Ohio Caverns: See crystal stalactites and stalagmites year round, no matter the weather

See crystal stalactites and stalagmites year round, no matter the weather


This year we took our son, Max, to a cave for his sixth birthday. Not because he’d been naughty, but because he likes to explore. And, it was raining.

Weather is irrelevant in a cave, where it’s always a reasonable 54 degrees and relatively dry no matter the outside conditions. So we set out for Ohio Caverns, an hour northwest of Columbus near West Liberty. Ohio Caverns is the largest of all the cave systems in Ohio, with 2 miles of surveyed passageways ranging from 30-feet to 103-feet deep. And, it’s open year round.

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These caverns are part of a 35-acre park in Champaign County and a member of the National Caving Association. I’m not sure what that means, but they’re a popular tourist destination that’s been operated by the same family for four generations, since opening as a tourist attraction in 1897.

Ohio Caverns offers several tour options focusing on the geology and history of the area. We took one called the “Natural Wonder Tour” that took us on an hourlong journey through sections of the cave that have white crystal formations.

We learned that the caverns were formed thousands of years ago when an underground river cut through ancient limestone and created vast rooms and passageways that later filled with beautiful crystal stalactites (which go downward) and stalagmites (which go upward).

We also learned not to touch the walls, as our group walked single file through the passageways. Most of the stalactite and stalagmite formations are still active. It can take 500 years for a cubic inch of calcite crystal to form. Touching them can stop the process, as we were warned (maybe a little too often).

Touching them also can discolor the crystals, as we discovered in an area called the Big Room, which has hundreds of formations. One crystal used to be called the “Good Luck Crystal.” As people passed, they’d touch it, leaving behind an ugly brown stain that’s still visible today. In 1926, a no-touching rule was established in the caverns, and the crystal was renamed the “Dirty Crystal.”

We also entered an area called Fantasy Land, where there are bunches of soda straws and helictites, including the Old Town Pump, which resembles a hand pump.

The best part of the tour, though, was seeing the Crystal King. Appearing like a giant, sparkling carrot, it’s the largest free-hanging stalactite in Ohio, measuring 4 feet, 10.5 inches long. It’s estimated to weigh more than 400 pounds and could be more than 200,000 years old.

The tour ends in the Jewel Room, which contains lots of colored crystals, from blue to orange to white to reddish black, making this area great for photos – so great in fact that a camera is set up to take your portrait.

The grand finale of every tour, we learned, is the playing of the song “Beautiful Ohio,” which has been entertaining guests since 1928.

Also on site is a shelter house with picnic tables, and a gift shop full of rocks, fossils and bags of rocks for mining in a sluice.

Daily tours are offered 9 a.m.-5 p.m., May through September, and 10 a.m.-4 p.m., October through April. The caves are closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Natural Wonder Tour costs $17 for adults and $9 for children ages 5-12. There is no charge for children ages 4 and younger.

Ohio Caverns is located at 2210 E. State Route 245, West Liberty, Ohio. For more information, call 937-465-4017 or visit www.ohiocaverns.com.

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COSI Planetarium

Indoor stargazing dome amazes youngsters


The Center of Science and Industry in downtown Columbus closed its planetarium in 2004 during a financial crunch. But after raising $1.1 million to revamp the stargazing auditorium, it’s back this year and as our young kids can attest, it’s pretty cool.

“It’s like 3D without glasses,” says 7-year-old Rosie.

With a 60-foot-diameter dome and seating for 200, it’s the largest planetarium in Ohio. High-definition projectors give visitors a glimpse of the universe, as points of light become the moon, planets, stars and galaxies.

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The planetarium is located on the second floor of the 320,000 square-foot science center. It complements the adjacent Space exhibit, where we buckled ourselves onto a zero-gravity toilet seat.

COSI charges an extra $5 for admission to the planetarium. We stood in a long line before taking our seats for a 40-minute show that included a whirlwind tour of the solar system, a cosmic light show and an animated short about an alien capturing Santa Claus in his spaceship.

