Travel

The Most Stunning Caves in America

For active outdoors enthusiasts, some days it feels like everything has already been done, nothing new remains, everything is meaningless and maybe you should just take up an indoor hobby instead. But wait! There is some good news: Caving (also alternatively known as spelunking in America and Canada, and potholing in Britain) has yet to be ruined by extreme sports bros and selfie-snapping tourists.

Better yet, there are an estimated 45,000 caves in the contiguous US alone (we're not even counting Alaska!), meaning there really is no limit to the amount of underground passageways available for you to explore if you don't have issues with the dark or with small, chest-constricting spaces -- which helpfully eliminates, like, more than half the population. Here we've picked out some of the coolest caves in the country to explore. Happy cave-diving, and don't watch The Descent before you head out there!

Meramec Caverns

Sullivan, Missouri
With more than 6,400 recorded caves -- though only 20 are open to the public for guided tours -- Missouri is known as the "Cave State." Meramec Caverns is the largest and most well-known of the bunch, thanks to its location along historic Route 66 and its infamy as a former hideout for Jesse James and his gang. It was also a stop along the Underground Railroad. These days it's outfitted with with neon signs, multicolored mood lighting, and manmade props along the well-lit guided tours. Meramec's 150,000 annual visitors can expect to see an ancient limestone Wine Table (which they call "world's rarest cave structure") and a seven-story "mansion" built underground.

Fantastic Caverns

Springfield, Missouri
Fantastic Caverns is the only cave in North America to offer a completely ride-through tour, which lasts about an hour in a Jeep-drawn tram. This is not to cater to the laziness of Americans who can’t handle a mile-long walk -- and you know this is a true statement about real life -- but to preserve the natural beauty of the cave's vulnerable features.

Marvel Cave at Silver Dollar City

Branson, Missouri
If you're going to go cave exploring, you might as well make it part of a larger theme park experience. At Branson's Silver Dollar City, tours of the Marvel Cave are included with the price of admission and depart every 30 minutes. The hour-long tour will start by taking you 300 feet below the surface into the grand Cathedral Room, ultimately taking you down 500 feet below the surface in Missouri's deepest cave. Afterward hit the Outlaw Run, the former Guinness World Record holder for the steepest wooden roller coaster. Because it's fun!

Lost Canyon Cave at Top of the Rock

Ridgedale, Missouri
OK, yes, this is a LOT from Missouri. But it's the CAVE STATE! Also, this is one you can drink in -- in fact, you are encouraged to do so. At the Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve located on a spectacular bluff overlooking Table Rock Lake, you'll find a Jack Nicklaus-designed par-3 golf course, the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum (with one of the finest and most extensive collections of ancient Ozark artifacts found in any museum in the world), beautifully designed dining spaces featuring custom artwork and Native artifacts, and a wine cellar dug out of the rock that opens out onto a patio with an infinity pool that overlooks the lake that is one of the best perches to view a sunset possibly anywhere.

But right, caves! So on the Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail, you'll hop aboard an electric golf cart, drive across covered Amish bridges, past dramatic natural rock formations and stunning waterfalls, and through the Lost Canyon Cave, where you will have a drink at the "cave bar" nestled next to the cascading underground four-story waterfall. Read that last sentence again and tell me that doesn't sound appealing.

Jewel Cave

Custer, South Dakota
There is so much cool shit to see above ground in the Black Hills of South Dakota that you might not even think there is just as much cool shit to see beneath the surface. Well, surprise! Jewel Cave, designated a national monument in 1908, has more than 180 miles of mapped and surveyed passageways, making it the third longest in the world. You can take one of four different guided tours through it, from easy to strenuous, but unfortunately you can't go exploring on your own -- no self-guided cave touring is allowed here. Three of the four tours do not accept reservations and are available on a first-come basis (though you can purchase tickets earlier in the day for a later tour), while the more extreme Wild Caving Tour does accept reservations. This one lasts three-to-four hours and is marked "extremely strenuous" where you will chimney cave walls, scramble over cave breakdown, use a rope assist on a nearly vertical wall, and belly-crawl through tight passages in areas with names like the Roller Coaster and Brain Drain.

