Bowden Cave System

Randolph County, West Virginia

Ray Garton and Dan Nigh

Karst Kaver 5(1) 

January-March 1971



       History. The Bowden Cave System is located 10 miles east of Elkins on US Rt. 33. The entrance is beside the road and in an old abandoned quarry. The main entrance and parts of the Front Section of the cave are owned by John Knutti. The remaining six entrances and portions of the cave are on Monongahela National Forest lands.

       According to the owner, the original cave entrance was at river level (Shavers Fork) but collapsed and was filled in when US Rt. 33 was built in the early 50's. The original entrance was a dry stoopway and a large stream resurged just below the entrance. At present the resurgence is much where it always was and water merely flows out from the rock fill. There was a short down slope just inside the entrance, and then the passage leveled out and continued as a walkway. According to Mr. Knutti, the passage was pretty large with a couple of rooms along it. One room he said was almost a perfect square about 50 feet on a side. This was also the best decorated section of the known cave. This little known section came into the now-called Big Room at the downstream end. Best reports indicate that this section is now in a state of further collapse and flooding. A short swim is required now to get to this section and it takes very little rainfall to flood the passage. The owner tells of a time when he ventured to the old section and found a single rock weighing about 20 pounds holding up the road. At one time the owner had planned to commercialize the front sections, and thus dug many trenches, built stone walls, and a bridge to make the entrance easier.

       Systematic exploration did not begin until the early 60's and then no map was made. Sometime during 1967 the Monongahela Grotto became interested an made a sketch map of the first 2000 feet of cave. Then during the first three months of 1968, D.D. Williamson and party mapped over 5000 feet in the back section of the cave. Later the same year members of the D.C. Grotto mapped the section the Monongahela Grotto had sketched earlier. There was then over a mile of mapped cave, much more than described by W.E. Davies a decade earlier. The monongahela Grotto again picked up the work in mid-1968 and has been at it ever since, mapping and re-mapping to an extent of over 22,000 feet with better than 10,000 feet of that being virgin.


       Geology The Bowden Cave System is developed pretty much through the extent of the Greenbrier Limestone in the Gaspar and Bethel portions of the Union series. The cave also lies near the base of the North Potomac (Georges Creek) Syncline. The vertical extent of the cave is 170 feet. The dip of the limestone is 10 degrees to the east and the strike is to the north. The cave trends north and many complex passage systems are developed in the rear portions of the cave. The rear parts of the cave, being near the top of the limestone, are filled with many shaley impurity layers possibly giving rise to the development of several entrances so close together. It is interesting that even though there are five entrances within a 100 yard radius, the interconnecting passages are developed in a complex manner. Thus one must travel many times the distance underground from entrance to entrance as compared to only a couple hundred feet on the surface. This complex maze of passages has made mapping and plotting difficult. Subsequently, maps of these sections are hard to interpret.

       The number of domes and domepits are nothing less than astonishing. They range from 6 to 50 feet high with proportions to match. Some are cut through many impurity layers, for example the Shower Room is 50 feet high and 15 feet in diameter; every few inches is a layer of soft brittle shaley limestone. There are at least 20 domes in the M.G. Section, and most display smooth walls 50% of their height. These smooth walled domes make an ideal place to study cross bedding, and many interesting patterns may be seen. The domes of the Windy and Bear Heaven Sections by and large have passages at the top of them and they too display impurity layers.

       As can be seen from the map, the entire northern and western parts of the cave are complex mazes with few repeating patterns of joint control. The eastern portion is pretty much straight and uniform, which is probably due to it being down dip.

      There are not extensive vertical pits in the cave. The largest would be the 50 foot drop from the top of the Cathedral room in Bear Heaven. There are however several lesser pits between 15 and 20 feet which require rigging of ladders or scaling poles.

      A number of faults can be seen in the quarry face as well as in the cave, but there is no evidence that faulting has taken place since the cave's development.

       Fossils in the cave are few and far between. The only obvious ones are crinoid stems.


