Bear Cave Management Plan • Cave Closed between October 15 and April 15!
Enacted May 1, 2002 (Revised January 10, 2004, February 16, 2019)
NOTE: Bear Cave is Now Closed October 15 – April 15
Special Note: Bear Cave Closed was in 2009 due to White Nose Syndrome. While it has been reopened, please contact the owners prior to your trip to ensure that the cave is open. Strict decontamination protocols should be followed.
Bear Cave is a network maze cave located in Derry Township, Westmoreland County. At 8,500+ feet of mapped passage it is currently the fourth longest mapped cave in Pennsylvania. Accounts of the cave date back to 1839. The cave has appeared in hundreds of newspaper articles from that time to the present. Visitors have traveled by foot, horseback, canal boat, train and automobile to the Village of Hillside to visit the cave. A logbook started by the previous owner, Albert Smith, shows several thousand visitors per year. These visitors are members of summer camp groups, organized caving clubs or grottos, scout troops and individuals with an interest in nature. Visitors are primarily from Allegheny, Cambria, Somerset and Westmoreland counties in Pennsylvania, with out-of-state visitors coming primarily from Ohio. However, the cave has had visitors from as far away as Texas and Colorado, and even from France.
Surface land surveys as early as the mid-1800s indicated the bounds of the network maze cave were known to be within a few hundred feet of its five entrances. When the 400-acre tract containing the cave was subdivided in the 1860s, the known bounds of the cave were placed within one five-acre parcel. Bear Cave has always been privately owned. Tom and Kim Metzgar purchased Bear Cave in May of 2001 from the estate of Albert Smith, Kim’s grandfather. The purchase included 153 other acres of land in two separate parcels, in addition to the 5-acre Bear Cave tract. The Metzgars have been caring for the tract for more than 20 years, cleaning litter from the cave, and cleaning up up spray paint damage from the entrance and inside the cave. They have maintained the property lines around the cave and posted it as “no trespassing or hunting,” but caving “by permission only.” This management plan will spell out details of ownership and management in order to protect and preserve this natural resource, while allowing visitation from properly-equipped groups and individuals.
The Bear Cave and surrounding area has had not just one or two fascinating owners, but a clutch of charismatic characters ranging from a pre-Civil War free black landowner, George Butler; a Declaration of Independence signer, James Wilson; an ironmaster, militia colonel, and state legislator, Jacob D. Mathiot; a shopkeeper, postmaster, and canal weighmaster, George Mulholland; an attorney, Richard D. McCabe; an Allegheny County surveyor and land developer, E. H. Heastings; and a boy’s school principal, J.B.D. Meeds.
The purchase on May 6, 1832, by George Mulholland Jr. and Jacob D. Mathiot marked the first time the property was owned by someone actually living in the area. It was during the 1830s that the first written accounts of Bear Cave began appearing in local newspapers. Mathiot built and owned one of the earliest iron furnaces in the county, Ross Furnace, on Tubmill Creek in Fairfield Township. Mulholland was Blairsville’s postmaster and a canal warehouse and store owner. Attorney Richard D. McCabe later gained a third share of the property from Mullholland and Mathiot, both of whom required considerable assistance to manage their extensive holdings. As McCabe’s bill for his legal services mounted, his stake in Mathiot’s and Mulholland’s property increased to a one-third share, since he apparently elected to be paid in land and not cash. Nothing found in the papers of any of these men indicate their awareness of the cave.
One man did know the cave, explored it, and, actually owned it and the land just upstream from it — and at the same time Mathiot, Mulholland and McCabe did. George Butler, a pre-Civil War free black man, came into possession of 248 acres of the John Hannum/Bear Cave parcel via settlers’ rights, and lived in a place not far from the cave. He’s even mentioned in an article appearing Sept. 21, 1842, in the Pittsburgh Christian Advocate, by Hiram Gilmore. The group of six in Gilmore’s party used a map drawn by a Greensburg group three years earlier, Gilmore noting that his group “carried a diagram with us … (and was) guided by a mulatto living nearby….’’ Butler and his wife, Mary remain enigmatic characters about whom little was recorded. They settled near the cave in the fall of 1834 and were listed in the tax rolls, where it was noted they had moved to Derry Township from nearby Unity. No record is found of the Butlers once they sold the parcel. They appear to have been the only black family in the area.
