CINCINNATI - Sections of a cave system that haven't been open before to the public will be available for tours in a couple of weeks, just in time for the summer.
Visitors to Ohio Caverns in West Liberty still will be able to take the tour that has been offered since 1925 at the caverns known for their array of colors and abundant stalactites and stalagmites. But beginning Memorial Day weekend, they also can choose a tour providing more historical information about the cave and a shorter one with access for the disabled - rare in caves due to the often rough terrain. The sections formerly closed off by debris and mud will make the existing tour and the historical one each about a mile long, increasing the amount of surveyed passageways to 3 1-2 miles.
Workers started clearing the thick clay-like mud in the formerly closed sections in 2007.
"You could crawl through the areas, but you couldn't walk in them," Ohio Caverns owner Eric Evans said.
The caverns running underneath a 35-acre park in Logan and Champaign counties were formed thousands of years ago when an underground river cut through limestone, forming large rooms and passageways. Mineral deposits created highly decorative cave walls stained with red, orange, blue, purple and yellow in addition to the traditional brown, black and white.
The caverns, about 45 miles northwest of Columbus, were discovered in 1897 by a farm hand when a 30-foot deep sinkhole opened up after heavy rain, Evans said. Visitors were drawn to the thousands of stalactites, stalagmites and other formations and took lantern-lit, self-guided tours in the early 20th century.
The 45-minute formal tour offered for nearly 90 years takes visitors past formations such as the Crystal King, a 400-pound white stalactite nearly five feet long and more than 200,000 years old, and the Palace, featuring translucent crystals. Other rare formations such as helictites, which resemble straws, hang from the ceiling in unusual twisted shapes. Rare dual formations feature reddish iron oxide on top of pure white calcium carbonate, with the colors never blending.
The new sections don't have as many formations, but offer additional color and another entrance so visitors don't have to backtrack to exit.
The caverns are open all year and typically draw about 60,000 visitors annually, said Evans, who hopes the additions will boost attendance by another 20,000, at least the first year.
That estimate is not unrealistic, according to Steve Thompson a member of the board of directors for the National Caves Association.
"Opening a new tour can increase attendance by as much as 40 percent," said Thompson, the manager of Bridal Cave in Camdenton, Mo.
Nicole Cotterman, executive director of the Logan County Convention and Tourist Bureau in Bellefontaine, said area officials also are optimistic that the additions will increase regional tourism already helped by the caverns.
About 50 percent of Ohio Caverns visitors are Ohioans, with the rest coming from other states and countries, Evans said.