Did you know there’s over 17,000 caves in the United States? Yet, not all of those caverns are open to the public to explore or offer tours. But, these 12 top caves in the U.S. are waiting for you and your family to discover and learn!
So, let’s put on our hiking shoes, grab a sweatshirt and your camera. Because we’re going to take you on a journey down to the underground to explore some of America’s amazing caves and caverns!
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12 Top Caves to Explore in the U.S.
CAVING PRO TIP: Always wear sturdy closed-toe shoes with good traction. The cavern floors are oftentimes slippery.
Carlsbad Caverns – Carlsbad, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns cave system has more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations. Hence, why it’s designated as one of America’s National Parks.
And, if you’ve never been, just let me tease you by saying it’s an absolute show stopper. Because Carlsbad is one of our ultimate favorite caves to explore in the U.S.! With it’s impressive stalactites that cling to the ceiling of the underground chamber, the Big Room, it’s no wonder it’s also a favorite of other caving enthusiasts.
Depending on if you decide to hike up or down, you gain or lose about 750 feet which is equivalent to stair-stepping a 75-story building. The Carlsbad Caverns cave hike takes, on average, one hour to complete the 2.5 mile distance.
As you see, this cave tour isn’t exactly for the faint at heart, breathless, and even weak in the knees. And we mean that quite literally. Visitors with physical, physiological, respiratory or heart conditions will unfortunately have to sit this cave tour out.
But this Chihuahuan Desert southern New Mexico cave system isn’t just all about what’s down in the National Park’s belly. Above ground is just as beautiful as what’s below your feet. Walnut Canyon Desert Loop is a drive with spectacular desert views. And, Rattlesnake Springs, a desert wetland, attracts reptiles and hundreds of bird species. It has high ancient sea ledges, deep rocky canyons, flowering cacti, and a vast variety of desert wildlife.
Important to note though, due to Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s popularity, reservations are required to enter the park. You’ll need to secure your timed entry in advance. Then, bring your ID, National Park Pass or pay the entrance fee when you arrive. Reservations are not available at the park.
Check out KRQE’s video report on this incredible new discovery found at Carlsbad Caverns:
Wind Cave National Park – South Dakota
I tell everyone who is visiting the Black Hills of South Dakota that it’s a must to take a tour of Wind Cave National Park!
Wind Cave is known for being the world’s densest cave. It contains 95% of the entire world’s honeycomb-shaped calcite formations known as boxwork. Boxwork is formed when dissolved calcium carbonate crystallized in cracks in surrounding rock. The surrounding rock then erodes away and leaves the boxlike calcite crystals.
But also historically, Wind Cave is sacred ground of the Lakota tribes. According to NPSHistory, “Regarded as sacred by American Indians, the cave was not found by settlers until 1881, when two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham, heard a loud whistling noise. The sound led them to a small hole in the ground, the cave’s only natural opening.” Hence, why it’s name is ‘Wind Cave’.
Topside, Wind Cave’s pine forests and gentle prairie hills are home to bison, elk and pronghorn antelopes. Great hiking trails include Rankin Ridge, with views of the Black Hills.
Camping near Wind Cave: Elk Mountain Campground, in hills of ponderosa pine forest and prairie, has 61 first-come-first-served campsites (fees); 48 of which are RV friendly from April through October. Backcountry camping is also allowed with required permit.
Before or after your visit to Wind Cave: Take a trek to Deadwood, South Dakota (75 miles) to learn about the Story of the American Bison. You don’t want to miss this!
Lava Beds National Monument – Tulelake, California
At Lava Beds National Monument, the high desert wilderness above and the underground below is waiting for you to explore and experience.
Geologically and historically, Lava Beds National Monument is a land of unrest. Volcanic eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano have created a rugged landscape dotted with diverse volcanic features over the last 500,000 years!
Today, the Lava Beds’ 800+ lava tube caves are waiting for you to crawl around and get dirty. Learn about the cave bats and how we can help them survive the conflict of diverse ecosystems and the deadly fungal disease, white-nose syndrome.
And topside, you can also check out the Native American rock art sites, historic battlefields and campsites.
Looking for somewhere to camp? You can dry camp at Indian Well about a half mile from Lava Beds National Monument visitor center. There are 43 campsites available on a first-come, first serve basis for tents, vans and small campers.
