If you were asked to name one of Georgia’s most outstanding products of features, what would it be? Peaches? Peanuts? Chicken? The fact that Georgia has some of the most spectacular karst landscapes in the U.S. deserves to be mentioned.
“Karst” is a geological term for areas where the bedrock is limestone, cut and modified by natural waters. This excludes Hall County, where the rock isn’t water soluble. Karst is found in Walker, Dade and surrounding counties.
From what was beachfront property about 300 million years ago near LaFayette (Walker County), a steady accumulation of ocean sediment produced thick layers of limestone. You can see the fossilized remains of sea shells and aquatic plants in the rock.
The effect of millions of years of rainfall and running water is most spectacular near Chickamauga. Creeks emerge from bare cliffs, flow in small valleys for a while and then disappear into a hole in the ground. Natural wells supply clean, good-tasting water.
Pigeon Mountain, the ridge separating LaFayette from Chickamauga, is crisscrossed by an internal network of caves. There are no tourist venues of the type you see in Virginia, with caves suitable for visitors wearing shorts, T-shirts and sandals.
The Georgia caves are of a more serious nature, requiring proper footwear, helmets, lights and more. Booking a tour with an experienced guide is a must. Professional outfits like G3 Adventures are insured, trained in emergency procedures and registered with the National Speleological Society, as well as other conservancy-themed organizations.
That’s important not only for the safety of the visitors but for the protection of the caves also. Too many times in caves outside of Georgia, I’ve seen evidence of heavy partying. Nobody bothered taking their trash back out, and soot from campfires in caves will stay on the walls for centuries.
This is also a reason why you don’t see billboards along the interstate, advertising Georgia cave tours. Places like Pettyjohn’s Cave and Byers Cave are spectacular. Ellison’s Cave, suitable only for experienced spelunkers and climbers, is 12 miles long. Its two vertical pits (586 and 440 feet) rank as the deepest in the continental U.S.
Even if walking around several miles inside a mountain isn’t your thing, the karst landscape of northwestern Georgia is fascinating. Forest trails, rock outcrops and mysterious sinkholes make it fascinating to tour this ancient marine environment.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays.