Tourists today have the luxury of exploring caves and caverns with multi-colored lighting, paved walkways, handrails and a tour guide who’s there to explain everything you need to know and make sure you don’t get into any trouble. Those luxuries weren’t available for the torch-carrying Native Americans, primitive miners and explorers who first entered the caves. Thanks to those brave souls, modern explorers are fairly spoiled, with a plethora of commercial caves and caverns that are fully furnished and open for tours. Even without knowing the history behind a cave’s discovery and exploration, the stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws and other eerie natural features make every cave tour a truly unique and interesting experience. Here are five of the best caves to visit in the United States.
5. Fantastic Caverns
These caverns in Springfield, Missouri, are perfect for visitors who are unable to, or would just rather not, endure a tiresome walk through a typical commercial cave. Fantastic Caverns’ claim to fame is that it’s the only drive-through cave in America. Discovered by a dog who crawled through the entrance in 1862, the entrance is now much wider and the cave is much more accessible. Present-day visitors have the opportunity to view soda straws, stalactites and stalagmites while allowing their guide to shuttle them from one talking point to the next. Located deep in the limestone-rich Ozark Mountains, Fantastic Caverns is surrounded by 17 show caves in Missouri and six in northern Arkansas, so guests who are intrigued by the underground can easily continue their explorations.
4. Jewel Cave National Monument
Dynamite was the key to the underground world for Frank and Albert Michaud and Charles Bush. After finding a tiny hole with cold air blowing out in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the trio used dynamite to expand the opening and discovered a cave with calcite that sparkled like jewels. But when they tried to market their discovery to tourists, even the “Jewel Cave Dancing Club” concept wasn’t enough to attract visitors to Custer, South Dakota in 1902. Yet the cave’s unique properties earned it national monument status in 1908. Since then, underground discoveries have expanded the tour’s known passages, making it the second-longest known cave in the world. More than 150 miles of passageways have been discovered, although most visitors will walk a half-mile loop on the park’s “scenic tour.” You probably wouldn’t travel all the way to South Dakota just to see this cave, but if you’re in the area visiting Mount Rushmore and other more famous attractions, it’s a nice addition to your trip.
3. Ruby Falls
Ruby Falls Cave contains America’s highest underground waterfall, but that’s not all it has to offer. The cave in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is rich in history. When tours began in the 1930s, young tour guides broke off onyx formations and sold them to support their families during the Great Depression. Later on, Ruby Falls was one of the first caves to use electric lights to light the tour path. If that’s not enough history, since Ruby Falls opened to the public it’s been the setting for a beauty pageant, weddings and even served as a fallout shelter with the capacity for hundreds of people during the Cuban Missile Crisis. History aside, the main attraction, of course, is the picturesque beauty of the falls, which plunge 145 feet within Lookout Mountain. Many tourists make a weekend checking out the many tourist sites around the mountain, visiting the falls, climbing around the famous Rock City, touring the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and riding the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, which offers breath-taking views of the area.
2. Mammoth Cave National Park
If the second- and third-longest caves in the world were combined, Mammoth Cave would still have them beat by about 100 miles. The 392 miles of explored passageways are what earn Mammoth Cave the “mammoth” title. The cave in central Kentucky was discovered about 4,000 years ago, and depending on the tour, visitors are able to see the remains of old mining operations, evidence of prehistoric Native American explorers, or a “new” entrance that was opened to the public in the 1920s. Both Mammoth Cave National Park and the No. 1 site on this list have been selected as World Heritage sites by the United Nations for their unique features and cultural significance.
1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Every summer evening, 400,000 Brazilian free-tail bats leave Carlsbad Caverns in search of dinner, and every morning all the bats return. Guests are invited to either listen to a park ranger’s presentation before watching the evening bat flight, or eat breakfast with park rangers while watching the morning return. Jim White is credited with being the first to explore this hole in New Mexico — despite the fact that Native Americans have known the cave existed for as long as anyone knows. In 1898, White descended 60 feet into the cave using a handmade, wire ladder, yet it took him more than a decade to convince locals the cave was worth exploring. White’s wire ladder is a far cry from the elevator today that transports guests 754 feet from the visitor’s center to the main cavern. The cave is now part of a national park that’s visited by more than 400,000 tourists each year. Other caves have a few points of interest, but Carlsbad Caverns boasts almost two dozen named rooms, and many stunning features.
Katie Barton is a graduate of College of the Ozarks with a degree in journalism. She grew up next door to a commercial cave, so her interest in caves and caverns began at an early age. She worked as a tour guide at Cosmic Cavern near Berryville, Arkansas, for six years.