       Hydrology The true hydrology of the cave has never been established due largely to lack of time and complexity of the system. The main source of water seems to be the left hand fork of Bickle Run which is a stream of 1000-1500 gallons per minute. The stream sinks just above and often into the Bickle Run Entrance, the northern most entrance. The stream again sinks in Bear Heaven and is not seen until it bubbles up in a deep pool some 1000 feet away in the back section. From here it ceases tricks and flows out of the cave at river level. Attempts have been made to dye trace the stream, but all have failed thus far.

      The water levels in Bickle Run Cave vary quite a bit and not necessarily with rainfall. This may be due to the clogging of passages by debris but it seems more likely that the northern sections of the cave are undergoing drastic and rapid hydrological change.

       There are a number of tributaries to the main stream and two seemingly independent streams. To discuss the independent streams first, they are relatively small, only a few tens of gallons per minute, and sometimes dry. The most unusual one is in the 69 Cave Entrance. When it 's running low it flows southwest to an unknown section of the cave. When it is running a little high it flows in the usual southwest direction, but also a branch flows east into Bear Heaven. The other stream is at a point in the back section called the T, and it flows southwest and thus should intersect with the main stream, but as far as is known this is not the case. It is doubtful if the meanderings of these streams will ever be known because the passages in which they flow are too small to be traversed. There are no less than five other tributaries to the main stream. The main one is nearly as large as the main stream flowing into the Bickle Run Entrance. The right hand fork of Bickle Run flows over a waterfall and sinks into Bowden at the Second Entrance. No passage is traversable at this point and the water makes its way down through a hundred feet of rocks and fine breakdown. By the time it reaches the main stream it has branched several times and flows out into the cave passage at several points along a high fissure just beyond the junction of the Second Entrance passage and Battery Room.

       Perhaps the tributary of greatest interest is the stream falling from the top of the Cathedral Room in Bear Heaven. Evidence indicates this stream to be slightly higher in elevation than where Bickle Run sinks on the surface. It is 50 feet to the top of the room, and attempts to reach it have failed so no one knows where the stream might lead. From below the passage looks to be 10 feet wide and 4 feet high. The stream covers the entire width of the passage but is shallow, perhaps less than an inch in most places. During dynamiting operations to connect Bear Heaven to Bowden, it was noted that the smoke was sucked up this passage, so it must go somewhere. The only evidence of the origin of the stream is a fairly large stream sinking in the next hollow up from Bear Heaven. This stream is nearly 200 feet higher than Bear Heaven and some 1500 feet away. However, an entrance needs to be dug and thus no one attempted to seek a connection. Only one dye test was attempted and it failed.

       A stream of about 30-50 gallons per minute flows out of the Agony from the M.G. Section. The stream branches 200 feet along the Agony and the western branch is low and accounts for only 1/5 of the total stream. It probably originates from a dome. The northwest branch which leads to the M.G. Section flows where it can be seen, almost the entire length of the trunk passage in the M.G. Section. A couple of small domes feed along the way but the bulk of the water collects from a dome which can be seen but is too small to be entered.

       A small stream, inches wide and deep, flows through the Windy Section and its origin is unknown but is expected to originate from a dripping dome

       In conclusion, three of the tributaries are fed by domes because they do not rise rapidly when it rains and this is due to the time required for water to filter down from the surface of the dome. The two larger streams are fed by direct surface streams and they rise and muddy rapidly with rain. It is interesting to note that all of the water which flows into and through the system originates somehow or other from other resurgences further up Bickle Hollow.


       Biology and Paleontology Few systemic biological studies have been undertaken in the Bowden Cave System. The first was probably done by a group of students from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1967, but as far as is known none of their work has ever been published. At the same time the D.C. Grotto was mapping, they did some bat banding.

       The most significant discovery was made by the Monongahela Grotto. On January 16, 1971, a mastodon tooth was found in the M.G. Section of the cave. It was positively identified by Dr. John E. Guilday, Associate Curator of Vertebrate Fossils at the Carnegie Museum. The tooth is 3x3 inches and about two inches thick. About six inches of the length had been broken off when it was found. In appearance the tooth is characterized by a white bone structure on the underside (root side) and a white and brown enamel 0.25inch thick. A few deposits of dripstone are on the tooth. The tooth was found unburied and lying on a rock in a small breakdown pile. Apparently it had been washed or had filtered in via a fissure leading to the surface. Knowing the age of the tooth to be 10,000 to 15,000 years it is most likely it filtered in via the fissure since it has probably been much longer than 15,000 years since a stream flowed in that part of the cave. Along with the tooth an odd shaped object was found which looked like a bone, but was discarded until a later date.