George Butler established settler’s rights while living on the land, so when E.H. Heastings, a land developer and one-time Allegheny County surveyor, purchased the property from Mulholland, Mathiot and McCabe, he also had to buy Butler’s deed. Heastings owned the parcel for 10 years, from 1843 to 1853, attempting to develop two tracts totaling 800 acres and sell off lots to wealthy Pittsburgh residents. Though Allegheny County’s surveyor at the time, Heastings’ subdivisions conflicted with some of the adjoining parcels, creating a tangle of lines and titles not yet settled 150 years later.
James B.D. Meeds, principal of a boys’ school in Pittsburgh, purchased the lot containing Bear Cave. In 1866, he divided off about five acres overlying the cave, then sold off 100 acres surrounding this small cave tract to Ernest Mershalt, or Mersolt, another popular variation of his surname. The five acre tract overlying the cave, along with other nearby Meeds parcels remained in the Meeds family until Westmoreland County claimed them from the estate of James’ son, Harrison, for unpaid real estate taxes from 1939 to 1950.
In 1965, Albert Smith, who had lived in the area since 1919, obtained a deed to the five acre parcel overlying the Bear Cave via quiet title from the Westmoreland County Commissioners, and a subsequent deed from the Meeds heirs in 1972. Smith visited the cave after his family moved to the area, and spent much of his free time exploring, writing about, and studying the ridge and Bear Cave. Albert Smith owned the five acre Bear Cave parcel until his death in 1992. His widow Marion and son entered into an agreement of sale for the cave with Smith’s granddaughter, Kim Opatka-Metzgar and her husband Tom, which was subsequently carried out in May of 2001.
The Great Bear Cave needs no introduction even to the beginning Western Pennsylvania caver. This Westmoreland County natural wonder is an extremely popular recreation spot. At one time, before adjoining property containing the also popular Con Cave was closed, register sheets reveal that Bear and Con caves received as many as 5,000 visitors annually. The area remains relatively undisturbed, and no fancy color brochures stick out of wall pockets at turnpike stops trying to entice tourists to the cave. Bear Cave, typical of wild caves, is advertised primarily by word of mouth. It is the only non-commercialized cave located on some Pennsylvania road maps.
Until recently, most highway maps were published by gasoline companies and given away to their customers for free. Points of interest, along with the company’s gas stations, were printed prominently on the maps, boosting tourism as well as gas sales. These gasoline company highway maps are now collectors’ items. The official Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Highway maps no longer show the cave. Nearly all of the cave descriptions in the modern caving literature may be classified in the Automobile Era.
Perhaps the most widely-read Bear Cave material is Vic Schmidt’s description (with fold-out map) published in William B. White’s 1976 Caves of Western Pennsylvania. The earliest published description is from a Greensburg newspaper, The Pennsylvania Argus of Friday, October 4, 1839. A lengthy description appeared along with a 9-3/4 by 4-3/16 inch map showing about 2250 feet of passageways and some internal details, such as the stream .owing through the cave and some large rocks in the Sand Room or Dunn’s Room. The early cartographer, Frederick J. Cope, was a Greensburg newspaper publisher and printer who later became a wealthy livestock breeder. Cope wrote a number of agricultural articles and was obviously well-read. Cope was part of a Greensburg-based cultural organization called the Westmoreland Lyceum, which conducted the first documented amateur scientific study in the cave in 1839. Lyceum membership was drawn principally from the upper economic and social classes of white males of English, German, and Scots-Irish descent.
Bear Cave trip reports do not mention females until a generation later, after the war between the states. Lower economic and social class cavers probably did not write accounts of their trips into the cave, although almost certainly lumbermen, hunters, and curious local residents visited Bear Cave prior to 1839. The Westmoreland Lyceum attempted an objective and scientific description of the cave written by Norman McLeod, a Reformed Presbyterian minister, and president of the Lyceum’s Philosophical Committee. Numerous other articles appear after 1839. Tom and Kim Metzgar will include them in a complete Bear Cave history book.
