It’s easy to assume you need to travel internationally to see the world’s most amazing natural wonders. Thankfully — especially in the time of COVID-19 — that isn’t true at all. Americans can visit some of the best beaches, best parks, and best caves on the planet without a passport. Here are eight of the country’s most incredible caves.
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.
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.
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 rappel 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 explores 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 ever discovered in North America.
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!
Hot Springs, South Dakota
Tucked into southwestern South Dakota is one of America’s most fascinating caves. Wind Cave National Park — so named for the constant wind whistling through its entrance — is among the nation’s oldest and least-visited national parks. It’s also one of the world’s longest caves with an intricate underground network of caverns that runs for more than 147 miles. For cave nerds, it’s particularly notable for its unique “boxwork” formations that cover the ceiling in an eerie, spiderweb-like lattice of calcite.
San Antonio, Texas
Everything about Texas has to be bigger. So, it’s fitting that San Antonio is home to Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest commercial caverns in the U.S. Here, visitors can check out a 14-foot soda straw stalactite (again, the largest of its kind in the country). During the summer, millions of bats flitter out of the cave every evening to forage for food. The dramatic display alone is reason enough to visit the caverns. There are several guided tour options available. Particularly adventurous explorers, however, should opt for the Hidden Passages Tour. Highlights include rappelling 160 feet down a 22-inch-wide shaft, then belly-crawling through a legit wild cave nearly 300 feet below the surface.
A massive underground lake sounds either like the most incredible bucket-list-worthy destination in the world or like the setting of a straight-to-Netflix, subterranean horror movie (see The Descent). It depends on your imagination. Either way, Craighead Caverns is worth a visit. This Tennessee cave system is home to Lost Sea, the world’s largest non-subglacial underground lake, plus an underground waterfall and more than 50% of the world’s anthodites (also known as “cave flowers”). Book a spot on the Lost Sea Wild Cave Tour to explore it all on a once-in-a-lifetime overnight spelunking expedition. Free sew-on patch included!
For those who appreciate spelunking but loathe the physical activity typically required, there’s Fantastic Caverns. This Springfield, Missouri attraction is North America’s only end-to-end, ride-through cave tour. Visitors relax aboard a Jeep-pulled tram for the mile-long ride. It’s worth noting, however, that this isn’t to pander to “lazy Americans,” but rather to protect the pristine state of the cave’s fragile, millennia-old formations.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, it’s important to consult the official websites for each cave to confirm their hours of operation.
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