       On March 6, 1971, another trip was made to where the tooth was found. In a passage some 200 feet from the position of the tooth, two bones were uncovered; each measuring 11 inches long. They were both very brittle and looked of similar age as the tooth. One fragment was broken as if it was uncovered and the other showed a definite curvature such as a section of a large rib. These bones along with the object thought to be a bone found near the tooth were brought from the cave. It was impossible to get the bones out of this section of the cave intact. Only the odd shaped structure found earlier came out in one piece. All of the specimens were sent to Dr. Guilday for identification.

       Two species of bats have been observed: the little brown bat and a larger brown bat. No colonial bats have been observed and hibernation habitats within the cave seem to change from time to time. Once hibernating bats were observed hanging from one another in a column 8 bats long. Only one bat was attached to the wall. From observation of hibernating groups it is doubtful if the bat population is much over 1000. Another interesting feature of the cave is a white cotton like fungus which grows on the old wooden planks and bridge in the cave's big room. Sometimes the fungus has an orangey color. Also in connection with the fungus are mushrooms with long slender stems and heads 0.5 inch in diameter.

       A number of varieties of cave crickets have been observed along with worms, centipedes and millipedes, also crayfish and minnows (probably washed in) but none have been identified.

       All of the entrances with the exception of the main entrance have great numbers of large black hairy spiders living within a short distance of the entrance. Webs are also numerous and laden with moisture. The 69 Cave Hillside Entrance is particularly populated with spiders.

       Rats are common to all entrances but are seldom seen. Most live relatively near the entrances, but some may be found 500 feet beyond the main entrance and have often been observed while camping near the register.


       Speleothems. Speleothems are few and far between and note will only be made of the particular area of the cave in which they are found. Rimstone dams may be found at the downstream end of the big room. By following the stream upstream, a number of oddly shaped stalagmites and stalactites may be seen. There are no speleothemsin the Back Section of the cave to speak of and none of the other entrances has much to offer.

       The M.G. Section has a number of speleothems. Formation Corner is filled with very old stalactites, stalagmites and columns ranging from a foot to six feet high (Note: See a photo of Formation Corner here). Most are covered with a later growth of cave coral and are muddy brown in color. Although hard to find, the Formation Room of the MG Section is worth a look. It is a small room 20x15 but filled with all types of speleothems. Many delicate soda straws and stalactites with soda straws for a base and greatly enlarged ends may be seen. There is a nicely shaped six foot column and a few scattered helictites. A walking passage leading grom the room is lined with coral and small white stagmites. There are a number of other isolated speleothems in the M.G. Section. Most of them are near the High Room.

       Although the cave is lacking in speleothems, it is not lacking in a variety of other features. Domes and domepits are of particular interest. The M.G. Section has the most to offer in this respect. The Hall of High Domes is a room of five interconnecting domes 30-50feet high. The dripping water has carved out razor sharp spines in some of the breakdown blocks. There is a crawlway passage near the tip of the highest dome and the view from above is breathtaking. Mary Ellen's and Zipper's Domes are ideally shaped twin domes 45 feet high and still slightly active. There are dozens of other domes in the M.G. Section and many have smooth walls and cross-bedding is clearly visible. The Shower Room in the Front Section and the Cathedral Room in Bear Heaven are spectacular and quite active. They are 40 and 50 feet high and the Cathedral Room is 25 feet in diameter. In wet weather the waterfall is breathtaking.

       Another interesting feature of the cave is its pendants. One trangular shaped pendant 3 feet long hangs in a fissure 1000 feet into the cave. Midway through the Back Section is the Pendant Room--100 feet long, 50 feet wide and 20 feet high. Huge and irregularly shaped pendants perhaps weighing a ton hang from the ceiling. There are many lesser pendants along the passage leading north out of the room. The Pendant Maze in the M.G. Section is a maze of passages about 400 feet in extent. The passages are actually formed by pendants hanging to the floor. Passages are mainly stoop and crawlways.

