Adventure in Your Backyard: Butler Cave in Highland County VA

When our family moved to Highland County from Texas, we found the caves to be a fascinating aspect of living up in the mountains. The Butler Cave Conservation Society hosts a variety of events on the Bath/Highland line. Over the years, their cave surveyors have mapped more than 18 miles of passages in the Butler Cave-Sinking Creek System, making it the fifth longest cave in Virginia.

But what is it like to really be IN a cave? Roxy Todd of Virginia Public Radio suited up to give us a glimpse!

Roxy: Bertha Cave is right off the New River Trail, but there’s a locked gate at the entrance to protect people from disturbing bats and salamanders that live here. Winter and early spring are hibernation and mating seasons, so the park waits till late spring to let visitors inside. Tom Malabad works with the Virginia Natural Heritage Program and is one of today’s guides.

Tom: In Virginia we have something in the general neighborhood of about four thousand caves.

Most of these are on private land, and others are inaccessible because they have no natural entrance. Luckily, there are some wild caves that even an inexperienced caver like myself can visit, but helmet, knee pads, and headlights are required. The park provides them to visitors.

We walk through the gate, and hunch down on hands and knees and crawl over craggy rocks to get inside the cavern. One inside, we can stand. Mud coats the floor and water is dripping from stalactites.

In the center of the cave is a rock ledge. The edge of one rock juts out, making a goofy grin. It looks like the earth is sticking its tongue at us.

The tongue is really dripping today. That’s the quote of the day.

Erin Pitts, chief ranger at New River Trail State Park, explains that as water flows down into the cave, it moves limestone down with it, forming all kinds of strange rock shapes, like this one.

And it quite very much looks like a tongue. And the tongue is just gonna keep growing (laughs)

Above us are glowing speckles of what looks like stars. She explains this is actually bacteria that glows in the dark.

Darkness is one of the things that makes caves spooky. So is the stillness. But Pitts says, the feeling of being inside a cave can be a mindful, meditative experience.

Where you’re just listening to the water droplets. It’s a unique experience because oftentimes our lives are chaotic and busy and loud.

It kind of transports you into a space that very few of us have in our regular lives.

Caves are also signals of the health of the environment above ground. The water that flows through caves is part of what we as humans drink, says Malabad. 

And healthy waters in the cave are a good indicator that some of the groundwater is also potentially healthy. And vice-versa, you know, if you see contamination in a cave environment, then that is pretty much going straight into the groundwater.

Pollution can show up in cave systems, often before it’s discovered above ground. Karst ecosystems, like this, are fragile, and can be damaged, explains Malabad. But they can also recover over time.

As he’s talking, Malabad spots a rare cave beetle in the mud. Like many caves, the animals here have rarely been studied by scientists.

Meanwhile, Pitts peers into a mud puddle to see if there’s salamander larvae. 

And they’re very tiny and kind of inconspicuous. So just like Tom right now who’s looking for a cave beetle, that’s probably the size of a top of a pin, you kind of have to crawl around on your hands and knees and get a really up close look.

After about thirty minutes, it’s time to leave. No sightings of salamander babies, but we do see a lot of tiny crustaceans inside puddles.

Then we edge our way back over the slippery mud and rocks, and make our way back out to the cave’s entrance. We emerge into the blinding sunlight. On the boulders overhead, yellow and pink wildflowers are growing, probably soaking up the same water we’d seen dripping inside the cave.

Visit to learn more about the Butler Cave Conservation Society and the programs and activities they have.

Story By


Brit Chambers

Brit Chambers is a resident of Highland County, Virginia and a news reporter for Allegheny Mountain Radio. She loves living in a small town and relishes the outdoor adventures and community feeling that Highland has to offer. Brit has a background in journalism, marketing, and public relations and spends her free time reading good books, baking sourdough bread, and hiking with her family.

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