The earliest map which locates the Bear Cave entrance dates from 1857. The Map of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, was produced by D.J. Lake and N.S. Ames, and published by William J. Barker in Hector, N.Y. Shortly after the Civil War, S.N. and D.G. Beers produced their Atlas of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, published in 1867. Dozens of topographic, geologic, and road maps have shown the cave since that time. Many early cave visitors took souvenirs in the form of formations and carved their names near the entrance and at some points in the cave. While modern-day cavers cringe at this type of vandalism, this occurred long before conservation ethics envisioned what would happen if every visitor defaced the object of his interest over a period of many decades.
The cave’s entrances are in the updip end of the Loyalhanna Limestone in Bear Cave Hollow, at 1750 feet elevation. Two entrances carry the surface stream underground and through the cave system, emerging in the next hollow to the north, Shirey Run Hollow. The main stream picks up several small tributaries throughout the cave system. Most tributaries enter through cracks and crevices in the joint-controlled passageways. The cave offers several types of passages, including walking passage, crawlways and those which can be reached by chimneying. While the entrance section may make the cave seem “easy” for beginners, cavers must be familiar with navigation techniques in the network maze passageways (which DO NOT include marking on the walls), wear proper footwear, and carry enough light sources to safely explore this feature.
The currently-known extent of Bear Cave is about 650 feet north of the entrance. The lowest point in the cave is 72 feet below datum, i.e., the starting point at the beginning of the cave survey (at the entrance to the Appian Way).
No other Pennsylvania cave has had more attempts at charting its passages than Bear Cave. They include the 1839 Cope map, a 1934 effort by a trio from Blairsville and Greensburg, a 1936 map prepared by a party of Pittsburghers, the well-known 1960 Pittsburgh Grotto map (which has three different versions) and the 1993 map by York and Loyalhanna grottos. In 1960 cartographer Vic Schmidt of Pittsburgh Grotto reported the cave length at 3,700 feet. The 1993 map length totals more than twice that distance. Bear Cave’s 8,500 feet places it as Pennsylvania’s fourth-longest mapped cave. The 1960 surveyors calculated that the cave ended about 650 feet north of the entrance. The 1993 survey confirmed that linear distance between the entrance and the cave’s end. The 1960 map accurately shows Bear Cave’s passageways in relationship to each other.
However, the standards of cave cartography in the 1950s and 1960s did not require the passage detail expected of modern cave maps. Most mid-century cave mappers did not take instrument readings into or measure dead-end side passages — these were customarily just sketched. The 1993 map is available to members of the National Speleological Society who purchase Mid-Appalachian Region Bulletin 20, Caves of Westmoreland County, Pa. A color version of this map is planned for the Bear Cave history book. This map is © copyright by the cartographer J.R. Reich, Jr., and by law cannot be reproduced or distributed in any published or electronic format without written consent of the copyright holder. It is permissible for cavers to make one copy of the map for personal use in the cave, so as not to ruin the copy which came from MAR 20.
Bear Cave is formed in the Loyalhanna Limestone of Mississippian Age, which is about 300 million years old. The limestone in the vicinity of the cave is about 65 feet thick. Loyalhanna Limestone might be called a limey sandstone, or a sandy limestone, depending upon where it is sampled. Typically, it consists of about 50 percent silicates in the form of sand grains, cemented by calcite. The rock is highly cross-bedded, and weathers to form the anticline’s distinctive ridges of finer-grained, darker material. Chestnut Ridge coincides with a prominent anticline. Its crest is eroded down into strata much older than those exposed in the flanking synclines. The ridge rises about 1500 feet above the lowlands, with Bear Cave’s entrance lying slightly less than halfway up the ridge. Exposed on the flanks and top of Chestnut Ridge, the Loyalhanna Limestone dips underneath the overlying strata so that it is not found near the surface at the foot of the ridge.
