Management Plan for Island Ford Cave Preserve

The entrance of Island Ford Cave as seen looking out from inside. (Photo by Nikki Fox)


The West Virginia Cave Conservancy (WVCC), a non-profit, West Virginia Corporation, received in 2002 a parcel of approximately 5.22 acres that includes the entrance to Island Ford Cave. This parcel is adjacent to U.S. Route 60 and Interstate 64, just east of the town of Covington, in Alleghany County, Virginia.

Access to caves and associated karst features in Alleghany County is potentially threatened by increased recreation usage, liability concerns, and changing demographic and land-use patterns. One of the goals of the WVCC is to maintain open access to Island Ford Cave and to other threatened caves and karst features of the Virginias. Island Ford Cave offers outstanding scientific, educational, and recreational opportunities. WVCC will manage the Island Ford Cave Preserve to maximize these benefits.


Due to its location adjacent to a state road, an Interstate highway and a river, and its impressive entrance, Island Ford Cave has been well known local feature for many years. It is believed that the present entrance was opened as a result of a road cut during the construction of US Route 60 (The Midland Trail) in the 1930s. The cave is mentioned in H. H. Douglas’ Caves of Virginia (Virginia Cave Survey, 1964), and a description and map appeared in Descriptions of Virginia Caves by John R. Holsinger (Bull. 85, Virginia Division of Mineral Resources, 1975).

Holsinger describes Island Ford Cave as follows:
The entrance to Island Ford Cave is a large, impressive opening, 50 feet wide and 15 to 20 feet high. It is on the west flank of a small anticline that is exposed just north of the Jackson River. Just inside of the entrance is a large room, 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, extending to the NNE. Beyond the entrance room the cave gets considerably smaller but continues for 550 feet to the NE as an upper dry level and a lower (partially developed) level with a small stream. The stream enters the cave through a siphon at the rear and flows to the SW to a siphon about 150 feet from the entrance. The stream apparently resurges into the Jackson River at a point lower than entrance. Island Ford Cave contains approximately 1,400 feet of passage and is developed along the strike in Upper Silurian limestone that dips steeply to the NW.

The cave map shown in Holsinger was the result of a survey by D. J. Newson and C. Mullen in January 1968. A much more thorough survey and map were completed in 1986 by Bill Balfour, Phil Lucas, Tom Spina, Charlie Lucas, and Kelli Reardon.

The cave has become a popular destination for organized caving groups as well as amateur spelunkers. Unfortunately, it has also become a favorite spot for beer parties and for illegal dumping of refuse, both of which have led to serious consequences for the cave and its inhabitants.

The property was deeded to the WVCC from the Estate of John R. Dawkins in the year 2002. It and adjacent tracts remain as mature woodland.

A caver next to the sump near the end of Island Ford Cave. (Photo by Nikki Fox)

Cave Resources

Island Ford Cave is listed on the Virginia Significant Cave List for its geology, biology, history, and esthetics.

Island Ford Cave is the most readily accessible non-commercial cave in Virginia. It receives a fair amount of local visitation by flashlight cavers. The cave appears to have escaped the high-traffic of college students and commercial guides because of its geographic location and its deceptive size. However, Island Ford Cave does provide a rewarding in-cave experience to both the novice and experienced caver. A typical visit to the cave lasts between one to two hours. No special gear is required (other than standard horizontal cave equipment).

The large entrance room is impressive, and is favored by pigeons as a roosting area. The rest of the cave’s passages are unremarkable; they afford a moderate physical challenge to human visitors, but present no special danger. At the very end of the cave is a resurgence pool of the cave stream, and this pool contains cave-adapted isopods and crayfish. The cave also has several Pleistocene age bone sites.

Surface Resources

The surface resources of the site are part of the Island Ford Cave ecosystem and should therefore be afforded the same amount of study and protection as the cave itself. At this time, only a cursory investigation of the site has taken place. It is recommended that a more comprehensive investigation be conducted, possibly in partnership with local academic institutions (VPI, Radford, UVA, VMI, etc.).

A mature oak-hickory forest extends across the steep sided terrain of this site. Oak, beech, hickory and poplar dominate the canopy of the forest and are supported by an understory of dogwood, sourwood, redbud, and other species. Mosses, ferns, bloodroot, trillium, cardinal flower, and members of the orchid family can be found sporadically throughout the site. The north side of the property abuts a residential neighborhood.

The upper reaches of this property were probably timbered 40 to 60 years ago and thus the site represents a mature second-growth forest. It is recommended that a volunteer forester cruise the property to identify hazard trees, invasive species, and assess the potential value of specific trees for any future select harvesting of the site.

The site offers abundant opportunities for day use activities, such as: recreational caving, picnicking, birding, fishing (in the nearby Jackson River), and hiking. Appropriate facilities may be developed to support such activities in the future.

The lower level of Island Ford Cave. (Photo by Marian McConnell)

Publicity Policy

WVCC will publicize the Island Ford Cave Preserve only to the extent necessary to accomplish our 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 the cave, WVCC will make every effort to minimize media coverage, especially any location information.


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

The management committee 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.
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.

A group of cavers before entering the cave. (Photo by Marian McConnell)

Access Policy

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

The entrance to Island Ford Cave is situated approximately 50 feet from State Route 1104 (Valley Ridge Road) and is shown on the Covington Topographic Quadrangle (159C), Lat. 37° 46’ 52” N., Long. 79° 55’ 46” W., elev. 1,160 feet.

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, but such organizations are encouraged to coordinate their usage with the Island Ford Management Committee. No release form is required for visitation.

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.


In late 2003, several large rock bollards were placed across the entrance at the drip line in order to prevent vehicular access to the cave, while defining an off-road parking area that will accommodate three vehicles. This restriction has served well as a deterrent to wholesale dumping of refuse in the entrance room, while allowing foot traffic.

The management committee will be responsible for monitoring the following rules controlling use of the preserve:

Preserve Manager

The Property Managers of the Island Ford Cave Preserve are Mystik Miller and Robin Bruns. You may contact them at for questions about the cave or the preserve.

The cave map of Island Ford Cave.

Cavers enjoy Island Ford Cave. (Photo by Marian McConnell)