Looking for a new adventure to spice up your outdoor pursuits? With seemingly every trail and mountain peak already conquered, perhaps it’s time to look beneath the surface and explore the underground world of caves.
Believe it or not, there are approximately 45,000 caves scattered throughout the contiguous United States, including the world’s longest cave system. With so many hidden passageways waiting to be explored, the only obstacles in your way are potential fears of the dark or tight spaces.
To help you get started on your subterranean adventure, we’ve compiled a list of some of the coolest caves in America that are ready and waiting for your exploration.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Located in Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, the Mammoth Cave is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts the world’s longest cave system, with over 400 miles of explored caves. Year-round, visitors can embark on either guided or self-guided tours, with varying degrees of difficulty. The guided tours showcase some of the cave’s most iconic features: for history enthusiasts, the Historic Tour covers the areas that originally made Mammoth Cave famous, while the Cleveland Avenue Tour, designed for geology enthusiasts, takes visitors through the sparkling walls of gypsum. And if you happen to be there during a storm, you might even catch a glimpse of the eerie fog forming inside the cave.
To visit, check the availability of tours depending on the season. Ticket prices start at $9 for children and $11 for adults.
Devil’s Den Spring
Located in Williston, Florida, Devil’s Den Spring is not your typical cave. It was formed by a collapsed cave roof, which created a karst window that revealed a prehistoric underground river, similar to a cenote. This dive site offers a unique experience for scuba divers who can explore ancient stalactites and fossil beds that date back 33 million years through the crystal-clear, brilliantly blue water. The maximum depth of the spring is 54 feet, and the temperature remains a constant 72ºF year-round.
To visit Devil’s Den Spring, scuba diving is available 7 days a week for certified divers. No reservations are necessary, but every diver must have a dive buddy. Admission is $38 per diver, and rental gear is available. Snorkeling is also available by appointment only, with admission starting at $18 per person, and rental equipment is available.
Missouri is a cave enthusiast’s dream, boasting over 6,400 recorded caves, although only 20 of them are open for public tours. Known as the “Cave State,” Missouri’s largest and most famous cave system is Meramec Caverns, situated along the historic Route 66. Its popularity stems from its past as a hideout for the infamous outlaw Jesse James and his gang, as well as its role as a stop along the Underground Railroad. Today, the cave is equipped with neon signs, multicolored lighting, and man-made props, all illuminated by well-lit guided tour routes. Visitors can expect to see the ancient limestone Wine Table, known as the “world’s rarest cave structure,” and a seven-story underground “mansion.”
To visit, tours are available daily every 20 minutes from 9 am onwards. Ticket prices range from $14 for children aged 5-11 to $27 for adults.
Custer, South Dakota
While the Black Hills of South Dakota are famous for their stunning above-ground attractions, it’s easy to overlook the equally impressive underground wonders. Jewel Cave, a national monument designated in 1908, has over 180 miles of mapped and surveyed passageways, making it the world’s third-longest cave system. The cave lives up to its name, featuring stunning calcite crystals that cover the walls and ceilings, resembling dripping jewels. Visitors can also marvel at the 10-foot-long “cave bacon” flowstone.
There are three guided tour options available through the caverns, with difficulty levels ranging from easy to strenuous.
To visit Jewel Cave, tour schedules vary depending on the season, and advance reservations are highly recommended. Ticket prices start at $3 for children and $9 for adults.
Wind Cave National Park
Hot Springs, South Dakota
Wind Cave, the world’s first national park cave, is renowned for its intricate and expansive system, with the entrance producing a constant whistling wind. Wind Cave is one of the longest and most complex cave systems on earth and is home to 95 percent of the world’s boxwork, a delicate, web-like cave formation that remains one of the park’s mysteries. Visitors can explore the cave through ranger-led tours and discover the magnificent wildlife surrounding the caverns, including bison, elk, and prairie dogs.
To visit, advanced tickets are available for purchase, but additional tours and times are also available on a first-come, first-served basis. Self-guided exploring is not permitted for safety reasons. Ticket prices start at $4 for children aged 6-15 and $7 for adults.