Luray Caverns – Luray, Virginia
Originally named Luray Cave, Luray Caverns is located just west of the town of Luray, Virginia. Since being discovered in 1878, Luray Caverns has been drawing millions of visitors. Luray’s cavern system is generously adorned with speleothem columns, mud flows, stalagmites stalactites, mirror pools and flowstone.
Luray Caverns is the largest caverns in the eastern portion of United States. And it’s the 3rd most-visited cave under Mammoth Cave National Park and Carlsbad Caverns. Luray’s deepest section is only 16 stories underground. But the notable thing about Luray is if the entrance was sealed, micro fissures within the expansive complex allow air to flow freely throughout the cave.
The paved walking tour takes a little more than an hour to complete the 1.25 mile easy trek. You certainly don’t want to rush this cave tour or you’re going to miss out on some spectacular views. Don’t forget to have a fully-charged smartphone with lots of space on it because you’re going to take lots of photos!
PRO TIP: Before you head out for your cave tours, you may want to first, brush up on your Smartphone Photography.
Jewel Cave National Monument – Custer, South Dakota
Jewel Cave National Park is the third longest cave in the world. With over 210 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, this underground mystery is waiting for those who love to go caving. Visitors will get to see its’ grand splendor through fragile formations and peeks of brilliant color. Its’ magnificent maze of passages lure explorers, scientists and even biologists because of its’ dynamic and mysterious cave environment.
However, be advised that cave access is only by guided tour. Also, advance reservations are highly recommended as walk-up tickets are limited and not guaranteed. So, if you want the promise of a Jewel Cave tour, you can get your advance tickets at Recreation.gov.
After you finish exploring the underworld of Jewel Cave National Park: Come up for air and grab your trekking poles to enjoy one or all of the Park’s hiking trails!
Cosmic Cavern – Berryville, Arkansas
Discovered in 1845 in northern Arkansas near the town of Berryman, this limestone cave wasn’t really developed for cave tours until 1927. Early explorers found the floor of the first chamber of the cave and a subterranean lake below the 200′ entrance.
Now known as Cosmic Cavern, it claims bragging rights as Arkansas’ Most Beautifully Decorated Cave. And, it’s Arkansas’ largest, privately-owned show cave that contains the Ozarks’ largest underground lake. It’s also the warmest cave in the Ozarks registering a constant year-round temperature of 64°F and 96% humidity.
According to North Arkansas Democrat Gazette, “It’s had many names; Bear Cave, Maple Springs Cave, Joe Johnson Cave at Sycamore Hollow, Majestic Cave, Mystic Cave and Mystery Cave”.
Keep your cave hiking shoes on! There’s more limestone and dolomite rock caves, sinkholes, springs and tunnels just waiting for you to explore in the Ozark region!
Moaning Caverns – Vallecito, California
In the heart of California’s gold country near the town of Vallecito, Moaning Caverns awaits a cave hiker’s discovery. Discovered in the 1840s by gold miners, this solution cave is developed in marble of the Calaveras Formation.
However, artifacts and skeletal remains date back to ancient cave dwelling people. Of the archeological finds in the cave, a mother-of-pearl necklace estimates to be more than 8000 years old.
But how did Moaning Caverns get its’ name? It’s been said during the gold rush in the 1840’s that miners heard a peculiar moaning sound luring people to the cave entrance. Unfortunately, the moaning sounds dissipated when the grounds crew widened the access.
Today, Moaning Caverns’ staircase has 144 stairs and spirals around 7½ times which enables hundreds of thousands of visitors to enjoy the adventure of descending deep into the largest single cave chamber in California.
Looking for more things to do in California’s Gold Country? Check out Lonely Planet’s, Must See Attractions in Gold Country.
Natural Bridge Caverns – New Braunfels, Texas
Natural Bridge Caverns, located near New Braunfels is one of several Texas caves and caverns. Deep in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, Natural Bridge Caverns is the largest commercial cave in the Lone Star State. It’s also registered United States National Natural Landmark.
Discovered in March 1960 and open for public tours since 1964, this is one supercalifragilistic cave worth visiting! Its’ chambers are colossal, some with ceilings as high as 100 feet.
