Management Plan for Hancock Cave Preserve

A caver stands in a large room of Hancock Cave. (Photo by Diana Gietl)


In late December of 2014 D.L. Roy and Pamela Harrington generously donated a 3.5-acre property to West Virginia Cave Conservancy (WVCC), a non-profit West Virginia corporation, containing the only accessible entrance to Hancock Cave in Smyth County, Virginia.

Hancock Cave is a 2.5-mile long system in Rich Valley at the base of Walker Mountain near Nebo on County Road 622. For years, a series of land speculators had granted and denied cavers access to the property before the Harringtons purchased the property.


The oldest signatures in the cave date back to 1894, and Gregg Clemmer first reported the cave to the Virginia Speleological Survey in 1980. In 1995 the old Hancock property was divided into six parcels, the largest sold to Charles Grantham. The North Carolina-based Triangle Troglodytes Grotto (TriTrog) began surveying the cave in 1996. Mr. Grantham even went along for a cave trip. He was a good steward to the land, spending weekends camping there and spreading wildflowers near the parking area.

After two miles of cave were surveyed, the property was sold to a land speculator who denied cavers access. Efforts to purchase the land from TriTrog members, which included a winning bid at a land auction, were negated twice.

In 2005, Roy and Pamela Harrington purchased the property and contacted TriTrog when Mr. Harrington found an online trip report about Hancock Cave. He had caved in his college days and wanted to share the experience with his grandson. That trip began a strong relationship between the TriTrogs and Mr. Harrington, as he allowed survey to continue, and the map was completed in 2008. Mr. Harrington was an exceptional landowner and under his ownership the TriTrogs completed two major cleanups of a sinkhole on his property and underground cleanups. During this time, a mapped was finished with 2.51 miles of cave.

The Harringtons donated a 3.5-acre parcel of their land in 2014 to the WVCC, convinced that the cavers would make good neighbors.

Cavers remove graffiti in Hancock Cave. (Photo by Ken Walsh)

Cave Resources

Hancock Cave was one of the first caves in Virginia where White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) was detected in the spring of 2009, reported by Ken Walsh and verified by Rick Reynolds of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Bat populations at the site have been severely reduced due to WNS. TriTrog members began regular bat counts a few years after infection.

The following species of bats have been observed in Hancock Cave:
Perimyotis subflavus (Tricolored bat), state endangered, impacted by WNS
Myotis lucifugus (Little Brown Bat), state endangered, impacted by WNS
Eptesicus fuscus (Big Brown Bat)

Other biology has been documented in Hancock Cave:
Banisteria (2013)
Stygobromus mackini – Southwestern Virginia Cave Amphipod
Pseudanophthalmus – cave beetle, determination pending (Ober, 2019)
Litocampa – cave dipluran, determination pending (Ferguson, 2019)
Pseudotremia – cave millipede, female (Shear, 2019)
Zygonopus packardi – Packard’s Cave Millipede (Shear, 2019)
Oxidus gracilis – Greenhouse millipede, invasive (Shear, 2019)

Hancock Cave is 2.5 miles long and is deceptively complicated, having a maze at four different levels with 57 surveyed loops. It runs beneath two mountain spurs in Walker Mountain and is mostly phreatic with some streams dropping from the limestone into the narrow dolomite levels below. The edges are well decorated, but the fun is finding them in this cavers’ cave.

The entrance should be rigged with a cable ladder and/or at least 50 feet of webbing. Any surface rigging should be made to trees or logs below the cave entrance to ensure ready egress from the cave. Return visitors may remember a dry entrance, but exiting can be significantly harder whenever the slope is wet.

The entrance begins down a slope into a high room, and the way out is a short climb up at the far end. After that, a short etrier can be rigged to a corner to make a 7-foot climb down much easier on the way out. At the bottom of the etrier climb, visitors find themselves in the Grantham Room. A crawl way and a chimney lead out of this room to other parts of the cave, but first-time cavers should stick to the easy walkway. It eventually drops down to a 20-foot long crawl, and that opens into the Octopus Room. Groups should get their bearings in the pendant-decorated Octopus Room, or they may wander in and out of this room a lot later. Because the mazes in Hancock Cave yield so many route possibilities.

Please note: it is policy that groups may NOT build cairns or leave directional indicators at intersections (often they will not return along those routes to disassemble the cairns) in this cave.

From the Octopus Room, cavers can make a sharp left southeast toward the second mountain spur. After crossing three deep funnels called the Toilet Bowls, a lucky dry day might reward groups with a low, dry stream bed. The Funnel Tunnel fills snugly mostly with sand; it can be dug out to about 10 inches high at the tightest spot if groups bring a digging tool along. The 70-foot crawl may seem long, but those pursuing it will be rewarded with a meandering horizontal maze, close to a mile long, and pretty formations.

A surface stream bed cuts over the Funnel Tunnel. For safety reasons, no exploration should be done in the back half of the cave on days when rain or snow melt from the top of the mountain could block the exit through the Funnel Tunnel.

