Helectite 📷 Alan Cressler
Helectite 📷 Alan Cressler

Perkins Cave Nature Preserve


Washington County, Virginia
10+ miles

The Perkins Cave Nature Preserve (PCP) in Washington County, Virginia hosts an extensive 10+ mile horizontal maze cave known for its long crawls and highly diverse, unspoiled speleothems. The cave is formed in a narrow outcropping of Silurian limestone on the flanks of Brumley (Clinch) Mountain and contains at least two relatively small streams that drain toward the North Fork of the Holston River.

Outstanding aesthetic features include the massive white flowstone of the White Room (First Discovery), the floating calcite rafts in Second Discovery, the thousand-foot-long Forest Trail lined with stalagmites and columns, innumerable helictites (from tiny to the unusually large “antlers”), the Coffin Formation, the Ghost Town area, snowballs, extensive areas of gypsum crust, and many other unnamed features.

The gated main entrance to Perkins Cave is in a small sinkhole. Beyond the gate is a complex maze of more than ten miles of passage. Many of these passages are low crawls; some of the notable ones are referred to as the 800 Foot Crawl, the 200 Foot Crawl, and the Torepeter Tube. The lateral extent of the mapped passage is about 2200 feet. The cave has several levels, with the vertical extent being almost 300 feet. Perkins Cave is noted for having extremely numerous helictites, soda straws, and other calcite formations. Development is strongly joint-controlled, with the passages trending along sets of major strike-oriented joints that trend NNE and SSW, with considerable modification by sets of subordinate cross joints. The cave is developed in the Tonoloway Formation which dips at a low angle to the SE (John Holsinger in Descriptions of Virginia Caves). Perkins Cave is managed by the Appalachian Cave Conservancy as part of a balanced cave conservation program to preserve the very significant caves, while providing opportunities to people to experience caving to expand their knowledge and appreciation of the natural phenomena. From a caver's perspective, the cave may be divided into three sections: The Main and historic Section, the DOM Section, and the 800 Foot Crawl and Beyond. The Main and Historic Section has more than three miles of passage and is the area that accounts for most of the caving in Perkins Cave. This area is quite varied, from large breakdown rooms, some that end with muddy crawls among large break down boulders that have never been completely explored, to formation choked passages with millions of helictites and soda straws. The extraordinary features include the thousand feet long Forest Trail to Ghost Town, First and Second Discovery rooms, and the Antlers Passages. This section also has many rooms that in geologic time have had past surface entrances and are in a breakdown phase. This process is especially noticeable in areas around the Poplar Tree (Wilson) entrance and the adjacent sinkhole. One careless moment in one of these rooms may result in rock detaching from the ceiling. The DOM (Dirty Old Men) Section is entered from the Historic section, through the Tight Place. This section has about one mile of passage with a significant number of low crawls. The Atlantis area is one of the most interesting parts of this section. The 800 Foot Crawl and Beyond Section has had relatively little visitation since the original mapping done in the early 1970s. There are several streams, many canyons, and much less secondary deposition compared to the other sections. In order to reach a balance between use and preservation, the Appalachian Cave Conservancy has modified the cave to enable cavers to travel through the Main Section with greater ease and safety. These improvements consist of a ladder at the entrance drop, safety lines at two significant ledges that have vertical exposure, steppingstones to keep the cavers out of pools of water and mud, and a deep channel to keep cavers out of the mud in the Toothpaste Crawl. These improvements, in addition to improving safety, also reduce the mud that clings to cavers and is then redistributed to some of the secondary deposition calcite formations. Nylon cord is also used to mark the boundaries of trails to clearly designate safe walking and crawling areas and reduce unintentional damage to the millions of tiny helictites and other small formations near trails. A side benefit of these improvements is that the time it takes to get to the 800 Foot Crawl has been reduced, allowing the mapping crews to spend more time mapping on each trip into the cave.