       One hundred feet beyond the Cathedral Room in Bear Heaven is a natural bridge spanning the passage. The bridge is six feet wide and six feet high.


       General Description The main entrance to Bowden is 20 feet wide and 15 feet highbut is reduced to a crawl within 50 feet. The crawl is 15-20 feet wide and a trench has been cut through the fill to make entry easier. One hundred feet inside the entrance is a low narrow crawl trending west for an unknown distance behind the quarry face. Just before this crawl are remnants of a gate and 50 feet beyond is the Big Room--250 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 7-15 feet high. The room is free of breakdown and the main stream flows along the east wall and under US Rt. 33 and into Shavers Fork.

       Halfway along the west side of the room is a crawl nest to the ceiling in a pile of rocks, the Cat Crawl, less than 2 feet high and 3 feet wide, leads 65 feet to a small room. Just before the room is a small hole leading to the Agony, 400 feet of mostly belly crawl to the M.G. Section. A stream flows through the crawl and need only be entered the last 75 feet to the M.G. Section. At the end of the crawl is a low mud bank leading to the Ecstasy and register. A low broad crawl leads south from the room and a wide walkway-stoopway leads north 200 feet along the stream to the First Big Room. The room is filled with large breakdown blocks and is 100 feet long, 30 feet wide and 6-40 feet high. The height of the room cuts through three levels. At the level which the room is entered a wide walkway trends north for 400 feet to the Second Big Room. Entry to the middle level may be gained here.

       Infinity Crawl starts at the south end of the First Big Room on the middle level. The crawl has been pushed 635 feet to where a rock blocks the passage some 50 feet in back of the quarry. At several points along the crawl there are openings leading perhaps to lower levels. From the north side of the First Big Room the middle level trends north for 100 feet to a shallow pit. At the base of the pit is the lower level. Across the pit the middle level continues as a walkway-stoopway for 200 feet to a once large dome. It was perhaps 60 feet high and 30 feet in diameter at one time. Just before the pit described earlier is reached, a sloping walkway trends west to the upper level. Fifty feet along the passage is a low crawl trending west then north then west again to the section where the mastodon tooth and bones were found. Most of the passages in this section are crawl and stoopways. Many leads remain to be checked.

       The High Room is the first noteworthy point encountered in the upper level. There are a few scattered speleothems in and about the room. The passage on the east wall of the room leads back down to the Infinity Crawl and a small dome room. Two passages trend west from the room. The one farthest north, Bickel Hollow Crawlway, goes west 200 feet passing through many smooth walled domes. At this point things become a little mazey and passages become smaller. The main trend switches to south then east and 200 feet of alternating crawl and walkway leads to the top of the highest dome in the Hall of the High Domes. The Hall of the High Domes is entered via the other passage in the High Room. Along the passage leading to the top of the dome is a stoopway trending southwest to Mary Ellen's Dome. A crawl trends south then southwest from the dome to the Formation Room and Mystery Domepit--a yet undescended and unclimbed domepit with passages at the base and top.

      Beginning at the Second Big Room and moving into the middle level Formation Corner is encountered, then the Pendent Maze and Zipper's Dome, which is only a few feet from the large breakdown filled dome described earlier. There are still virgin sections of the MG Section waiting to be discovered. The M.G. Section has something to offer every caver.

       Back in the main section of Bowden the main stream passage trends north 700 feet from the Big Room where it intersects the main trunk channel coming from the Big Room. The stream passage is a walk and stoopway while the trunk channel is 20 feet wide and 15 feet high. At the point where the two passages join, the trend of the cave changes to west  for 500 feet (remaining a large walkway) to the Breakdown Room. Just as the room is entered a passage five feet off the floor leads to the Shower Room. Halfway through the Breakdown Room a low narrow crawl leads to the Water Course. Two Hundred feet before the Breakdown Room the main stream issues from a fissure 7 feet high and three feet wide. The fissure passage is called the Water Course and averages that size for 400 feet, then opens up into the much larger Back Section.

       At the end of the Water Course is a small room filled with breakdown. The way through the breakdown is well-marked by vandals. The passage through the breakdown is small, but within  100 feet it opens up into a large stoopway. Four hund4red feet beyond the room this passage is a large walkway and a path across as breakdown covered room leads west and into an upper level. On this level is a nicely decorated room with one passage leading south and back into the main passage.

       Just beyond the Formation Room is the Pendant Room--100 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 20 feet high. The room has very large pendants hanging from the ceiling. One large crawl leads west then north from the room. The crawl may be traversed for 400 feet to where it intersects with the main passage coming from the Pendant Room. Halfway along the crawl is another small crawl trending west and leading to the A-maze-ing Section. This section is an alternation of stoop and crawlways arranged in a joint controlled maze. Over 1200 feet have been explored and mapped and still leads remain to be checked. The main passage coming from the Pendant Room is 20 feet wide and 15 feet high for 300 feet where it enters the second largest room in the cave. The room is 200 feet long, 50 feet wide and 15-30 feet high. The main stream flows through the middle of the room and sinks at the south end. There is a rock in the stream resembling an overturned boat; the rib work even seems to be visible. There are several side leads near the room; one called the "T" is 150 feet before the room It goes for several hundred feet and pinches out near an unexplored stream. Most of the other side leads near the room are short interconnecting crawls.

       The main passage beyond the room  becomes a little smaller and confined to the stream passage. Three hundred feet beyond the room is a small room called the Battery Room. This is where the Second Entrance intersects the main cave passage. The Second Entrance is 3000 feet up Bickle Hollow and one hundred yards up the right hand fork of Bickle Run. The entrance is a crawl in a large sink.. A large stream insurges at the base of the sink. Just inside the entrance is a six foot drop then a 22 foot deep fissure. A passage runs across the top of the fissure for 50 feet to a small room. A 15 foot drop in this room leads to another small room and dome. There is another short drop in this room. At the base of this drop a recently fallen rock blocks the passage, , however the rock could be removed if a rope were tied to it and two or three men pulled from above. Beyond the rock is another drop and at the base is a small crawl leading to the Battery Room. The total depth of the entrance is 100 feet.

       Continuing upstream from the Battery Room the main passage is a high fissure for 100 feet and a crawl in some places. Apparently, this fissure is part of the Second Entrance and the stream that sinks on the surface flows out into the main passage at several points along the fissure. Beyond the fissure is a low wide stream passage and a 10x10 foot walkway for 100 feet to the start of the Back Section maze. The maze begins at a large room and the main stream passage is off to the east side of the room. Perhaps a dozen passages lead out of the room in all directions. Most are walkway but are reduced to crawls within 200 feet.

       So as not to become lost on the way to the Windy Section it is best to follow the main stream passage. It is 10-16 feet wide and 3-10 feet high and trends north for about 300 feet. Several crawlways intersect the passage but are only parts of the maze. The stream then makes a sharp turn to the west and cannot be followed, but a broad crawl trends northeast for 100 feet. At this point the crawl branches. The branch to the west continues with much the same for 200 feet to a small room with the main stream bubbling up out of the floor. Beyond the room is more maze. The other branch of the crawl trends north and is under a low ledge, if a low ledge can be imagined in a low crawl. The crawl is inches high and 15 feet wide for 100 feet then becomes a little higher and turns to the northwest for 200 feet where a wide but low room is encountered. Three passages lead from this room, one to the south is wide and lower than the previous. If it were pushed far it would intersect the maze. A low narrow crawl leads west from the room and it too intersects the maze. The passage to the north is four feet high and six feet wide for 100 feet to where it becomes lower and branches at STA 16. The west branch leads to the Third Entrance.

       The Third Entrance is located 3300 feet up Bickle Run and is an obscure hole just below the road. Just inside the entrance is a six foot drop, and a walkway leads 75 feet to a canyon. 50 feet long. The drops may be bypassed by a step-across along the edge of the drops. After stepping across, an 8 foot drop and a stoopway at the base run for 50 feet along the top of the canyon to another drop. At this drop is another step-across which leads to a low broad crawl. The crawl trends west for 75 feet to a football shaped room 50 feet long, 20 feet wide and 8-15 feet high. The drop at the step-across is climbable and a narrow fissure leads from the base of the drop to a room 50 feet wide and 10 feet wide, followed by a room of similar size. A low broad crawl trends south from the second room 100 feet to STA 16.

