By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
One of the nicest things about touring caves is that you can do it in almost any season. If the weather is hot, windy, or cold outside, descend into the realm below where the temperature stays in a more moderate range. In addition, caves can be found all over the United States “” if not where you live, then a state or two away.
1. Blanchard Springs Caverns, Arkansas
A few miles north of Mountain View in the midst of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests lies a cave system that was discovered and developed not too long ago. Now the caverns stand as the only underground attraction operated by the U.S. Forest Service. The emphasis here is on protection, on keeping this treasure a “living” example of nature’s wonders. (Too often in the past, the presence of multitudes of admirers changed “” for the worse “” the very caves that people come to see.) Two trails take visitors through huge, formation-filled rooms and to the underground stream that eventually gushes as Blanchard Springs. Guides interpret the features seen and relate them to the life cycle of cave formation and degradation.
2. Boyden Cavern, California
Boyden Cavern is located inside of Giant Sequoia National Monument, one of the most beautiful places on earth. The popular 45-minute Family Walking Tour is perfect for the entire family, from kids to senior citizens. The tour begins with a five-minute walk to the cavern entrance. From there visitors travel deep within, where the temperature is a constant 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Groups follow a well-lit and handrail-equipped trail as guides point out many natural varieties of formations. Popular features include the Pancake Room, Upside Down City, Mother Nature’s Wedding Cake, the Taco Shell, and the Christmas Tree.
3. Moaning Cavern, California
What follows should be taken as a report, not a recommendation. We haven’t rappelled into a cave, nor are we planning to try it any time soon, but for those braver than we are, no experience is necessary “” except for the outfitters who will equip you with a full-body harness and a rappelling brake. All is not black and spooky, however; you’ll drop at your own pace into the same artificially lit chamber that less intrepid cave lovers (like us) reach by stairs. Legend has it that Moaning Cavern’s first tourists were lowered into the huge chamber (large enough to hold the Statue of Liberty) in ore buckets, with just candles to light their way. Spooky, huh?
4. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky
Along the south face of Cumberland Mountain are 24 caves varying from 20 feet to more than 6 miles in length. Some of the caves contain dome pits as much as 125 feet deep. Sand Cave, a Natural Scenic Area in Kentucky, is a half-domed chamber, 250 feet across at the entrance.
5. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Tradition has it that a wounded bear sought sanctuary in this cave. The hunter followed, and found himself in a mammoth cavern. He forgot the bear. Now a national park, the caves attract visitors from all over. Mammoth Cave is the longest recorded cave system in the world, boasting more than 360 miles of explored caves. It includes main avenues, underground gardens of gypsum flowers, and onyx formations. In some places, the walls and ceiling are studded with gypsum crystals. The park offers 13 cave tours with varying degrees of difficulty.
6. Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Lehman Caves is one of the best places to see rare shield formations “” made up of two circular halves that look like flattened clamshells. More than 300 shields are known to exist in these caves, more than any other system. The caves are profusely decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, flowstone, and other formations that cover almost every surface but the floor. Some formations are still actively growing, while others may restart in the future.
7. Oregon Caves National Monument, Oregon
All of southern Oregon’s natural beauty isn’t located aboveground. This cave is accessible to all but small children and those with heart conditions, although the very tall might have some trouble scrunching through narrow gaps in the walls. A one-hour, 1/2-mile walk down the “Marble Halls of Oregon” leads you through sparkling grottoes, along the River Styx, through the Banana Room, and into Paradise Lost.
8. Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota
With more than 130 miles surveyed, Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave system in the world, and a vast area remains unexplored. But don’t worry; you aren’t required to view all those miles of scenery firsthand. Cave tours provide opportunities for viewing this pristine cave system and its draperies, frostwork, boxwork, and balloons. If that doesn’t impress you, the cave also serves as a hibernaculum (winter shelter) for several species of hibernating bats.
9. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
One of the world’s longest and most complex caves is in a 28,000-acre setting of prairie and forest. You expect to have wind on the prairie, but here the wind blows underground. Wind Cave’s 112 miles of passageways contain a variety of chambers with descriptive names such as Garden of Eden and Devils Lookout. The cave system also is known for its boxwork “” unusual honeycomb-like formations.
10. Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah
This national monument sits high in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. The cave system consists of three spectacularly decorated caverns, but you must first hike a steep 1-1/2-mile trail to get there. Once inside you’ll find formations called draperies and popcorn, as well as the usual stalactites and stalagmites. The cave is open mid-May to mid-October, weather permitting. This is a popular cave “” on the day of a tour, tickets may be purchased until the tours are filled. Tickets also can be purchased up to 30 days in advance by calling the monument and paying by credit card.
11. Ape Cave, Washington
Unlike caves carved by water, Ape Cave is a lava tube created during one of Mount St. Helens’ eruptions, approximately 2,000 years ago. During the eruption, channels of lava flowed from the base. Some crusted over with the lava still flowing inside. When the eruption ended, the molten rock drained out, leaving the lava tube behind. The cave’s 2-1/2-mile tunnel was discovered in 1946 by a local Boy Scout troop. Even though recent volcanic activity has forced restrictions in some areas of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Ape Cave remains open. However, check on closures before visiting this area.
12. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
This extraordinary park contains more than 100 known caves. Featuring one of the world’s largest underground chambers and countless formations, this cave is highly accessible, with a variety of tours offered year-round. The formation of Carlsbad Caverns began 250 million years ago, a story well told by tour guides. You can listen as you walk, enjoying the popcorn, soda straws, cave pearls, lily pads, rimstone dams, and other cave formations.
13. Lechuguilla Cave, New Mexico
Located within the boundaries of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Lechuguilla Cave holds the record as the deepest cave in the United States, some 1,632 feet below the ground. Currently, 101 miles of the cave are mapped, with no end in sight. Lechuguilla was discovered in 1986 and is off-limits to anyone but scientific researchers in order to protect its never-before-seen crystal formations. Lechuguilla Cave surpasses Carlsbad Caverns in size and, perhaps, natural beauty. It will be awhile before the welcome sign goes up, but perhaps, someday ….