The Castle of the White Giants room contains the largest flowstone formation called the Bomb Burst and the cavern’s tallest column dubbed The Watchtower. And, the Hall of the Mountain King, the largest room, is over 100 feet wide and 350 feet in length.
Natural Bridge Caverns offers lots of different tours including lantern-led tours, exploring the hidden passages and a glorious adventure tour!
What to do after your Natural Bridge Caverns cave tour? If you’re craving to reach new heights, you’ll want to test your courage via high-rope zip line. But if you want to stay grounded, you and your littles can mine for fossils and minerals right on the grounds.
The Lost Sea Caverns – Sweetwater, Tennessee
Deep in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, about 50 miles south of Knoxville, Tennessee, sits a wonder 140 feet below ground. Known as The Lost Sea, this hidden waterway is the largest underground lake in America. It’s also listed as a Registered National Landmark. Discovered only decades ago, attracts more than 2,000 visitors a day from all over the globe.
While visiting The Lost Sea: Visitors can enjoy the onsite general store, ice cream parlor, gem mine and glassblower. Also, the Cavern Kitchen, offers sandwiches and real pit bbq to hungry cave explorers. You can also bring your cooler lunch as they have plenty of picnic facilities.
Check out CBS Mornings’ video, “Exploring America’s Largest Underground Lake” about The Lost Sea:
Mammoth Cave National Park
Fast horses, bourbon and bluegrass aren’t the only things Kentucky is known for. For more than 125 years, Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the world’s longest cave system and has been attracting visitors from all over the world.
Located just east of the Green River in Brownsville, Kentucky, Mammoth Cave is a limestone labyrinth with more than 400 miles of explored chambers. The National Park estimates there may be another 600 miles in its system. Visitors can tour by foot on trails and walkways; ranging from easy to difficult depending on your stride and physical capability.
Other fun things to do near Mammoth Cave: Wander among hundreds of life-sized dinosaurs in a natural setting at Dinosaur World or trek on over to Kentucky Down Under to see wildlife from Australia! You can also tour another cavern, Mammoth Onyx Cave!
Fantastic Caverns; Springfield, Missouri
Fantastic Caverns is a cave like no other! Located only 5 miles from historic Route 66 and just north of Springfield, Missouri beneath the rolling Ozarks lies an incredible cave worth exploring. But don’t worry, you won’t need your hiking boots for this cave experience!
Fantastic Caverns is the only cave in North America to offer a Jeep-drawn tram ride-through tour that lasts about an hour. The trams drive along the path left behind by an ancient underground river. Cave visitors get to see the magnificent columns stretching from floor to ceiling, delicate soda straws glistening with minerals and tiny cave pearls hidden in crystal-clear water right from your seat! But, don’t forget your sweatshirt as the caverns down below hover around a balmy 60°.
While you’re there: After your tour, head on over to the Ozark Hills Winery for a delicious sweet to dry, fruity to full-bodied wine tasting!
Polar Caves – Rumney, New Hampshire
The Polar Caves, located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire are one of four amazing caves to visit in in the state. Polar Caves Park is a set of glacially-formed caves during the last ice age from granite boulders. Hence, why they are named the Polar Caves is because the deepest cave is cold enough to allow snow to linger long into the summer. And, the continuous frigid air currents that flow through the passageways.
Visitors can explore and experience 9 granite boulder caves and boardwalk mazes:
- Polar Pinch
- The Ice Cave
- King Tut’s
- Fat Man’s Misery
- The Indian Council Chamber
- The Bear’s Den
- Devil’s Turnpike
- Orange Crush
- The Lemon Squeeze
Looking for a place to camp near Polar Caves? Check out these camping locations near Rumney, New Hampshire (Source: Campendium).
Other caves to visit in New Hampshire: Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves at Kinsman Notch in North Woodstock.
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Wrapping up our top caves to explore in the U.S.
These 12 caves to explore in the U.S. are just a tiny fraction of thousands of caverns in America. Once you tour one or two caves, the more you’re going to want to explore and learn about. While each cave is different from each other, they all have one thing in common. They are hidden mysteries of the deep that are begging you to get in your car or RV to travel to. So, what’s holding you back from exploring the unknowns of the underground?
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