Cosmic Cavern

Berryville, Arkansas
Out of Missouri but still in the Ozarks, Cosmic Cavern is Arkansas's largest privately-owned show cave, located right between Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri. The cave is the warmest in the Ozarks at an unwavering 64 degrees year-round -- so, nice and cool in the summer, and nice and warm in the winter -- and features two "bottomless" cave lakes so deep that the bottoms have yet to be found. One of them, South Lake, has had trout in it for nearly 50 years -- some are blind and most are colorless. The other, in the Silent Splendor section that also features a 9-foot soda straw (the longest in the Ozarks), is so pristine and untouched that many of the beautiful formations are transparent. Guided walking tours run one hour, 15 minutes.

Wind Cave National Park

Hot Springs, South Dakota
Wind Cave (so named for the whistling wind ever-present at its entrance) is considered one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. It is home to 95 percent of the world's entire collection of the delicate, web-like boxwork cave formations, which remain one of the cave's many mysteries. It was the world's first cave to be designated a national park in 1903, and visitors can explore it through ranger-led tours including two specialty tours: the Historic Candlelight Cave Tour and the more daring Wild Cave Tour. Reservations are accepted for both; all other tours of varying degrees of difficulty are first come, first served, and no self-guided exploring is permitted.

Luray Caverns

Luray, Virginia
The largest, most popular caverns in Eastern America are the Luray Caverns in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, some 4 million centuries in the making. Half a million visitors each year come to see the dramatic underground rock formations with guided tours that take you through Giant’s Hall with its towering Double Column, Frozen Fountain, Dream Lake, Saracen’s Tent, Titania's Veil, and the Great Stalacpipe Organ -- the largest instrument in the world which uses electronically-controlled rubber mallets to gently tap the cave's stalactites, turning 3 acres of the cave into a music hall.

Mammoth Cave

Mammoth National Park, Kentucky
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the longest cave system in the world with 400 miles of explored caves.​ Free self-guided tours, as well as not-free guided tours, are available all year, ranging from the kid-friendly (read: easy) to the moderately strenuous but incredibly scenic to the strenuous and challenging. There are a LOT of different options for guided tours, but if you're looking for some excitement, the six-hour Wild Cave Tour is for you, winding through 5 miles of "wild" cave passages that require climbing, crawling, and squeezing to get through. Because of white nose syndrome, a disease caused by an invasive fungus that is destroying the North American cave-dwelling bat population, cavers are not permitted to use their own equipment but for boots; all other equipment and outwear (including gloves) is provided by the park.

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
In the dead heat of summer you might not otherwise want to spend too much time in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico, but things get a little cooler beneath the surface as you explore the 119+ caves of this national park. Sulfuric acid dissolving the surrounding limestone formed these caves over millions of years, and you can explore them on one of two different self-guided tours, or join a ranger-led tour for an additional fee. The Big Room is the most popular, drawing in some 300,000 visitors per year to explore its 357,480 square feet. Other areas, like the Hall of the White Giant and the Spider Cave, require crawling. And if you're visiting May through October, stick around for the Bat Flight Program, when hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats exit the cave at dusk to forage for food.

Kartchner Caverns State Park

Benson, Arizona
Kartchner Caverns is a 2.4-mile system of underground passageways located in southeastern Arizona. Once named Arizona's best attraction by USA Today readers (FWIW), visitors to Kartchner Caves can choose from several different guided tours which might include the 58-foot Kubla Khan, the largest underground column formation in Arizona; the world’s longest soda straw stalactites; or the 1.2-acre Big Room, which is home to the world's most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk, a milky white cave deposit. Unfortunately the Big Room is closed each summer as it is a nursery roost for over 1,000 cave bats. Sorry, no self-guided tours here, but you can book any tour in advance.