Though western Pennsylvania is not characterized by karst topography, Bear Cave offers an excellent example of the sometimes-complex surface and subsurface drainage patterns on Chestnut Ridge. Water collected in the hollow upstream from the cave flows on the surface, then plunges into the entrances. There, it zigzags through joints in the limestone along the dip and the strike, to a point 650 feet from the entrances, where it continues through tight crevices underneath a spur. It resurges in Shirey Run about 3000 feet to the north and 350 feet lower in elevation from the Bear Cave entrances.
The cave is a network maze in which the insurging surface stream has removed the primary fill which occurs in zones along joints in the limestone. This primary fill consists of sand grains and clay. The sand is no longer cemented together due to the removal of the calcite bonding by percolating water. Even where flowing water has not removed the primary fill, humans can excavate it to create passageways which soon become indistinguishable from those formed naturally. Future studies are needed to fully understand the relationships between the cavernous Loyalhanna Limestone and the underlying Burgoon Sandstone, which, like the Loyalhanna, contains many springs where it is exposed on the Chestnut Ridge.
Michael Guzo, while an undergraduate student at St. Francis College, Loretto, undertook a water quality assessment and stream tracing project as part of a senior internship with Loyalhanna Grotto. The project had two goals: first, to sample water quality of the suspected resurgence of the Bear Cave stream, and more importantly, to determine the actual resurgence of the stream. This was found to be in Shirey Run, the next hollow to the north of the cave. The location of the stream resurgence had been the subject of speculation since the 1800s, with early newspaper reports noting the water came out in the Conemaugh River. The surface and subsurface streams of Bear Cave Hollow and Shirey Run are in the process of being elevated to exceptional value streams, and are also part of the Blairsville and Torrance public water supplies. Visitors should be aware of the pristine condition of these streams and act accordingly so as not to degrade water quality.
Because of its extensive size, wide variety of passageways, and the streams flowing into and through it, Bear Cave offers the most diverse biological habitat of any known Westmoreland County cave. Surprisingly, a literature search turned up no formal biological studies. Fauna include planaria, isopods (sow bugs), oligochaetes (earthworms), decapods (crayfish), and arachnids (spiders). Of the insect orders, Collembela (springtails), Ortophtera (cave and camel crickets), Coleoptera (beetles), Diptera (flies) and Lepidoptera (moths) are most common. Amphibians observed include Eurycea bislineata (northern two-lined salamanders), Eurycea longicauda (longtailed salamanders), Plethodon glutinosus (slimy salamanders), Desmongnathus fuscus (northern dusky salamanders), Desmongnathus monticola (Appalachian seal salamanders), and Rana palustris (pickeral frogs). Woodrats and several species of mice thrive near the entrances. While not known as a major bat hibernaculum, species observed include Eptesicus fuscus, big brown bat; Pipistrellus subflavus, eastern pipistrelle; Myotis lucifugus, little brown bat.
With its prominent entrances and long history of human exploration, Bear Cave certainly offers an excellent opportunity for scientific investigations into its past. During the 1990s mapping efforts, Tom Metzgar observed an opossum jawbone, probably of recent age, in the main stream only about 150 feet from the entrance. While searching for insects, he also noted numerous teeth of assorted sizes and levels of abrasion scattered in all portions of the stream gravel. He did not attempt to collect any of them, preferring to leave them for future experts to identify. The owners encourage further study of the paleontology, but ask to be notified in writing with requests for study. Absolutely no digging in the cave of any kind can be done without the consent of the owners and without the proper permits.
The owners encourage research to explore the preserve’s historical, biological, geological, hydrological, paleontological and archaeological potential. Researchers who desire access to the cave should submit a brief, written synopsis of their project along with their qualifications to the owners for consideration. Researchers are required to submit a preliminary report documenting project progress no later than 30 days after the project has been completed, and a final report within one year. A schedule of reports for longer-term projects can be established if necessary. The owners reserve the right to comment upon published papers which might reveal sensitive information, and specifically prohibit publishing reports on the internet without their approval.