       The other passage at STA 16 is a low wide crawl trending northeast for 200 feet, then northwest for 100 feet where it branches. The branch to the north leads to a small circular room. Halfway up the wall is the Chocolate Crawl and 100 feet beyond the Mystery Dome. There is a scaling pole at the dome and the passage at the top goes 50 feet to a dead end. The other branch continues as a crawl for 100 feet to a fissure with a dome at the top. A small crawl leads out of the top of the 8 foot high dome for 30 feet to where one half stick of dynamite  was used to pulverize a rock blocking the passage connecting Bear Heaven to Bowden.

       Bear Heaven is located 3500 feet up the left fork of Bickle Run and 100 yards south of a small waterfall. The entrance is on the east bank and is a 10 foot wide four foot high opening into a large room. Two large high walkway passages parallel each other for 100 yards then turn toward each other and connect. Along the south wall of the entrance room is a shallow pit just below a small dome. At the base of the pit is a very low crawl trending west for 30 feet to a 15 foot deep 9 inch wide fissure. At the base (known as Paul's Section) is a small low room with two passages trending southwest. The one nearest the base of the fissure goes 75 feet and is reduced to a pinch in a breakdown pile. A room can be seen and a large waterfall can be heard through a crack 3 inches high and 12 inches long. The other crawl is a foot high and several wide. Thirty feet along the crawl a fissure in the floor 2 feet deep, 4 feet long and 5-7 inches wide leads to 69 Cave.

       69 Cave is located 150 feet west of Bear Heaven and on the other side of Bickel Run. There are two entrances. A collapsed pit leads 50 feet to a narrow fissure 12 feet deep. At the base is a crawl for 20 feet where the passage branches. The branch to the south leads 15 feet to the base of a canyon. The top of the canyon may be reached via the Hillside Entrance only 20 feet away from the Pit Entrance. The other branch twists and turns for 30 feet to a shallow pit. A small crawl at the top of the pit leads 10 feet to a small room. A passage trends north and up a steep breakdown slope for 20 feet then continues 50 feet ending in a small unstable room. Another passage trends east from the room for 30 feet as a crawl where the fissure leading to Paul's Section and Bear Heaven is encountered.

       A shallow pit in the breakdown along the north wall of the entrance room of Bear Heaven leads to a stream passage trending east for 75 feet where it intersects the main north passage coming from the entrance room and west for 50 feet to a large waterfall. The falls has a total drop of 43 feet and a low stream crawl leads to the room seen through the pinch in Paul's Section. To the north a short crawl leads to a fissure in the floor trending northwest to Bickle Run Entrance.

       The Bickle Run Entrance is located 200 feet north of Bear Heaven and on the west bank of Bickle Run. The entrance is a triangular pit 7 feet deep. There is a large walkway at the base for 20 feet to a 22 foot deep, 35 foot high domepit. A stream normally flows over the pit. At the base is a walkway fissure trending east for 50 feet where it is reduced to a very narrow fissure crawl going on to Bear Haven.

       The North passage from the entrance room of Bear Heaven slopes steeply down over breakdown for 75 feet where it levels out. A hole in the ceiling leads to the Cathedral Room, 50 feet high and 25 feet in diameter. A large passage can be seen at the top but has not been reached. The passage from the room is 30 feet high and 6-15 feet wide. Seventy five feet from the room is a nicely shaped natural bridge spanning the passage. Just beyond the bridge the passage turns is a hole in the ceiling leading to the Gofours Nightmare. From here a narrow stoopway leads southeast 75 feet to a 17 foot pit. The room at the base is 25 feet high, 10 feet wide and 50 feet long. A low crawl leads out of the room for 20 feet where the one half stick of dynamite was used to make the connection to Bowden.


  This photo was taken at the Bear Heaven Entrance of Bowden about 30 years after this article was written. From left to right: Bob Griffith, Doug McCarty, Jason Thomas, Rich Finley, John Barth 

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