Image of 7 Unique Caves to Explore Out Here
Image of 7 Unique Caves to Explore Out Here
7 UNIQUE CAVES TO EXPLORE OUT HERE
You may be closer than you think to a vast network of caverns and caves
By Jennon Bell Hoffmann
Throughout most of the U.S., an entire world of wonder lies just underneath our feet.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 17,000 known caves spider across the country, waiting to be visited and explored by experts, hobbyists, and travelers alike.

“Caving is original exploration,” says Geary Schindel, president of the National Speleological Society (NSS). “We’ve walked on the moon; all the highest mountains have been climbed. We’ve been to the bottom of the ocean. But in some of these areas, you can find a new cave that nobody’s ever been. There are still wonderful finds being made.”

Here are seven caves to visit, from the most well-known to secluded hidden gems. And if you plan travel to any of them, in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, contact the cave’s visitor center directly to stay updated on possible closures and reopenings, as well as safety protocols.

image of Ridgecut
Ridgecut
1.
The Crowd-Pleaser: Mammoth Cave national park in Central Kentucky
With more than 412 miles of total surveyed terrain and a potential for a 1,000-mile system, this expansive national park is the world’s longest known cave system. Visitors can partake in a range of activities, including self-guided cave tours, kayaking, biking, boating, fishing, stargazing, and ranger-led programs.

The park is open 24 hours a day year-round, and Kentucky enjoys a moderate climate. However, the Mammoth Cave region records about 50 inches of precipitation per year, the highest in the state, with most of it falling in the spring, so plan your visit accordingly.

It’s free to enter all surface areas, but there are varying fees and permits for different tours and campground options.

Image of Visitors can take guided tours of Mammoth Cave.
Visitors can take guided tours of Mammoth Cave.
2.
For Avid Hikers: Carlsbad Caverns in Southeast New Mexico
Image of Visitors can take in the caverns’
Visitors can take in the caverns’ beautiful stalactite formations.
Image of The Carlsbad Caverns
The Carlsbad Caverns are located beneath the Chihuahua Desert.
Straddling the New Mexico-Texas border are the Carlsbad Caverns, some of the best-known commercial caves, boasting 119 caves hidden beneath the Chihuahua Desert.

The $15 entrance fee for adults 16 or over (15 years or younger is free) allows go-at-your-own-pace access to the majority of the sweeping sights along the Big Room and Natural Entrance trails, including impressive groups of stalactites hanging from cave ceilings, and stalagmites jutting from floors. For a more in-depth experience, audio guides are available for rent, highlighting the interesting and educational elements you can encounter while on a self-guided hike through the area. Hiking into the cave is currently allowed from 8:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., though tickets are first-come, first-serve and typically sell out early in the morning.

Though weather can fluctuate season to season, the Carlsbad Caverns region sees up to 278 sunny days a year. The year-round temperature in the caverns is about 56 degrees, so even if you visit in the summer, it’s a good idea to bring a jacket. In addition, the trails are often wet from natural water drips and seepage, so sturdy, closed-toe shoes with good traction are also recommended.

3.
For a Family-Friendly Excursion: Luray Caverns in Virginia
The Luray Caverns are the Eastern U.S.’s largest and most popular cave destination, featuring cathedral-sized spaces with 10-story-high ceilings and towering rock formations. All of the formations in the caverns are calcite, which is a crystalline form of limestone, creating an otherworldly landscape of naturally white folded stone columns and cascading frozen limestone.

These caverns also have the world’s largest musical instrument—the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Stalactites “sing” throughout three acres of the caverns when gently tapped. Tours feature a live performance of the organ by an automated system.

As of 2020, the Luray Caverns are now one of the few underground marvels providing both a step-free entrance and tours on all-paved walkways, making them accessible for many visitors. The entrance fee ($30 for adults; $15 for children 6 to 12) includes the Car & Carriage Caravan Museum, Shenandoah Heritage Village, and Toy Town Junction.

Image of Luray Caverns
All of the formations in the Luray Caverns are calcite. Image courtesy of Luray Caverns, Virginia.
4.
the Underground Water marvel: Craighead Caverns in Eastern Tennessee
Image of The Lost Sea
The Lost Sea is located 140 feet below ground level.
Image courtesy of Trey Sullins.
Halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga is America’s largest and the world’s second largest non-subglacial underground lake, the Lost Sea. A guided tour leads participants through a sloping, three-quarter mile walk to the bottom, to a boat ride on the underground lake, located 140 feet below the ground level.