The owners seek to publicize caves only for education of the public about caves and karst resources; for published scientific studies in cave-related publications, and, depending on the sensitivity of the material, on the world wide web. Specific cave location information should not be released on the internet or to the general public, or published in any written form without written permission of the owners. Trips should not be advertised in the newspaper, on the radio or on the internet or in any way where the information is generally available to the public. Trips can be advertised in local caving club newsletters or newsletters of similar organizations which meet access requirements. In publicity concerning the cave it is okay to note its county and proximity to other geographic features, such as it “is on private property within the Forbes State Forest in Derry Township.”
In the event of a search or rescue at the cave the owners wish to minimize publicity of the location, while providing the media with necessary information on the incident. The management plan will be available for publication in these mediums and can be published on the world wide web (with contact information), provided no sensitive material is released in this manner.
Pennsylvania Cave Protection Act
Pennsylvania Cave Protection Act (1990), No 1990 -133, SB 867, Signed into law Nov. 21, 1990, prohibits removal of any type of material or species and organisms from a cave: remove, deface, tamper with or otherwise disturb any natural or cultural resources or material found within any cave; kill, injure, disturb or otherwise interfere with any cave life, including any cave roosting bat, or interfere with or obstruct the free movement of any cave life into or out of any cave, or enter any cave with the intention of killing, injuring, disturbing or interfering with life forms therein, except where public health may be threatened and willfully or knowingly break, break off, crack, carve upon, write, bum, mark upon, remove or in any manner destroy, disturb, mar or harm surfaces of any cave or any natural material which may be found therein, whether attached or broken, including speleothems, speleogens and sedimentary deposits.
For the complete text of federal and state cave laws, refer to this link: https://karst.org/index.php?section=108.
Surface management applies to all of the 158 acres owned by the Metzgars.
- The cave (and property) is open from dawn to dusk between April 15 to October 15 with advance permission.
- Visitors MUST be out of the parking area by dusk.
- Camping in or around the cave entrance or on any of the Metzgar property is prohibited. There are no exceptions.
- Collection of firewood and campfires are prohibited.
- There are no sanitary facilities on the property.
- All trash and waste from both the surface and underground must be packed out.
- There is one designated parking area. Vehicle parking shall be in the Bear Cave parking lot and visitors must sign in. Please use only this area. If a visitor does not use this area or sign in, and they have an equipment malfunction or an injury, there will be no way of knowing they are on the property.
- ATVs, dirt bikes and snowmobiles are not permitted on the property.
- It is highly suggested that visitors stay on the path from the parking area to the cave entrance in order to minimize long-term impact. The upper third of the trail to the cave will be relocated, in conjunction with the Forbes State Forest.
- Property lines are blazed and marked, and private and public lands will be noted on a trail map, once one is developed. Visitors should be cognizant of this.
- Additionally, because some of the property lines are cleared, there is potential for some hiking trails along these boundaries.
- Part of the Cal Smith property adjoins the Blairsville Reservoir. This is a public water supply which is fenced in. Trail development will NOT go past the reservoir and visitors will be asked to follow marked trails and avoid going on unmarked roads and paths.
- Collection of flora and fauna, rocks, minerals, fossils and soils is prohibited.
- The owners will entertain requests for scientific purposes only and must be present when any collection is made.
- Illegal drugs, drug paraphernalia, alcohol and alcoholic beverage containers are not allowed on the property.
- No hunting, trapping or firearms on the property.
- Please keep noise to a minimum and be discreet in changing clothes.
- Visitors should not dam the stream at the cave’s entrance or cut down live trees.
This policy has been developed in response to previous abuses of the cave and surrounding area.
- Bear Cave is open only to people who receive permission from the owners, park in the designated area, sign in, hike to the cave on foot along designated trails, and use the proper gear.
- Each person should have a minimum of three sources of light, a cave pack with extra batteries and bulbs, gloves, helmet, lug-soled boots and warm clothing.
- At least two of the light sources must be helmet-mounted.
- Note that due to various fungus and mold colonies established by people not wearing gloves, the glove requirement is now mandatory.
- There is absolutely NO COMMERCIAL ACTIVITY permitted.
- Organized groups MUST fill out a trip request and have a written permit from the owners.
- Only approved groups are permitted to lead trips into the cave, and each member of the group must have the equipment stated above.
