The joy of visiting caves
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
What is it about caves that are so fascinating? There is mystery and beauty within these walls, and visiting caves is an adventure that many of us can do.
Caves can be viewed in formal tours with a guide, designated paths without a guide, or some are open to freely explore. Below are some examples with recent fees for adults.
A few hints before you go:
- Check to see the normal temperature in the cave you visit. Most are cool and a jacket is needed.
- Wild cave tours typically involve climbing and crawling while using headlamps. You need to be in shape for these and make reservations in advance since they fill up quickly. Most of these tours cost $20 to $30 and may last 5-6 hours.
- Many caves do not allow the use of flash photography.
- Many caves now require you to walk through a decontamination area to ensure fungus that is hurting cave bats is removed from your shoes.
- Don't worry about bats "attacking" you. At best, you may see a bat sleeping or if you are lucky you can see them leave in a mass in the evening from special viewing areas.
Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is huge — in fact, it's the longest cave in the world (more than 400 miles mapped so far).
Most of the tours are easy to walk. These tours are ranger-led, and rangers are stationed along the path. The wild cave tour is also ranger-led and is limited to only 14 people. Most of the formations of stalactites and stalagmites are in one section of the cave.
Prices are $7 to $26 per person for a standard tour. Campsites are located within the park, along with hiking trails.
Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the longest cave in the world.
Quite the opposite of Mammoth Cave, cavates are small openings in softer rock that Native Americans enlarged to use as housing or storage. Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico has roughly 1,000 cavates, and many are open to the public.
It is fun to climb the ladders and walk into areas that have been used for hundreds of years. The cavates can be explored on your own at no extra fee other than the entrance fee. Campsites are located within the park along with some great hiking trails.
Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico has roughly 1,000 cavates.
As you explore more caves, you may want to learn the names of the different formations. Besides stalactites and stalagmites, there are soda straws, columns, bacon, popcorn and many more.
To me, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico is the king of cave formations. As a plus, the "Big Room" with many formations is open to explore in your own time without a guide and is free after general park admission. There are several guided tours ($7 to $15 per person) along with several wild cave tours. There are no campsites at the park, but several campgrounds are nearby.
Wind Cave in South Dakota has unusual boxwork formations. All tours are ranger-led and include a wild cave tour. Prices vary from $10 to $12. There are no campsites at this park, but there are options nearby.
Wind Cave in South Dakota has unusual boxwork formations.
For something different, some caves have boat tours (like The Lost Sea Adventure in Tennessee and Penn's Cave in Pennsylvania).
Spook Cave in Iowa can only be toured by water. The tour guide will tell many silly jokes. Sit back and enjoy seeing a cave from the comforts of a boat (though you do have to bend over to miss the ceiling at one point). This tour is $12 per person. Campsites are located within the park.
Exploring caves on your own
After climbing a hill on the path to the cave, you are free to explore Coronado Cave on your own.
Coronado Cave in Arizona is different. After climbing a hill on the path to the cave, you are free to explore the cave on your own. This includes making sure you bring your own flashlight (at least two, so you have a backup).
It isn't a huge cave, but it is large enough that there were two or three other groups exploring when we visited, and we couldn't hear them most of the time. There is no extra fee required for this cave. There are no campsites at this park, but several campgrounds are nearby.
Most caves you visit are basically "dead." This means that formations have stopped growing.
Several caves — like Kartchner Caverns in Arizona, Blanchard Springs Caverns in Arkansas, Caverns of Sonora in Texas, Desoto Caverns in Alabama and Natural Bridge Caverns in Texas — are still wet and growing. This adds some restrictions.
Kartchner, for example, has several locks (six!) to keep the atmosphere stable and forbids all photography. Tours cost $23 per person plus the park entrance fee. Campsites are located within the park along with some wonderful hiking.
Blanchard Springs Caverns in Arkansas is considered a "live" cave because it is still wet and growing.
Lava tubes are formed by flowing lava under a larger lava flow. The longest is Ape Cave in Washington, but other locations like El Malpais National Monument and Craters of the Moon in Idaho have lava tubes. El Malpais is known for the Ice Cave where you can find ice on even warm days.
A lava tube in El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico.
The United States is rich in caves, and they are waiting to be explored. Other caves that are on many "best cave" lists include:
- Crystal Cave in California
- Florida Caverns in Florida
- Glenwood Springs in Colorado
- Jewel Cave in South Dakota
- Luray Caverns in Virginia
- Meramec Caverns in Missouri
- Moaning Cavern in California
- Ohio Caverns in Ohio
- Polar Caves in New Hampshire
- Ruby Falls in Tennessee
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