It’s easy to assume you need to travel internationally to see the world’s most amazing natural wonders, but Americans can visit some of the best beaches, best parks, and best caves on the planet without a passport. Here are four of the country’s most beautiful caves.
The Biggest: Mammoth Cave
Mammoth National Park, Kentucky
Let’s not bury the lede here. If you’re looking to check off a major cave-related bucket list item, head to Kentucky. The state is home to Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world consisting of more than 400 miles of surveyed passages, and many more yet to be explored. Budding spelunkers can explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site through a variety of free self-guided tours, but it’s worth splurging on the paid tours which provide far more interesting exploration opportunities. The six-hour Wild Cave Tour is a solid bet that takes visitors through more than five miles of passageways with a good mix of climbing, belly crawling, and squeezing through impossibly narrow tunnels. Claustrophobics need not apply.
The Most Musical: Luray Caverns
Tucked into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is one of the country’s most visited cave systems with more than 500,000 visitors annually. Luray Caverns isn’t the largest, the most challenging, or the most spectacular, but it does boast the one-of-a-kind Stalacpipe Organ. This, the largest musical instrument in the world, relies on electronically-operated rubber mallets to “play” the cave’s stalactites. The notes reverberate through more than three acres of the cave with a hauntingly beautiful sound.
The Most Vertical: Moaning Cavern
If a typical guided cave tour isn’t enough to get you out of bed in the morning, Moaning Cavern may be what you’re looking for. The centerpiece of this commercial cave is a towering vertical chamber that’s officially the largest public cavern in California. It’s so tall, in fact, that the entire Statue of Liberty could fit inside of it. The best part is that visitors can repel the full 165 feet to the bottom. Less adventurous travelers are welcome to trek the entire way via a spiral staircase. A thorough, 2.5-hour tour offers the opportunity to explore deep inside the cave system through unique rock formations with charming names like Birth Canal, Meat Grinder, and Pancake Squeeze. Historians will appreciate that the cavern is also home to some of the oldest remains discovered in North America.
The Most Batty: Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
No “best of” list of U.S. caves would be complete without a mention of Carlsbad Caverns. Buried beneath New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, this 250-million-year-old subterranean system boasts more than 300 limestone caves. There’s plenty to see here, including the cave’s flagship 14-acre Big Room, plus other natural creations shaped by sulfuric acid dissolving the surrounding limestone over millions of years. But, the cave’s most fascinating feature occurs from May through October each year. The Bat Flight Program during these months treats visitors to a mass exodus of more than 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats escaping the caves daily at sunset in search of dinner. It’s a spectacular photo op!