- Trip leaders should be familiar with Caving Basics, the book published by the National Speleological Society (NSS).
- Organized groups should also provide a certificate of insurance with their trip request form and a copy of their non-profit letter of determination from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
- Caving clubs which are affiliated with the National Speleological Society (NSS) DO NOT have to fill out the group permit application, but should notify the owners by e-mail or telephone of their planned trip date.
- All Scout troops MUST send in a copy of their tour permit, as required by the Scout caving policy developed in conjunction with the National Speleological Society. This is in addition to the Bear Cave group tour permit application. Groups or Scout troops found to be on the property without proper permission will be given one warning. If these groups do not then comply with the owner’s management plan, or if a group is found to be charging a fee to visit the property, the owners will prosecute for trespass.
- If a visitor to the cave knows of someone charging a fee to “guide” people to the cave, that person can report the “guide” to the owners at 724-325-2985 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Group size is now limited to 12 in one group per trip. Splitting a church or camp group of 24 into two “groups” of 12 does not count.
- If you pack it in, pack it out.
- The cave is not a restroom. Do not use it as one. In recent times, people have been using “personal wipes” prior to going into the cave. Personal wipes should be placed in a baggie, put back in the pack and removed by the person using them. They are not biodegradable.
- The property is open from dawn to dusk. The owners patrol it regularly. Violators will be considered trespassers and prosecuted as such.
- Anyone marking the cave or removing anything but litter and their own possessions from the cave will be subject to prosecution.
- Bats hibernate from October 15 to April 15 (approximate dates). The cave is now closed to all groups during this time period, as is the Bear Cave parking lot.
- Visitors should follow the credo of the National Speleological Society: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.” Group/Scout Permits Organized groups wishing to visit the cave are asked to submit a permit application at least three weeks before trip dates. There will be NO FEE charged for permits. The permit will be good for the date inscribed on it. The permit must be displayed on the dashboard of the vehicle while in the parking area.
- The owners may undertake spot inspections of groups visiting the cave to make sure they are properly equipped and that each member of the group has a functioning light source.
This policy will be posted at the Bear Cave parking lot and made available by e-mail and posted on the internet. Persons reading this policy and leading trips to Bear Cave should understand that exploring underground holes, caves, crevices and passageways can be inherently dangerous and those persons assume all risks, known and unknown, which may arise from such exploration. Any and all losses, claims or liabilities which visitors or their heirs may have for any and all losses and damage which may occur to visitors or their property while engaged in such exploration are hereby waived and the owners are released and held harmless from such claims or liabilities.
The MAKC promotes a policy of non-discrimination for everyone. That policy, adopted by the MAKC Board on February 16, 2019, is as follows:
The MAKC does not and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities or operations. These activities include, but are not limited to, granting membership, selection of project volunteers and serving on internal committees. We are committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all board of directors, officers, agents, members, volunteers, and contributors.
The MAKC follows the National Speleological Society’s anti-harassment policy. That policy is as follows:
The National Speleological Society and the MAKC are dedicated to providing a safe and harassment-free (experience) environment for our members and attendees at our events, on social media and within our organization. We will not tolerate harassment in any form. Any attendee that violates this policy will be (told) asked to leave the event and may be subject to further disciplinary action at the discretion of the MAKC Board.
Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate comments, inappropriate sexual behavior that warrants intervention, unwanted advances and touching, invasion of personal space in a sexual manner, deliberate intimidation, and unwelcomed sexual advances. In addition, harassment includes unwanted verbal, physical, cyber, or social aggressive behavior. The action of our members and guests will be closely monitored and if an incident of harassment is reported the event staff, volunteers, or MAKC representatives will (may) take corrective action against any offenders at the time of the incident, ranging from verbal warnings to expulsion from the area and/or event and a referral of the offender to the MAKC Board for consideration of expulsion from the MAKC.
If you are being harassed or witness another person being harassed, please contact a security staff member immediately. We will be happy to assist you and provide protection for our members and attendees. We value all of our members and attendees that come to caving events and want to ensure that your safety and well-being is a top priority.