WEST LIBERTY - Three choices of cavern tours, including the new Limestone Tour, make Ohio Caverns a year-round destination for more than 50,000 people each year.
The caverns near West Liberty offer a refreshing coolness during summer weather.
"It's a nice place to cool off on a hot day or warm up on a cold winter day," said manager Rick
Metzger. "With the warmer weather, we've seen an increase. I won't say it's picked up a lot, but some."
No matter which tour is chosen, visitors can expect a constant temperature of 54 degrees year-round. The humidity level is always more than 90 percent, and the air inside the caverns is cleaner than the air above ground because it's filtered by water that formed the caves and still drips today.
Ohio Caverns is the largest in the state, with more than 2 miles of surveyed passageways ranging in depth from 30 feet to the deepest point of 103 feet.
Personnel track the number of visitors daily, which total 50,000-60,000 per year.
"About a third to half is locals or people from Ohio, and the rest are people from all over the United States and all over the world," Metzger said. "We've had people from Alaska and Hawaii and most other states."
But visitors also come from countries such as Canada, Romania, Russia, England, Germany, India, China and Japan, he said.
"We get a lot of visitors from everywhere," he said. "Some are looking for something different to do, but a lot of them are just big lovers of caves and caverns."
Tours can accommodate all ages and ability levels.
"Grandparents who brought their kids are now bringing their grandkids," Metzger said. "We have lots of daycare groups in the summer and school trips in the fall and spring."
The new Limestone Tour provides a wheelchair-accessible tour of a quarter-mile, which takes about 25 minutes to complete. Reservations are required.
"It's brand new this year," Metzger said. "It's just a small section of the caverns and part of the Natural Wonder Tour."
The accessible tour starts at a different entrance and takes advantage of the area that's wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs.
"We decided we wanted to have something handicapped friendly," he said. "We've had quite a few visitors that have taken the new Limestone Tour since it opened Memorial Day weekend - at least 30-50."
The Limestone Tour is part of the mile-long Natural Wonder
Tour which requires about 50 minutes. Visitors walk along a level concrete path for safety and convenience.
"The Natural Wonder tour is most popular because it shows you the crystals that are growing, and it's a good one for kids as an introduction to caves and caverns," Metzger said.
A third option is the History Tour, which takes place in the original portion of the caverns discovered in the 1800s and was viewed by visitors from 1897 to 1925. It was re-opened for tours in celebration of 100 years since the caverns' discovery.
The historical tour begins aboard a shuttle bus to the original entrance. Guests enter at the site of discovery and tour a three-quarter mile walk for about 45 minutes.
After a tour, Metzger said visitors may picnic or otherwise enjoy a 35-acre park on the ground above the caverns.
"We have a lot of family reunions, and even a few weddings now and then," Metzger said.
The coloring found within the caverns is of particular interest.
"It's the pure whiteness of our formations and just the colors you're going to see in the caverns," he said.
Ohio Caverns is known as the largest of caves in Ohio, featuring crystal-white stalactite and stalagmite formations. Many formations are still in process of development.
Concealed beneath the rolling farmland and wooded countryside of Champaign County, the caverns were formed thousands of years ago when an underground river cut through ancient limestone and created vast rooms and passageways that later filled with countless crystal stalactites, stalagmites and other formations.
The exact age of the caverns is unknown, but the Columbus gray limestone from which the caverns are carved is about 400 million years old, formed from the compacted remains of creatures that lived in the shallow seas that covered prehistoric Ohio. The oldest crystal - estimated by current cave environmental conditions - is 250,000 years old.
It takes 500 to 1,000 years for a cubic inch of calcite crystal to be formed into a crystal, and 95 percent of the cavern's formations are still active and growing. The largest and most famous formation in Ohio Caverns is the Crystal King, a pure white, almost perfectly formed stalactite. It's nearly 5 feet long, weighs about 400 pounds and is estimated to be more than 200,000 years old. It drips once every seven to eight minutes.
In addition to a variety of colors, from blue and orange to bright white and deep, reddish-black, the caverns contain rock formations, ranging from wavy ribbons of luminous white stone to upside-down forests of tiny straws that twist, turn and curl upon themselves.
In addition, there are "dual formations," or combinations of iron-oxide and calcium crystals that
are rare and not seen in many caves.
Some areas of note are Fantasyland, a large, open chamber with stalactites and stalagmites; and Palace of the Gods and the Big Room, which comprise a half-acre, open chamber packed with an array of crystal formations.