We sat comfortably in our recliners without straining our necks to see the encompassing ceiling. The sun rose in the east as the full moon set in the west. Animated lines linked stars to form constellations such as Orion, composed of a giant red star called Betelgeuse (pronounced like the movie “Beetlejuice.”)

I was surprised at how mesmerized my children and their friend, Nick, were by the program. I liked getting a refresher-course on astronomy, one of my favorite subjects in school, but I thought the simple animation of “The Alien Who Stole Christmas” didn’t match the technology of the new planetarium and what people have come to expect from animated films. But the children in this auditorium seemed quite content, particularly when the show switched gears into a psychedelic sing-a-long with spiraling lights.

“We’re entering a black hole,” said 5-year-old Max.

I couldn’t help but think this venue would be cool for a birthday party. The space is rentable for private parties and even weddings. Can you imagine?

Other shows include:

Our Universe Above: COSI staff members take guests on a 40-minute tour of the universe, pointing out stars, planets and constellations.

One World, One Sky – Big Bird’s Adventure: Big Bird and friends from Sesame Street take guests on a journey to discover the moon, sun, North Star and Big Dipper.

COSI, 333 W. Broad St., is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Cost is $19; $14 for ages 2-12. Admission to the planetarium costs $5 in addition to general admission.

For more information, visit cosi.org/planetarium.

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American Whistle Corporation, Columbus Family Adventures

Take a factory tour, get a free whistle


America’s only manufacturer of metal whistles is located right here in Columbus. You can tour the little factory on the north side of the city, where a dozen employees make about 5,000 whistles a day. You’ll even get a free whistle when you leave. But it’ll cost you $4 first to take the tour.

For years I’ve known about American Whistle, which has been fashioning whistles out of solid brass for police officers, coaches and everyday folk since 1956. Oddly, though, it wasn’t until I recently read in a city guide that Columbus’ own Jeni Britton Bauer said the factory was among her favorite local tourist destinations that I finally made the effort to visit with my children.

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Factory tours are offered by appointment Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Everyone leaves with a shiny new “American Classic” whistle. The 45-minute tour is suitable for preschoolers to senior citizens.

I phoned a day ahead, and Rosie, Max and I were added to an existing tour the following day. Upon arrival, I was surprised to see about 30 people waiting outside of the garage-like building on Huntley Road.

As the tour began inside the one-room factory, we were informed not to take any pictures of the whistle-making process and to stand between two lines painted on the cement floor. Children were encouraged to stand in front for a better view.

I cringed at the thought of our kids getting out of line and snatching unfinished whistles. But, like magic, all of the children seemed captivated by the process.

The first machine cut brass into a shape that looks like a Mickey Mouse head. Another machine created a second shape. Yet another combined the parts, soldering them into the familiar whistle shape.

The whistles then went into a tumbler where they were polished. Final machines added signature stamps and inserted rubberlike balls before the whistles were prepared for shipment to places like Walmart, where they’re sold under the name “American Spirit.”

“Does a whistle work without the ball?” our tour guide asked.

“No,” the children replied.

He blew into a whistle, proving that it did indeed work without a ball. Its purpose, he said, is to roll around inside the whistle’s chamber, producing the trademark trilling sound.

Like an amusement park ride, the tour ended by funneling us through a gift shop. It was just a display counter by the exit door, where you’ll find whistles, lanyards, rubber protectors for whistles, T-shirts, mugs and magnets, priced from $1 to $60 for a gold-plated whistle that the NFL annually presents to Super Bowl officials.

“Don’t blow a whistle in someone’s ear,” our tour guide warned. “It’s a tool.”

I cringed again, dreading our car ride home with three shiny new whistles.

The American Whistle Corp. is located at 6540 Huntley Rd., Columbus. For more information, call 614-846-2918 or visit www.americanwhistle.com.