Located in Virginia‘s Shenandoah Valley, the Luray Caverns are the largest and most popular caverns in the eastern United States, formed over 400 million years. Every year, approximately half a million visitors come to witness the dramatic underground rock formations, with guided tours taking visitors through Giant’s Hall, known as “Geology’s Hall of Fame,” featuring towering structures like Double Column, Frozen Fountain, Dream Lake, Saracen’s Tent, and Titania’s Veil. Here, visitors can also find the Great Stalacpipe Organ, the largest musical instrument in the world, that uses electronically controlled rubber mallets to tap the cave’s stalactites, transforming three acres of the cave into a music hall.
To visit Luray Caverns, guided tours are available daily from 9 am to 6 pm. Ticket prices are $16 for children aged 6-12 and $32 for adults.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Escape the scorching heat of New Mexico‘s Chihuahuan Desert by exploring the 100+ millennia-old limestone caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. You can embark on a self-guided tour or a ranger-led tour for an additional fee.
The most popular cave at the park is the 357,480-square-foot Big Room, the largest single cave chamber in the United States, which draws in around 300,000 visitors annually. Other areas, such as the Hall of the White Giant and the Spider Cave, require crawling. If you’re visiting between May and October, be sure to stay for the Bat Flight Program, when hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats fly out of the cave at dusk in search of food.
To visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you’ll need to make a reservation online at a cost of $1 per ticket before your visit and purchase an entry pass upon arrival at the park. Children under 16 can enter for free, while adults must pay a fee of $15 per person.
Craighead Caverns is home to the largest non-subglacial underground lake in the United States and the second-largest in the world, known as the Lost Sea. Visitors can embark on the Lost Sea Adventure, which includes a daytime tour or an option to spend the night deep underground and explore undeveloped cave rooms and tight spaces. The cave also boasts an underground waterfall and anthodites, also known as “cave flowers,” which are rare geologic formations. The Lost Sea contains 50% of the world’s known anthodite formations, making it an even more remarkable sight to behold.
To visit the Lost Sea, reservations are required two weeks in advance for the overnight Lost Sea Wild Cave Tour, with a minimum group size of 12. Tour prices start at $47 per person.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
Located in southeastern Arizona, Kartchner Caverns is a 2.4-mile system of underground passageways. Visitors to Kartchner Caves can choose from several different guided tours, which may include the world’s longest soda straw stalactites, the 58-foot Kubla Khan (Arizona’s largest underground column formation), and the 1.2-acre Big Room. The Big Room is home to the world’s most extensive brushite moonmilk formation, a milky white cave deposit. Please note that the Big Room is closed every summer as it serves as a nursery roost for over 1,000 cave bats.
Self-guided tours are not permitted at Kartchner Caverns. However, you can book any tour in advance, and reservations are strongly recommended. Tour prices are $13 for children aged 7-13 and $23 for adults.
Howe Caverns and Secret Caverns
Howes Cave, New York
In the upstate New York hamlet of Howes Cave, visitors can explore underground wonderlands with breathtaking water features at both Howe Caverns and Secret Caverns, although the similarities between the two attractions end there.
Howe Caverns offers a boat ride on a tranquil underground lake’s glassy surface, while Secret Caverns boasts a roaring 100-foot underground waterfall. Howe Caverns provides a more structured experience, whereas the atmosphere at Secret Caverns is reminiscent of a quirky aunt who has lived in an artist commune since the 1970s and has turned a cave into a tourist attraction. Both caverns are worth a visit, and as they are located right next to each other, we recommend exploring both.
To visit Howe Caverns, several tour options are available, including traditional, adventure, and specialty tours such as overnight stays, some of which must be booked online in advance. Tour prices start at $15 for children aged 5-12 and $25 for adults. Meanwhile, Secret Caverns offers only one standard tour, which is available on a first-come, first-served basis, and only cash is accepted. Tour availability varies by season.
