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10 Guided Public Caves to Get You Exploring Underground

December 29, 2017

Caves are extremely fragile environments, often only resulting in thousands of years of little disturbance. For that reason, caves that are discovered and unprotected can often receive significant and permanent damage from unregulated use. Across the nation, to connect people with the underground world beneath their feet, there are several “show-caves” that not only provide safe access and guided tours of these subterranean environments, but help protect all the stunning speleothems and features they encompass. Whether you are looking for an introduction to caving, or you want to crawl and squeeze your way through a wild cave tour, from beneath the roots of Sequoia National Park to the Cumberland Gap of the Appalachian Mountains, and so many in between, there are enough show caves to explore to stay underground throughout the year. For more information on other show-caves around you, a great resource to start with is the National Caves Association website.

Know Before You Go:
White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) has been documented in caves across the nation and is detrimentally effecting cave-dwelling bat populations. While WNS isn’t noted to harm the human population, it can easily be spread by humans, making it another consideration before visiting a cave. Wearing appropriate clothing that hasn’t been contaminated by previous cave visits and taking the time to Learn More About White-Nose Syndrome can help make your next visit to a cave a fun one for everyone and everything involved.

Mammoth Caves National Park, Kentucky
There are more than a handful of show caves to discover in Kentucky, but none compare to the extensiveness found in Mammoth Caves National Park. With over 400 miles of this subterranean atmosphere already explored, and many passageways still waiting to be discovered, visitors to Mammoth Caves State Park can receive a wide range of tours of this underground space, including lantern-led expeditions and a kids-only “Trog Tour”. Reservations aren’t required but are extremely recommended, especially on holidays and weekend events. The many different tours offered by Mammoth Caves National Park all range in difficulty, price and time spent underground, but each provide outlets to explore this incredible natural wonder in a way that is both safe for you and the environment. Upon your visit, if you decide the underground life is not for you, Mammoth Caves also offers over 70 miles of hiking trails above ground, including four self-guided tours to help you learn more about the world underneath your feet.

Crystal Cave, Sequoia National Park, California
While there is a lot to see at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park aboveground, a fascinating world awaits below for those who want to see it. Not far from the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park, Crystal Cave is a marble cavern full of fragile resources of which can only be seen on a guided tour. Partnering with the National Park Service, the Sequoia Parks Conservancy provides tours of this spectacular underground space through the spring and fall. Tours range from Family Tours on flat surfaces to Wild Cave expeditions where you’ll get a little dirty. Accessing the entrance to Crystal Cave is an adventure itself, and because of its wilderness location, the cave can close unexpectedly at any time, making for reservations and back-up plans a recommended plan of action.

Gap Cave, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Located at the border of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, the Cumberland Gap has been a significant location for pioneers, travelers and explorers for centuries, and still today this culturally iconic swath of land holds a lot to discover. There are many caves in this now nationally designated historical park, and a handful that are open to the public including the backcountry Skylight or Sand Caves. To get the most out of an underground experience at the Cumberland Gap, guided tours are available for perhaps the area’s most dazzling cave system, the Gap Cave, formerly known as Cudjo’s Cave. There is only one guided tour option available for the Gap Cave, which involves a 1.5-mile route that is accommodating for most members of the family, and includes insight on the different environmental factors that created the grand underground cathedral that is the Gap Cave.

Wind Cave, Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Sitting below the intact prairie landscape of the Black Hills National Forest in western South Dakota, Wind Cave provides a stark contrast from the world above it. Constituting as one of the most complex caving systems in the world, Wind Cave is still being actively explored by experts today, and to get a taste of this wild environment, guided tours are offered 362 days of the year. With a wide range of tour options available to meet the need of all kinds of adventurers, every guided outing into the cave sheds some light on the unique arrangement of features that make Wind Cave so unique. Specifically, the formation of the honeycomb-like Boxwork formations in Wind Cave is perhaps the most intricate display of this fragile speleothem found anywhere else in the nation.

Carlsbad Cave, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Consisting of more than 119 caves, Carlsbad Caverns is a world-renowned caving destination that plummets visitors deep below ground underneath the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico. While it might be a little warm above ground throughout the summer months at this southwestern hotspot for adventure, the caves below ground always remain around 56 degrees, making them a year-round destination. Self-guided tours are available to the public to gain access to the “Big Room”, but the recommendation course of action is to reserve your spot on one the many guided tours that can take you into the caves further. The most popular guided experience is the King’s Palace tour, which explores four different chambers all decorated with a wide variety of cave features in an hour and a half. Longer tours are available sporadically throughout the week, and reservation are always recommended.