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Barnstormer Diner at OSU Airport

Eat hearty breakfast, watch airplanes come and go


My kids love pancakes, and they love going to airports. After a recent adventure, they now have a newfound love for the Ohio State University Airport, where they can devour blueberry pancakes inside an aviation-themed diner and watch from an observation tower as planes take off and land.

The small airport, seven miles north of the OSU campus, also offers free popcorn and coloring books, making it a fun family destination, especially on weekend mornings. That’s when Jack and Benny’s Barnstormer Diner opens at 7 a.m. for breakfast served with a Spanish flair. Think huevos rancheros with spicy sausage.

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The restaurant is operated by Geno and Hilda Garcia-Mandriotti, owners of the popular Jack and Benny’s in Clintonville. Geno graduated from Ohio State with a bachelor’s degree in aviation management and obtained his pilot’s license from the university’s training program – making the location for his newest restaurant rather fitting.

Framed pictures of aircraft and famed pilots such as Eddie Rickenbacker adorn the eatery’s walls, and guests can peek into the airplane hangar to check out several single-engine planes.

The airport terminal is adjacent to the restaurant. Serve yourself some popcorn and browse merchandise in the Pilot Shop, a display case with OSU and aviation-themed merchandise.

Climb several flights of steps into the observation tower for a 360-degree view of the airport, ramp and runways. Listen to pilots communicate over the radio and sign the guestbook, too.

The airport was established in 1942 as the site of the university’s first pilot training program. It was named Don Scott Field a year later in honor of the acclaimed football player who died in a bomber crash in England that same year.

Housing 200 aircraft, the airport ranks fourth in Ohio for the number of takeoffs and landings – about 75,000 per year, according to its website. Those using the airport include students, corporations and pleasure flyers, and even manatees being transferred to and from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Free tours are available by appointment.

The Ohio State University Airport is located at 2160 W. Case Rd., Columbus. Jack and Benny’s Barnstormer Diner is open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The observation tower is open daily 7 a.m.-11 p.m.

For more information, visit www.osuairport.org.

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Explore caves and mine for gems at nostalgic roadside attraction in Delaware


One of the beloved aspects of traveling across America by automobile is the unexpected roadside attractions you see advertised on billboards and barns along your journey.

One such tourist spot I’ve seen promoted for many years in central Ohio is Olentangy Indian Caverns, located 20 minutes north of Columbus in Delaware. It took me more than 20 years to finally visit the roadside caves that I knew nothing about and expected about the same.

Happily, I was wrong.

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My family had a great time exploring an underground maze of passages, mining for gems and striding through the woods. Visitors also can play a round of miniature golf, romp on a playground, shop for souvenirs and learn about the history of Native Americans in Ohio.

The caverns were formed millions of years ago by the force of an underground river cutting through limestone strata. This was Columbus white and Delaware blue limestone, if you want to get technical.

What’s really interesting is that how the holes in the ground were used by the Wyandotte Indians for refuge and by lots of others as hiding places.

Narrated tours and self-guided tours are available depending on the time of year.

We took a self-guided tour, using a map to plot our way through underground passages that lead into open spaces. Some spots have audio.

An explorer by the name of J.M. Adams discovered the caverns in 1821. You can even view his engraving in the rock. As you wind your way underground, you’ll see the echo chamber, a natural air shaft that circulates air every half hour; the Crystal Room, with an impressive “beehive stalagmite” looming overhead; and Cathedral Hall, a 500-foot passage that features fossils on the walls and a 50-foot tower that once was a waterfall.

Evidence shows that Wyandotte Indians used the caverns as shelter from the weather and protection from their enemies – the Delaware Indians. Native Americans used the caverns until the early 1800s, and hundreds of arrowheads and stone tools were found.

My husband liked learning about the culture of Ohio’s Native Americans in the Cave House Museum. The kids really liked romping around the meadow and mining for stones we purchased, complete with silt, in the gift shop. They placed them in a sluice with running water and “panned” for the colorful stones through the muck.