From the Octopus Room, groups can also make the first, second, third, or fourth rights up that will lead into the front side of the Anastomoses Maze. The rightmost leads go to an overlook of the Grantham Room, but groups should try to find a downward sloping tube called the Corn Cob Crawl.

More than halfway down the Corn Cob Crawl, cavers can exit and find a nicely decorated echoing hallway, Hickory Dickory Pit, as well as a big room with a quick slide at the bottom (TJ’s Trap), and more decorations. If cavers do a controlled slide into TJ’s Trap, they may follow the stream bed upstream into Harrington Hall. If the group finds the top of a huge breakdown stack among fractured walls, they might do a strenuous climb up loose dirt way up into the decorated High Root or 30 feet carefully down the Breakdown Staircase (route finding is tricky down the staircase). This is easier than climbing back up the Corn Cob Crawl.

From the Octopus Room, groups may also proceed straight two different ways. They’ll join up in Harrington Hall, a room with leads in every direction including the floor. A left from here will lead down In-the-Pendants Hall, a great place to admire the strange shadows. Exploration beyond that leads to several other rooms, and the upstream passage once took cavers out the back entrance to Hancock Cave.

In Harrington Hall, cavers may also climb left into the Vertical Maze. Have fun up here climbing, crawling, and looking down into Harrington Hall. Above all else, expect to find your way back into familiar rooms over and over again.

Surface Resources

Hancock Cave lies beneath two mountain spurs in Walker Mountain, and the passage orientations generally run lateral to the spurs. The only open entrance is located on the WVCC property, and the back entrance (on private land) silted shut more than 35 years ago. A seasonal stream runs just below the cave entrance and often offers a good place to wash up after groups exit the cave.

Please use the established and maintained trail. Do not climb directly up or down the hillside to the cave entrance. Any surface rigging should be made to fallen trees below the cave entrance to ensure ready egress from the cave.

A big passage in Hancock Cave. (Photo by Diana Gietl)

Publicity Policy

WVCC will publicize Hancock Cave only to the extent necessary to accomplish WVCC’s mission goals. Publicity of details and location information will only be available within the established caving community. Publicity available to the general public will be limited to information needed to promote our educational and scientific goals. In the event of a rescue at Hancock Cave, WVCC will make every effort to minimize media coverage, especially any location information.


The Board of Directors has established a property manager to implement and monitor this management plan. The Board will be responsible for any plan changes. The property manager will report to the Board on the status of the preserve, with any recommendations for changes to this plan.

The property manager will be responsible for monitoring the following rules controlling use of the preserve:

1. No camping or fires will be permitted at this time.
2. All trash and human waste must be packed out. Anyone encountering trash is encouraged to carry it out. Please report any recent graffiti to WVCC.
3. ATV’s, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles are not permitted on the preserve.
4. Collection of rocks, flora, fauna, etc. on the surface is prohibited. Any collection underground must be done in accordance with Virginia laws, which require a permit from the state, based in part on permission from the Board. The Board will approve such requests on an individual basis, based on scientific need.
5. No placement of permanent bolts or anchors is allowed. No other defacement of the cave is allowed.
6. Parking is allowed only in designated areas.
7. No hunting will be allowed on the property. No fireworks or firearms will be allowed on the property.
8. No commercial activity, including cave-for-pay, will be allowed on the property.
9. Visitors’ conduct should conform to National Speleological Society conservation guidelines, and to NSS Safety and Techniques Committee recommendations.
10. Visitors are expected to comply with all applicable state and federal laws.
11. No rock cairns or markers may be built or left in the cave.

Cavers and anastomosis in Hancock Cave. (Photo by Diana Gietl)

Access Policy

The Preserve and Hancock Cave shall be maintained in an “open” condition, and access will be freely available to all responsible cavers, regardless of organizational affiliation, and to the public at large.

The single exception to this open access policy is that the WVCC prohibits use of the cave and property for “cave-for-pay” purposes. In this regard, cave-for-pay is defined as a caving experience for which the participants pay a fee, and in which a profit motive is involved. Such organized tour operations place an undue stress on the resource. Occasional field trips conducted by an accredited educational institution or by a civic or community organization wherein fees are used only to offset the actual cost of transportation and equipment are not considered cave-for-pay.

The WVCC reserves the right to deny access to any individual or group who, in its sole estimation, presents an actual or potential threat to the preservation of the resource, and may employ any and all remedies available to landowners with respect to trespass.


The hillside steepness prevents parking directly on the Hancock Cave Property. Cavers are encouraged to park on the side of the road further down the mountain, on the same side as the Cave Preserve. Do not block or park in neighbors’ driveways or block their gates in any fashion. The walk to the cave is roughly 100 yards.

Please use the established trail and do not climb directly up or down the hillside to the cave entrance. Be considerate of the nearby neighbors and their dogs.

The property manager will be responsible for monitoring the following rules controlling use of the preserve:

Property Manager

The Property Manager of Hancock Cave Preserve is Jason Lachniet. You may contact him at for further information about the preserve and directions.

A caver stands in a small stream in Hancock Cave. (Photo by Nikki Fox)

One of the oldest historic signatures in the cave, dating to 1894. (Photo by Ken Walsh)