from total darkness in three to six months — they go crazy in a few weeks, and imaginary voices become present in just a few minutes.
The boys were lucky; they had each other to talk to. But they had no light — an experience you can’t really imagine until a tour guide turns off the lights deep within Linville Caverns.
The boys realized that they had fought the stream’s current while delving into the cave, so they began using their fingers to feel the water and retrace their path. It took two days in total darkness and surviving many cuts and abrasions to make it out alive, but they did, and their story was immortalized in Linville Presbyterian Gazette.
For centuries, the beauty and intrigue that lies deep inside Humpback Mountain was unknown to most people. In 1822, the mysterious appearance of trout swimming in and out of the crack in the rocks that is now the entrance led fisherman to explore the passageways within. What they found was a total of 1,300 feet of subterranean environment, containing millions of years of geological activity.
Today, the more than 100,000 annual visitors to the caverns explore 600-feet of the cave. The deepest 700 feet is too dangerous for human traffic, but contains a rock baring the signature of William Hidden, an explorer sent by Thomas Edison in the late 1800s to search for minerals necessary for the creation of the light bulb.
Today’s cave explorers are led in small, 15-person groups along a level concrete path assisted by one of the caverns’ knowledgeable tour guides for a 30-minute expedition deep within the earth. A small stream — the same that led the boys out almost a century earlier — hugs the corner of the path and is filled with rainbow and brook trout, which are blind because of their environment, swimming along the way. The path is wide and flat enough for wheelchairs, creating a unique adventure for those physically handicapped.
In the jam-packed half-hour, visitors see hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites — “Remember stalactites hang tight to the ceiling, and stalagmites might reach the ceiling,” offered a tour guide — a bottomless crystal-blue pool that reaches more than 250 feet below the cave; rock formations that look like bowling pins, a wedding party, a polar bear and a mother-in-law; and a sandbar that once was home to Civil War deserters.
On the sandbar, which is no more than five-feet-by-four-feet, Union and Confederate soldiers escaped the horrors of battle in the 1860s, building a continuous fire to cook, for light and to stay warm. Old tools and a cobbler’s bench were found at the site, leading locals to believe that the soldiers made or repaired shoes in exchange for food and supplies from local farmers. Toward the end of the war, search parties spotted the soldiers’ smoke from their fire, and the hideout was busted and the soldiers arrested.
This story, the tale of the boys losing light in the cave and an experiment in total darkness where tour guides shut down all lights and let visitors see for themselves — or rather not see — what total darkness is all about, are all part of the tour that boasts 40 percent repeat business. People from all over the world come to Linville Caverns — they realize that a trip to the mountains isn’t complete without a trip inside a mountain.
Linville Caverns is located at 19929 U.S. 221 between Linville and Marion, four miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors (age 62 and older), $6 for children (ages 5 to 12) and free for children younger than 5, with adult supervision; group rates available. Linville Caverns is open year-round. For more information, call (828) 756-4171 or (800) 419-0540, or click to www.linvillecaverns.com.