Olentangy Indian Caverns is located at 1779 Home Rd., Delaware.

The cavern is open daily from April through October and on weekends in November. Cost to tour the caverns is $9.50 for adults and $6.95 for children. Children ages 6 and younger are free. Cost of gem mining starts at $4.50 for a small bag of unpolished gems. Golf costs $5.

Be sure to wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes and a jacket, as the caves remain a constant 50-degree temperature. Bottled water is permitted.

For more information, visit www.olentangyindiancaverns.com or call 740-548-7917.

View the cave map here: www.olentangyindiancaverns.com/cave-map.

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Take a trip to Civil War-era Ohio


A trip to historic Ohio Village in Columbus proved eventful for my modern-day children, accustomed to playing games on iPads and watching movies on Netflix.

Ohio Village is a make-believe, Civil War-era town, where costumed performers play the parts of the residents. Visitors can roam the town and learn what it was like to live in the late 19th century through their interpretations and by participating in activities.

My two children and I visited on a sunny Sunday. Rosie, 7, and Max, 5, quickly got into character, pretending they lived in the town. I played the part of a horse, pulling them in a wagon.

We played on old-fashioned swings and a teeter-totter. Rosie enjoyed visiting the schoolhouse, where she sat at a wooden desk and wrote her name with white chalk on a black slate.

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A husband and wife team demonstrated old-fashioned cooking techniques in a farmhouse, and a blacksmith shaped tools in a shed. We also visited a toy shop, a doctor’s home, an undertaker’s office, a pharmacy, a general store, a hotel and a church.

The best part was just relaxing in the town square. A flock of chickens skittered back and forth, and children ran sack races to the tune of a brass band.

Ohio Village is an attraction of the Ohio History Center Museum, 800 E. 17th Ave.

From Memorial Day through Labor Day, Ohio Village is open during regular museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and noon-5 p.m., Sunday.

Cost is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12, and free for children ages 5 and younger.

The Ohio History Center Museum is the flagship museum of the Ohio History Connection, formerly known as the Ohio Historical Society. Founded in 1885, the nonprofit organization has nearly 2 million artifacts in its collection and partners with 58 historic sites around Ohio.

For information about programs and events, call 614-297-2300 or 800-686-6124 or visit www.ohiohistory.org.

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Center of Science and Industry makes learning a blast


I joined a line of teenagers to test my fear of heights at the Center of Science and Industry in downtown Columbus. I approached my turn on the high-wire unicycle as my family looked on with encouragement.

After being strapped in, I pedaled backward and surveyed the atrium 17 feet below. Curious onlookers stopped in their tracks.

“OK, now pat your head with one hand and rub your belly with the other,” joked the ride attendant, after I’d traveled to the end of the 84-foot line.

COSI has been encouraging people to put themselves in unique situations in the name of science and fun for 50 years. Innovative attractions geared to spark children’s interest in the physical and natural world have garnered the science center attention and accolades. Parents Magazine named COSI the No. 1 science center in the United States.

My family can attest to having too much fun, all in the name of science. There are hundreds of interactive exhibits to explore in the 320,000 square-foot former Central High School, COSI’s home since 1999.

We buckled ourselves to zero-gravity seats at an exhibit called Space. We played an organ that duplicates the odd sounds our bodies make at an exhibit called Life, which explores human beings from birth to death. I lifted my own body weight in a pulley chair at an exhibit called Gadgets.

We also learned a thing or two.

My husband, Mike, learned that Sherlock Holmes was a masterful observer as he put his skills to the test while solving crimes at a new exhibit called The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes. Mike and daughter Rosie collected evidence and recorded their findings in a notebook. My son, Max, and I assembled a broken three-dimensional puzzle of a human head and squirted fake blood on a windshield.

I learned that bananas aren’t the most eco-friendly fruits in the bunch at an exhibit called Energy Explorers, which focuses on how energy powers the world around us—from the products we buy to the transportation we take. Bananas, it turns out, require a boatload of fuel to travel from tropical lands to the United States, giving them a gigantic carbon footprint.

