Finding the Sinks of Gandy is a little like looking for treasure, except no X marks the spot on any map. To find the caves, spend a morning driving on dirt roads through rural West Virginia, topo map in hand. Match the unmarked rolling landscape to the spot on the map where the blue line of the river vanishes inexplicably from the page.
Eventually you’ll triangulate your position, spot just the right big hill and notice an unmarked pullout across the road from a wooden gate. There are no signs, but the top rail of the old gate is worn smooth by other spelunkers. Hop over and follow the faint cow path down the hill and around a bend to where the river suddenly disappears underground into the yawning mouth of Gandy Cave.
Here, instead of going around the big hill, the river has tunneled its way underground for about a mile, exiting again on the other side. This region of West Virginia is underlain by soft limestone deposited long ago in ancient shallow seas. The landscape, known as karst topography, is dominated by caves, caverns and sinkholes where slightly acidic water has eaten its way though the alkaline calcium carbonate rock.
Armed with some sturdy shoes, a blazing-bright flashlight and a steely disposition against dark, damp places, you can walk all the way through the cave under the hill and emerge on the other side.
Even light rainfall can cause the river inside the cave to rise dramatically, so don’t attempt the cave if there’s a chance of rain. As long as the water is calm and the skies are clear, retrace your steps back up the hill and head for the smaller wooden gate on the other side of the road.
Climb over and follow the faint footpath down the steep hill, and up the next slope, towards the pile of deeply pitted limestone boulders on top. Follow the trail down again, towards where the river reappears from an outcrop of trees on your left. Keep an eye out and above the river, you’ll spot a large, triangular shaped opening in the hillside. Congratulations! You’ve found the dry entrance to Gandy Cave.
Before entering the cave, double-check your equipment. You should be wearing sneakers, boots or sturdy water shoes (like Keens). Do not attempt the cave in flip-flops or unsupportive sandals! You should also be wearing synthetic clothing from head to toe. You’ll be wet and muddy for the next hour, and while the cave itself is a constant temperature, the water can be very chilly. Anytime you are wet and cold, cotton is the enemy.
You should have at least 3 sources of light- two headlamps (you’ll need your hands free), a third flashlight or other emergency light source like glow-sticks and extra batteries in a waterproof bag.
The passage into the dry side of the cave is quite large, no crawling or even ducking necessary. The river used to run through here, but it changed course some time ago, leaving this well-carved tunnel. You might spot a couple little brown bats in this section of the cave, but they cling tight to the ceiling and won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. Stay in the middle where the roof is highest and avoid the edges where holes and shallow drop-offs could twist an ankle.
A hundred yards or so in, the walls and ceiling recede and the passage opens up into an amphitheater large enough to swallow the light from your headlamp. This is a good spot to experience total cave darkness. Stop walking, or even sit down, and turn off your light for a moment to experience the spooky visual deprivation of a complete cave blackout.
Turn your light back on and follow the sound of the river to the back of the room; to the right of a pile of good sitting rocks is the passage to the river. Enter the water and turn left, wading against the current upstream (a wrong right turn will quickly take you to an impassable end). Barring recent rainfall, the river is languorous and between knee and thigh deep.
From here you just follow the river through the hillside and back to the original entrance. As long as you stay in the river channel, there’s little to no danger of getting lost. The riverbed is fairly smooth, not especially slippery and free of holes. About an hour after entering the cave, you’ll detect a faint light up ahead, turn a corner and come out at the mouth of the cave.
The Sinks of Gandy are located in Monongahela National Forest, just west of Spruce Knob. From WV 33 follow signs for Spruce Knob past the overlook, campground and lake then keep driving until the forest gives way to rolling, rural farm country. Now, get out your topo map. Those are all the clues you get! Gandy Cave is one of West Virginia’s best-kept secrets and I’ve sworn not to publish its exact location.
Get a good topo map, learn how to use it, and your reward will be an unforgettable, underground, off-the-beaten-path adventure in Wild, Wonderful West Virginia!
Update: Gandy Cave is currently closed to spelunkers until June 12, 2012 in an effort to halt the spread of White Nose Syndrome, the fungal disease that has killed millions of bats on the East Coast. For more info, check out my June 2011 feature story for EARTH magazine on White Nose Syndrome: Mysterious Disease Sounds the Death Knell for Bats.