Anyone familiar with PA’s coal region should know that Anthracite coal was essentially the reason for both the region’s rise and downfall. Even though miles of mines run underneath North Eastern Pennsylvania, the entrances to the majority of these mines are sealed. The poorly sealed entrance to one sat in the woods below where I grew up yet somehow we were always smart enough to not try and enter. I still don’t know anyone who’s ever been down inside one. The last mine closed here in 1970’s, but they still leave an overwhelming scar on the landscape. Abandoned railway beds criss-cross the forests and large coal fields, complete with their requisite coal mountains, seem to greet you at entrance to every town. People have taken advantage of these trails and fields and both ATVing (all terrain vehicles) and snowmobiling are popular recreation.
Weirdly enough, it took a trip to Western Pennsylvania for me to experience these two seemingly unrelated things so embedded in NEPA culture. I went ATVing in an abandoned mine.
My brother and two college buddies decided this summer we wanted to take a boy’s trip in the fall. After Hurricane Irene ruined our original Maine white water rafting/skydiving trip we decided we’d shoot for Pittsburgh. I’d been there the year before and was impressed with the city. In addition, there was an airport enroute with reasonably priced skydiving. We tried to find another activity to supplement white water rafting. My friend called me a few weeks prior to our trip and told me to check out www.minesandmeadows.com. It advertises itself as an ATV park, the big draw being an underground ride in an abandoned lime mine. We agreed it was a go and I was charged with making the reservations. It took approximately two weeks of calling for reservations before I got somebody to pick up the phone the day before we left. The guy I spoke with wasn’t terribly informative, took my credit card information, and told me not to be late. I would’ve been more nervous about the less than stellar service had I not read several positive trip advisor reviews and an article in a recent Men’s Journal touting the attraction.
Our reservation were for Saturday at 12:00. Mines and meadows is a half hour north of Pittsburgh. Now, much like many located in the eastern portion of the Keystone state, I tend to think of western PA as desolate and depressing; an extension of West Virginia. While Pittsburgh is a young, vibrant city, the small town of Wampum, was the stereotype I had in mind. The roads weren’t paved, the closest gas station on my GPS was 40 minutes away, and there were more trailers than houses. We pulled up the ATV park, paid a $25.00 entrance fee and were sent four miles down the road to the mine entrance.
We parked my car in what might have been a parking lot, might have been one of the aforementioned meadows and walked towards where we saw four ATV’s sitting in front of a dark mine opening. A guy walked out with a face mask on. Before we could turn around and hightail it to the car before some sort of Deliverance related fate befell us he took it off and introduced himself as our guide. We paid $130.00 each for the tour and shortly after embarking, all agreed that this would be worth it.
It was just the three of us and a guide, which was awesome. We went over how to operate the machines (which was easy—probably why a lot of my friends at home were operating their own ATV’s in elementary school) and he informed us that we’d take about an hour and a half to traverse the meadows portion of the tour and end our last half hour in the mines.
Just take their advice and wear jeans. You have the option to soak yourself with water and mud and the experience wouldn’t have been as fun had we not jumped at that opportunity. Boots kept my feet dry, but my sweats didn’t fare as well. I had to hold to manually hold them up every time I got off the machine.
Pulling out, I was a bit disappointed; the mines were the big draw I thought. I could ATV anywhere. While the mines ended up being a big bonus, I ended up enjoying the ATVing we did above ground much more than I did the mines, and it turns out I wouldn’t have had the same experience anywhere else. Our guide let us have fun, experiment with the machines and not worry about directions or mechanics. He gave us a heads up as we navigated through some muddy bogs, taught us how to correctly ford streams and deep puddles and even offered to take several videos of us driving through a mud field. Normally I’m not one to get excited over tourist trap photos and videos, but these ones seemed much more authentic; badass almost.
What really struck me about the caves once we descended down were how clean they were. As mentioned before, I’m used to coal mines and all the black dust the entail. These caves were chalky limestone, rendering them the sort of look I always thought was considered was only consistent with caves in movies. The caves are not that cavernous but more than a bit eerie. The lights of your quad let you see ahead of you, but if you take a look behind you, all you see in pitch black. At one point our guide had us all stop side by side and turn our lights off. The dark was so intense the guide explained, your eyes would never adjust to it. You couldn’t see a thing. It was a cool sensation, but I was happy once we turned the lights on some sort of creature didn’t scuttle into the shadows: it only seemed appropriate.
The tour took its advertised two hours. Trudging soaked, muddy, and sore into our hotel room forty minutes later, we all agreed it was well worth the $130.00 spent. Mines and meadows is an easy, if somewhat congested half hour ride from Pittsburgh. If you’re in town, take a break from putting fries on every piece of food you eat, and check it out.