Recently I set out on a search for interesting (yet inexpensive) daytrips in Ohio. It was then that I discovered one of the state’s little-known underworld gems–the Olentangy Indian Caverns.
Intrigued by both the history and geology of this site, I hit the road on a mild Saturday morning in April, with my 13-year-old son in the passenger seat. A scenic drive along Olentangy River Road just north of Columbus brought us to an inconspicuous pull-out and a small parking lot nestled in the woods.
Greeted by a weathered wooden Indian guarding the door to a rustic-looking gift shop full of t-shirts and geologic trinkets, we paid our reasonably-priced admission and received a cave map from the cheerful attendant. An old-fashioned sluicing machine sat on the path to the cave entrance–which was inside none other than a tiny, ancient-looking brick building at the foot of the hill.
The comforting smell of must and history hit us the moment we opened the screen door. Display cabinets and Native American artifacts lined the walls, respectfully conveying the history of the previous residents of the land. Alone in the small building, we briefly perused the exhibits before turning our attention to a sign indicating the cave entrance lay just behind an indescript door.
Peering down the basement-like staircase, the summer-camp atmosphere of the place instantly gave way to one more foreign and eerie–yet strangely exciting. A steep descent down two flights of narrow stairs surrounded by stone-laden walls–and my son and I were finally standing inside the cavern. The two of us navigated winding pathways shrouded in the coolness and shadows of the underground. As it was early in the season the tour was self-guided and the visitors were sparse, so the silence was broken only by the sound of our breath, our footsteps, and the occasional drip of water.
I breathed in deeply the earthy smell of wet rocks and moss, as we walked the 40-minute length of the trail; stopping periodically at the marked points of historical significance. The Wyandotte Indians used the cavern for shelter and tribal ceremonies. “Leatherlips,” a chief, was said to have been killed at the entrance, and a burial ground is thought to exist deep in an unincorporated area of the cavern.
We roamed the ‘Council Room,’ squeezed through ‘Fat Man’s Misery,’ and marveled at ‘Cathedral Hall’–among others. Though the first white settler known to have discovered the cave was J.W. Adams in 1821, we happened upon a deep carving made in 1884 by an individual named “M. Wells.” From the fossils peeking out of the cavern walls to the dark, towering ceilings–natural wonders surrounded us.
After stopping for a moment to take it all in, we ascended the step flight of stairs and found ourselves back on the surface and inside the tiny brick building. Not ready to leave (and at my son’s request) we visited the gift shop once more to purchase a bag of earth and gems to sluice.
The water poured down the sluice machine over our “loot,” as my son and I spent several minutes delighting in the discovery of one multi-colored stone after another peeking through the gravel. With our new-found treasures in hand, we decided to hop back in the car and explore the rest of the land before heading home. A short drive revealed a tiny mock-up of a frontier village, a replica of an Iroquois longhouse, a miniature golf course, and some picnicking facilities.
That day we left Olentangy Indian Caverns feeling we had experienced an afternoon of mother/son bonding, and a unique and interesting (yet inexpensive) adventure. A few tips for visiting: Wear comfortable shoes and bring a jacket (even in summer), as the cave is a chilly 54 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. While the cave pathways are lighted, it’s helpful to bring a small flashlight to illuminate the dark (and intriguing) corners. Please visit their website at http://www.olentangyindiancaverns.com for current hours, admission fees, contact information, directions, accessibility, and more. Enjoy!