Luray Caverns, Luray, Virginia
Located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the Luray Caverns were first discovered by modern civilization nearly a century and a half ago, and since then, this cathedral of caverns has become one of the most popular spots to explore underground in the Eastern United States. With 10-story high ceilings and a 47-foot column, the sheer enormity of Luray Caverns is almost hard to believe with your own eyes, even with the many lights installed to help you find your way. Guided tours come provided with every admission into Luray Caverns, and visitors can expect to see more calcite formations than they’ll ever see again in their life. With the admission into the cave, patrons can also spend time on the self-guided tour above ground of the Luray Valley Museum and Car & Carriage Caravan.

“The Cave State”, Missouri
With well over 6,000 caves in the state of Missouri, the people at the Missouri Caves Association have coined the term “Cave Factory” for the many continuing geological processes happening beneath their feet. It’s the karst areas of the Ozarks that lend to so many caves, and over thousands of years these once spring-fed areas have morphed into the colossal caves they are today, many of which you can explore with some helpful guidance. Fantastic Caverns offers America’s only ride-thru caving experience via jeep-drawn trams, and Talking Rock Cavern near Silver Dollar City has been touted as Missouri’s most beautiful cave. Whichever Missouri cave system you choose to explore, you’ll be treated to a unique underground experience with each visit.  

Kartchner Caverns State Park, Benson, Arizona
Located in southern Arizona, Kartchner Caverns have been developing for thousands upon thousands of years, but was only discovered by modern civilization in 1974. With conservation efforts in mind, Kartchner Caverns wasn’t introduced to the public for over a decade after its discovery, once the landowners reached an agreement with the state to make this geologically significant area a protected state park. The two main rooms that are currently available for public tours include the Rotunda-Throne Room and Big Room, which both offer unique formations like 20-foot soda straw stalactites, birds nest needle formations and “Kubla-Khan”, Arizona’s largest known underground column. Much of the Kartchner Caverns are wheelchair and limited-mobility accessible, making these southwestern caverns fun for everyone to enjoy.

Natural Bridge Caverns, San Antonio, Texas
Like many things in Texas, the Natural Bridge Caverns located just outside of San Antonio are big. In fact, this popular tourist destination is the largest show cave in the state, and with open availability year-round to explore this geological wonder as part of a guided tour, there’s little limit to the amount of exploration to be done at the Natural Bridge Caverns. With four different types of tours available, ranging from lantern-lit to hidden passageway exploring, whatever type of cave experience you’re looking for, Natural Bridge Caverns can provide the guidance needed to have a great time. Natural Bridge Caverns also offers plenty of attractions above ground as well, including a zip-line canopy tour and an open-air maze that is perfect for exploring after a caving experience.

Mystery Cave, Preston, Minnesota
Spanning for 13 miles underground, Mystery Cave is Minnesota’s largest known cave, and with some guidance from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, you can discover the mystery of the underground world. In conjunction with Forestville State Park, this southern Minnesota cave system is only available for viewing through guided tours that are offered everyday throughout the summer and every weekend for the rest of the year. Patrons have their choice of cave tours when visiting, ranging from the popular scenic cave tour which takes an hour to a photography tour catering towards those with tripods. Throughout Mystery Cave, visitors can expect to see stalactites, stalagmites, fossils and underground pools, many of which are exposed through dramatic lighting installed by the park.

Other Outdoorsy Stuff

Where to Watch Whales (and When)

December 4, 2017

Photo: Steve Halama

Seeing a whale in the wild is quite the unique sight. With the average adult humpback whale ranging between 40 and 52 feet long and weighing up to 45 tons, this type of enormity is rarely seen in our natural world. Despite their size, whales also exhibit a seemingly peaceful demeanor and acrobatic prowess as they glide through the water. Whatever it is about whale-watching that peaks your interest, there is opportunity to enjoy it year-round in the United States. Ranging from up and down the western coasts to the Atlantic waters of Florida and Maine, Humpback Whales in migration and Right Whales coming back from extinction can be spotted from land, boat or even the air. Don’t forget though, to improve your chances of seeing one of these mammoth mammals, it’s not just about the location, it’s your timing that will ensure some successful whale-watching endeavors.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska (June to August)
While there are more than a handful of great spots to go whale watching in Alaska (including Kodiak Island & the city of Juneau), thanks to its designation as a Humpback Whale Sanctuary, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve ranks as one of the best places to spot these cetacean creatures. The cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Icy Straight and Point Adolphus of Glacier Bay are a perfect place for humpback and minke whales to refuel on their journey through the ocean, and because the waters are heavily regulated, more and more of these massive mammals have been spotted each year. The optimal time to see migrating whales from Glacier Bay is between June and August, and with many private companies happy to charter you a ride, if you visit within this season, the chances are very high you’ll see some of the high-flying, water-shooting fun provided by passing by whales.

