Spelunking the Sinks of Gandy

Hopping the Gate to Gandy Cave

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.

Bowie Discovers Gandy Cave

Mego at the Mouth of Gandy

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.

Soft Limestone Boulder

Sinkhole in Karst Country

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.

The Gate to Gandy

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.

Mego at 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.

Mego's Three Flashlights

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.

Inside the Dry Entrance

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.

Underground Gandy River & Cave Mist

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.

Exiting Gandy 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!

Karst Country, 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.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
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12 Responses to Spelunking the Sinks of Gandy

  1. TBM says:

    Love the photos!

  2. Thanks! These photos are oldies but goodies. My friend Meg in the photos just had her 30th birthday and mine is coming up in a few weeks. We’re college kids in these photos! Time flies…

  3. The Rustic Lens says:

    Love these photos! I live on the border of VA and TN, so this terrain looks familiar!

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  5. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I wish to read more things about it! Great post. I was checking constantly this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely helpful info specifically the last part 🙂

  6. Dom says:

    Great post 🙂 I recently went to the Sinks of Gandy with a native of the area. I cannot imagine having to find the entrance on my own!

  7. T Williams says:

    We took a youth group trip here this past weekend. The kids did the Sinks…but I and 5 older boys went into what they called Steele House. To get to the entrance you had to follow the road down the hill past the pull off area. You had to crawl on your hands and knees for several yards and the. You came to a huge cavern. After two hours of searching we found the exit…a 15 ft straight up climb that put you out in the field below the pull off area. Very cool yet challenging cave. I’ve been looking for info on it and have found nothing.

  8. Pingback: Mountain State Monday: Sinks of Gandy | West Virginia travel queen

  9. Sheila says:

    How much of this do you have to wade?

  10. Joe says:

    I put the ladder in Bowden cave 20 years ago

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