Natural Bridge Caverns
San Antonio, Texas
Everything is bigger in Texas, as the saying goes, and that includes the Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest commercial caverns in the United States. Named after the 60-foot natural limestone bridge near its entrance, Natural Bridge offers several types of tours, including the Adventure Tour, which involves crawling through narrow passageways to view undeveloped cavern rooms. Visitors will get muddy during this tour, but it’s a thrilling experience. Natural Bridge is also home to the world’s largest bat colony, and during the summer months, visitors can witness millions of free-tailed bats soaring out of the cave at dusk to forage for food.
To visit Natural Bridge Caverns, prices vary daily but typically start at $17 for children and $25 for adults.
Located on Lookout Mountain, some of the most popular attractions in Chattanooga include ziplines and a century-old limestone castle. However, the main attraction is undoubtedly the 145-foot Ruby Falls. Visitors will descend 260 feet underground in a glass-front elevator, observe ancient formations along the cavern trail, and then view the thunderous falls illuminated by color-changing spotlights. On special after-hours tours, you can experience a descent illuminated only by handheld lanterns.
To visit Ruby Falls, timed-entry tours must be reserved online in advance. Tour prices start at $14 for children aged 3-12 and $25 for adults.
Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington
Formed 2,000 years ago during the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the Ape Caves are the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States, stretching for over two miles beneath the earth. The cave is open year-round, but visitors should be aware that the temperature inside typically remains at 42 degrees, and the walls can be slippery with water and “cave slime.”
The Upper Cave is more rugged and challenging, with an 8-foot lava fall that visitors must climb and some tight spaces to navigate. The Lower Cave, on the other hand, is a broad tube with a flat floor that descends gently and is much easier to explore. As you make your way through the latter, be on the lookout for The Meatball formation, a blob of lava rock that fell from the ceiling during the tube’s formation and petrified, creating an intimidating archway.
To visit the Ape Caves, reservations are required from May through October. Entrance is free, but visitors need a Northwest Forest Pass to enter.
Located in California, Moaning Cavern is home to the largest public cave chamber in the state. Visitors can descend 65 feet underground to see the cavern, which is tall enough to fit the Statue of Liberty from toes to torch. Those who are up for a challenge can take the century-old, 100-foot spiral staircase further down to stand at the base.
Moaning Cavern also holds some of the oldest human remains discovered in America, with 13,000-year-old bodies belonging to prehistoric people who accidentally fell into the cave’s opening. The cave’s name comes from the moaning sounds that are believed to be caused by water dripping into holes on the cavern floor. However, given its history, some believe that the sounds may be from ghosts.
How to visit: The Spiral Tour is available daily on the hour, and reservations are strongly recommended. Tickets start at $23 for visitors aged 12 and up. The Expedition Tour is also available by reservation only, lasting for 3 hours and involves belly-crawling. Tickets for this tour cost $130 for visitors aged 12 and up.
Pigeon Mountain, Georgia
For those seeking an extreme underground adventure, the Fantastic Pit in Ellison’s Cave, found on Pigeon Mountain in northwest Georgia, is not for the faint of heart. This pit cave boasts the deepest free-fall pit in the Lower 48, plunging 586 feet deep. The Fantastic Pit is large enough to hold the Washington Monument (555 feet tall) and nearly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty (305 feet tall). However, this cave system is not for inexperienced cavers. There have been several fatalities here, mostly due to hypothermia from getting stuck in the cold, wet environment, so take caution.
How to visit: This cave is only for experienced cavers and is not open for public tours. Those who have the necessary experience, equipment, and permits can explore the cave at their own risk.
In conclusion, exploring the underground world of caves is an exciting adventure that offers unique experiences and breathtaking natural wonders. The United States is home to approximately 45,000 caves, and this article has highlighted some of the coolest caves ready and waiting for exploration. From the world’s longest cave system in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park to the deepest free-fall pit in Ellison’s Cave in Georgia, there is no shortage of caves to explore. Visitors can marvel at crystal formations, underground lakes, ancient stalactites, and fossils beds, among other wonders. With varying degrees of difficulty and guided tours available, there is something for everyone, whether you’re an experienced caver or a novice looking for a new adventure. So, don’t let potential fears of the dark or tight spaces hold you back from exploring the incredible subterranean world of caves.