Max learned what it’s like to enter a real-life yellow submarine at an exhibit called Ocean. Rosie held onto a pair of handles and listened to the rhythm of her heartbeat on a drum.

There are still many things I haven’t done at COSI. I have yet to feel the hair-raising experience of an electrostatic charge, take a turn at being a weather reporter in front of a green screen, or stand in a wind tunnel and endure a 78-mile gust.

These are reasons why we must return soon.

For more information about COSI, visit www.cosi.org.

Experience Columbus is offering a “Roar and Explore Adventure Getaway” package for $411. It includes a two-night stay at a Drury Hotel, four tickets to COSI, four tickets to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and four tickets to Zoombezi Bay. Learn more at www.columbusfamilyfun.com.

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Which creatures will thrill you at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium?


My two children and I join a gathering crowd at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. We press our noses against a wall of glass to view trout swimming in a massive tank. The sun’s rays glisten through the rippling water.

“Let’s go,” says my 4-year-old son, Max. “This is boring.”

Just then a white creature sticks its pointy nose into the water’s surface. We see the animal’s face from below and gasp with excitement. The giant female polar bear dives in, heading toward the bottom of the tank in search of a snack. In a moment she spirals back up and stands atop a glass ceiling to eat her treat in the fresh air. We’re now under her, admiring the mammoth feet of one of the world’s largest predators.

“Oh my gosh,” exclaims Max. “This is awesome!”

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Close encounters with animals we’d flee in the wild are among my family’s favorite experiences at the 87-year-old zoo, ranked No. 1 in the United States by USA Travel Guide.

Under the watch of Director Emeritus Jack Hanna, the zoo has created clever habitats that permit visitors to intimately observe animals such as African lions, Siberian tigers and Alaskan grizzly bears. Expect to see gorillas, sharks and pythons, and even hand-feed leaves to giraffes from a raised platform.

During an early spring visit, I load the kids into their wagon and set off on an adventure. Max and his 6-year-old sister, Rosie, pretend they’re on a bus, heading to faraway places in Asia, Africa and Australia, with stops at exotic playgrounds along the way.

We begin in the North America region, where we marvel at the dexterity of grizzly bears as they delicately use their giant claws to eat treats. Next stop is the Polar Playground, where Max and Rosie work off some energy while bounding from atop an igloo to inside a safari truck to down a twisty slide.

We head to Asia Quest and settle in near the tigers. The observation window is adjacent to their watering hole, and one tiger gazes into our eyes as it passes by for a drink.

After an ice-cream break, we zip past the lions and Conservation Lake, toward an area called Shores. There, we visit the zoo’s 85,000-gallon aquarium, a popular hangout for parents with young children.

I catch my breath as my children admire a constant stream of colorful fish, including one they call “Long Nose.”

“Let’s pretend we’re sea turtles,” says Rosie as she pretends to swim alongside the tank.

Later, at Manatee Coast and Expedition Congo, we observe even bigger creatures munching on lettuce—first, several chubby manatees, then some beefy gorillas.

We culminate our adventure aboard the most endearing of zoo features—the antique carousel, which boasts a band organ and 52 original horses and chariots. I gladly pony up $1 per child for a spin.

As we head toward the exit, Max contemplates the illustrated zoo map.

“I want to ride the slide,” he says.

He’s looking at Dolphin Dash at the neighboring Zoombezi Bay water park. I tell Max he’ll have to wait until the weather warms up.

“Next time we come to the zoo, we’re wearing our swimsuits,” he says.

For more information about the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, visit www.colszoo.org.

Experience Columbus is offering a “Roar and Explore Adventure Getaway” package for $411. It includes a two-night stay at a Drury Hotel, four tickets to COSI, four tickets to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and four tickets to Zoombezi Bay. Learn more at www.columbusfamilyfun.com.

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