Natural Bridge Caverns

San Antonio, Texas
So of course the Natural Bridge Caverns in Texas are the largest commercial caverns in the country, because that makes perfect sense -- Texas, and all. Named for the 60-foot natural limestone bridge near its entrance, Natural Bridge Caverns offers a few different kinds of tours, one of which -- the Hidden Passages Tour -- involves exploration solely by the light of your headlamp with a 160-foot rappel down a 22-inch-wide shaft and crawling your way 230 feet below the surface. You'll also see a 14-foot soda straw stalactite, one of the largest formations of its kind in North America. Natural Bridge Caverns is also home to the largest bat colony in the world, and visitors can witness the nightly Bracken Bat Flight during the summer months, when millions of free-tailed bats spiral out of the cave at dusk for their nightly food foraging.

Craighead Caverns

Sweetwater, Tennessee
Inside Craighead Caverns you'll find the largest non-subglacial underground lake in the United States (and second-largest in the world), known as the Lost Sea. On the Lost Sea Wild Cave Tour, visitors will actually spend the night deep underground as they explore undeveloped cave rooms and crawl and squeeze their way through some very tight spaces. The cave also features an underground waterfall and unique geologic formations called anthodites -- aka "cave flowers" -- that are so rare that the Lost Sea contains 50% of the world's known formations. Reservations are required for the overnight Lost Sea Wild Cave Tour.

Ape Caves

Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington
Ape Caves represent the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States at more than 2 miles long, formed 2,000 years ago when Mount St. Helens erupted. Self-guided tours are free and the cave is open all year, but take note that it is also a rather chilly 42 degrees year-round and the walls are slick with dripping water and "cave slime." The Upper Cave is more rugged and challenging, with a slick 8-foot lava fall you need to scale (with only one good foothold) and some tight spaces to squeeze through. The Lower Cave is much easier -- a broad tube with a flat floor that descends gently. While making your way through keep an eye out for the formation called The Meatball, an orb of lava rock that fell from the ceiling like a blob as hot lava was flowing through and forming the tube.

Moaning Cavern

Vallecito, California
All right, we know, some of you have been reading this list and thinking YAWN, because you are a badass spelunker person and the idea of a guided cave tour along well-lit pathways is just SO incredibly lame to you, we KNOW. Head to Moaning Cavern, where you can rappel 165 feet down a vertical shaft into the largest public cave chamber in the state of California. Or walk 234 stairs down into the same space, whatever. Fun fact: Moaning Cavern is home to some of the oldest human remains discovered in America; it is the final resting place for the bodies of prehistoric people dating back 13,000 years who, it is presumed, fell into its opening. OR WERE THEY SACRIFICED TO THE CAVE??? We will never know, but let's just say that Moaning Cavern gets its name for good reason, and even though allegedly the moaning sounds for which it is named are caused by water dripping into holes on the cavern floor... are they really, though???

Ellison's Cave

Pigeon Mountain, Georgia
Located inside Ellison's Cave, a pit cave found on Pigeon Mountain in the Appalachian Plateaus of northwest Georgia, the Fantastic Pit is everything your hardcore caver heart desires. Grab your helmet, your harness, and your critter, and get ready for the deepest free-fall pit in the Lower 48 at 586 feet deep. It is big enough to hold the Washington Monument (555 feet tall) and is nearly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty (305 feet tall). This cave system is only for seriously experienced cavers; there have been a number of fatalities here, most due to hypothermia from getting stuck in the cold, wet environment, so proceed with caution.

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Nicole Rupersburg used to be big into hiking until someone fell 30-plus feet onto her face, and now she thinks caving with all its tight overhead spaces might be the way to go. But you can still see plenty of hiking photos on her IG @eatsdrinksandleaves.