Monterey Submarine Canyon, California (All Year)
Stretching from Mexico to Alaska, the great migration of Grey Whales that happens twice a year is one of the biggest natural migrations in the animal kingdom. Along this route it should come as no surprise that the State of California is one of the best places to see whales passing by. Stretching from down south near the Baja peninsula and warm waters of San Diego, up to the northern shores near San Francisco, California provides whale-watching opportunities throughout the year. Of special note, the underwater equivalent of the Grand Canyon known as the Submarine Canyon (or Monterey Canyon), just off of Monterey Bay, provides the deep waters needed to see all sorts of different whales all year long. Other popular whale-watching spots in California include Big Sur, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Mendocino and up and down the entire shore.

Lime Kiln State Park, San Juan Islands, Washington (May – September)
Like many of the locations mentioned on this list, visiting the San Juan Islands can be a great time even if you don’t happen to spot a whale breaching the water. Featuring a rugged shore and exotic environment, Orca whales are year-round residents of the San Juan Islands, and while there are many locations and charter boats to choose from to see these wild animals in the water, Lime Kiln State Park is a popular place to see them from the shore. Also known as Whale Watch Park, Lime Kiln is found on the western shore of the actual San Juan Island within the archipelago, and is considered one of the best places to watch whales from land in the United States. Educational opportunities are found throughout Lime Kiln State Park as well, providing a little insight on the magnificent sights you can see from shore.

Virginia Beach, Virginia (January – March)
For a winter whale-watching excursion, you can catch a good glimpse of humpback whales on the Atlantic Coast of Virginia Beach between the months of January and March. While there are plenty of excellent private charter options to see these whales on the move, the programs offered by the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center provide the most insight behind the sight-seeing aspect of whale watching. While whale tours are only available within the months of winter, you can go on other marine tours including a Dolphin Discoveries Sea Tour throughout the rest of the year as well.

Long Island, New York (July to September)
The Atlantic waters off Long Island are New York’s capital whale-watching spot, and the nutrient-rich waters are noted to be a stopping point for over 25 different species of Whales. Most whale watching excursions of Long Island launch off from the historic town of Montauk located on the eastern end of the south shore. If you want to take part in the scientific action alongside the whale watching, the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI) welcomes you aboard their research vessels throughout the season. A great way to learn about and help the scientific community that supports the endangered whale species, CRESLI has a 90% success rate when it comes to spotting whales, ensuring that not only will you see what you came for when you whale watch with CRESLI, but you’ll be helping the community you’re visiting while you’re at it.

Photo: Steve Halama

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (December to May)
In response to diminishing numbers in whale populations, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was created by Congress in 1992. This marine safe-haven, which surrounds the shallow and warm waters (less than 600 feet) of the Hawaiian main islands, are a favorite honeymoon destination for humpback whales when they return each winter to breed and raise their young. It should be no surprise then that this popular whale destination is also a popular place to see these sea creatures which can range from 40 to 52 feet in length. The Marine Sanctuary provides their Top 10 Sites for Shoreline Whale Watching, but also note whale-watching opportunities exist along all shorelines of Hawaii, and boat tours are becoming an ever increasing popular way to see these mammals from a closer dista

Bar Harbor, Maine (May to October)
Located just outside of the Acadia National Park boundary on the Gulf of Maine, Bar Harbor provides countless opportunities to see Humpback whales breaching, hopping and tail lobbing. Whether you opt for a chartered boat and/or catamaran ride that can take you along the coast of Acadia, or you take your binoculars to a pier, throughout the summer and early Autumn, your chances are high to see the mammoth acrobats popping out of the water. A popular outfit to travel with in Bar Harbor is the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company, which also offers other guided tours outside of the season to witness the variety of marine life and rugged ecosystems offered by the coast of Maine.

Whale Watching Center, Depoe Bay, Oregon (Year-Round)
While whales are spotted off the Oregon Coast in Depoe Bay throughout the year, the best concentrations of grey whales occur in the winter and spring as thousands of these migrating mammals make their way back to the warm waters of Baja. The brick and mortar Whale Watching Center, operated by Oregon State Parks, is one of the reasons the city of Depoe Bay proclaims itself to be the whale-watching capital of the Oregon Coast. The other reason lies within the vast number of whales that can be spotted from the shore, or from one of the many commercial outfits that can take you out on the water. To find out when the two Whale Weeks take place, which features the peak viewing times of the massive migrations, plus professional shore-side assistance to spot the whales, stayed tuned to the Whale Watching Center’s Whale Watching Spoken Here program.

Jacksonville, Florida (December to March)
Once reduced to extremely low populations by hunters, the Right Whale is slowly making a comeback into existence, and can be seen off the Atlantic Coast of Florida near Jacksonville every winter. Right Whale sightings in Florida are not as frequent as Humpbacks on the West Coast, and so there are few chartered boat options available to see this unique species of whale. With some local knowledge and a little patience however, Right Whales can be spotted from the shore throughout the winter. The volunteer teams and scientist associated with the Marineland Right Whale Project can help you look in the right direction to spot the Right Whales, and can provide an outlet for you to be part of the conservation conversation regarding this endangered species.