The Lost Sea, however, is only one part of the extensive network of caves and tunnels known as Craighead Caverns. In 1939, tracks of a giant Pleistocene jaguar were discovered and preserved, showing how the prehistoric animal wandered into the cave and ultimately to his death 20,000 years earlier. As for humans, the Cherokee were among the first to use the massive cave “rooms” as meeting spaces, as evidenced by the preserved pottery, jewelry, weapons, and arrowheads found there.

The daily admission and tour cost $22.95 for adults, $13.95 for children ages 4 to 12, and is free for children ages 3 and under. For a more rugged experience, small groups just can sign up for a wild cave tour to scramble through crevasses, nooks, crannies, and cracks. You can reserve a spot for a daytrip ($35) or book an overnight trip ($42 to $45).

5.
For the Geology Enthusiasts: Jewel Cave in Southwest South Dakota
Named for the two types of calcite crystals—nailhead spar and dogtooth spar—within, the Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world. It has over 208 miles of mapped and surveyed passages. Unlike many other caves, Jewel Cave was not carved by underground rivers but instead by slowly circulating acid-rich groundwater. Nestled within the Black Hills National Forest, the multilayered formations and history of the geology of the area dates back nearly 2 billion years ago.

Visitors can choose from various ranger-guided tours to explore Jewel Cave. Each includes historical and educational background on the formations, as well as geology and flora and fauna of the region. Tickets prices range from $4 to $31, depending which tour you decide to do.

Image of Jewel Cave
Jewel Cave was uniquely carved by acid-rich groundwater.
6.
For the Artistic and Adventurous: Caverns of Sonora in West Texas
Image of Speleothems
Speleothems adorn the tunnels of the Caverns of Sonora.
Underneath the ranch country of West Texas lie the crystalline Caverns of Sonora. About three hours northwest of San Antonio, the Caverns of Sonora boast formations of rich limestone deposits, creating sparkling tunnels and passages studded with gem-like formations called speleothems.

Visitors can partake in expert-led guided walking tours that wind through nearly two miles of crystal corridors through the warm cave—the temperature is regularly around 72 degrees and 98% humidity.

Prices change depending on what tour you or your group decide to do. For novice and pro photographers alike, the Photography Tour provides an unhurried stroll during which they can snap plenty of shots. For the more adventurous, the Discovery Challenge tour may be a good option: Visitors explore off-trail passages and rappel 50 feet into a space called the Devil’s Pit.

7.
For the Winter Lover:
Ice Caves of Apostle Island
in Northern Wisconsin
Technically, the Ice Caves are not true, geological caves because they form from freezing ice and wind each year when weather permits and never remain past the first thaw. Even if temporary, the Ice Caves of the Apostle Islands are still some of the most ethereal adventures you can trek. If the conditions are right, the caves can form any time between late-January and mid-March.

A visit to the caves requires a 2-mile hike—at minimum—round trip, on the ice of Lake Superior. Conditions must be perfect and stable for the ice caves to form and for the lake to freeze to a safe point where people can walk on it. Wind and water can break up the ice in a matter of hours so the National Lakeshore staff monitor the conditions and accessibility daily. It’s a good idea to call the Mainland Ice Caves Ice Line or visit the national park’s website for current conditions before heading to the area.

Image of Ice Caves
Visiting the Ice Caves requires a 2-mile hike across a frozen Lake Superior. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.
Dive Deeper into Caves
with an Expert
Dive Deeper into Caves with an Expert
Answers to three commonly asked questions about exploring caves on your own.
Geary of the NSS answers three of the most common questions for beginning cavers and landowners.
I want to explore caves in my region. What should I do?
Contact area cavers for guidance. There are approximately 200 NSS chapters (known as grottos) representing the caving communities throughout every region of the country. These grottos offer insider tips, gear rentals, recommendations, and guided tours.
I think I found a cave. Can I just walk in?
No. Geary says that most caves are privately owned, and therefore you need permission from the landowner to explore one. Also, unexplored caves have myriad safety concerns. Knowing how to prep for cave exploration, how to dress, what to bring, and best practices for a safe exploration is paramount to each experience, which is why you should also contact your local caving grotto.
I found a cave on my property. Should I do something about it?
Geary says to ensure the safety of people and cattle or herds, as well as assess the stability of the terrain, landowners should contact their local NSS grotto. “The local chapter will commonly clear the cave of debris and trash, clean up graffiti, and even manage the facility just for the opportunity to explore a new cave,” he says. Geary points out that some landowners deed the cave for conservation or sign a $1 lease for the NSS to manage and maintain the cave for future generations.
To learn more about cave exploration, conservation efforts, and to find your local grotto, visit the NSS website at www.caves.org.
About the Writer
Jennon Bell Hoffmann writes lifestyle and human-interest stories from her home in Illinois.

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