It’s not just the danger that makes this place unique. Visit Wind Cave on the hottest summer day, and you will probably still need a coat. While Pennsylvania caves typically range in temperature from 50° to 57°F, Wind Cave registers with refrigerator-like coldness at 38°F. In addition to the cave’s chill, you will also be guaranteed a strong cold breeze at the cave’s mouth. It is this phenomenon that gives Wind Cave its name.
But what truly makes this location unique is its geology. Wind Cave is not a normal cave and is nothing like Crystal Cave, Laurel Cave, or Indian Echo Caverns. For starters, these caves—like most in the United States—are “solutional.” This means they are formed when soluble rocks like limestone are slowly dissolved or eroded by rainwater’s natural acidity. Over time as the water seeps through the ground, it enlarges cracks into caves.
Wind Cave, on the other hand, is a tectonic (also known as a fault) cave. But in this case, tectonic doesn’t mean caused by an earthquake. Tectonic caves are typically created when massive rocks on the sides of ridges or mountains slip due to gravity’s pull and then separate along vertical fractures. That’s exactly how Wind Cave was formed many thousands of years ago as the walls of the Susquehanna Gorge settled. This event formed fissures inside the mountain by splitting apart the walls of three or more systems of nearly vertical joints.
There are no stalactites or stalagmites in Wind Cave. Speleothems like these are formed from dripping water in solutional caves and are typically not present in tectonic caves. Furthermore, due to the lack of flowing water, the walls and ceilings in Wind Cave are rough.
Tectonic caves are usually unremarkable. Many go barely noticed, and even fewer are cataloged. Most are small, ranging from several feet to a few hundred in length. Some tectonic “caves” are not even caves but deep chasms open at the top. But Wind Cave is entirely underground and, in comparison to other tectonic caves, is huge, with almost 2,000 feet of underground passageways and rooms. Sources everywhere agree that Wind Cave is the largest tectonic cave in the state and likely the Eastern United States; however, some believe it is, in fact, the largest in the entire country. After extensive research, I could not find any mention of a larger tectonic cave anywhere in the country.
All these things make Wind Cave a worthy Uncharted Lancaster adventure. Because unlike other caves you can visit, this one is on public land, free to visit, and unguided. Translation: Enter at your own risk because you’re on your own. This explains why five people have needed rescuing over the past 15 years.
Wind Cave is a nearly lifeless cave except for its one resident species, the Neotoma magister or the Allegheny Cave Rat. This type of rat has been known to nest in certain parts of the cave for many years and by some reports since the 1880s.
In 1953, Charles Mohr, President of the National Speleological Society, said, “In Wind Cave, I watched 40 persons file by a ledge where a cave rat sat, seemingly fascinated by the unprecedented parade.” Experts have wondered why Wind Cave has no other fauna. Is it this lack of life due to the formation of the cave or its cold temperatures? We may never know.
While Wind Cave is not technically difficult for spelunkers, it can be slippery, dark, and confusing, with tight spaces and channels that require climbing to access, so don’t go alone. It is advisable that only those with proper experience and/or applicable guides enter Wind Cave. Go prepared with appropriate clothing and safety gear. It is also advisable to notify first responders prior to entering the cave in case of an emergency.
Purchase a beautiful reproduction map from 1875 or 1899 of Martic Township, the site of Wind Cave.
1899 Map of Martic Township, Safe Harbor, and Conestoga Center Poster$29.99 – $34.99
1864 Map of Martic Township, Lancaster County, PA$22.99 – $24.99