It’s easy to assume you have to travel overseas to see the world’s most amazing natural wonders. Luckily for travelers, that’s not true at all. Americans can visit some of the best beachesbest parksand the best caves on the planet without a passport.
If you’re ready to go deeper and explore some of America’s most hidden natural wonders, here are eight of the most incredible caves in the country.
The largest: Mammoth Cave
Mammoth National Park, Kentucky
Let’s not bury the lede here. If you’re looking to tick 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, made up of over 400 miles of surveyed passageways, and plenty more to explore. Budding cavers can explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site on a variety of free self-guided tours, but it’s worth splurging on the paid tours which offer far more exciting exploration opportunities. The six-hour Wild Cave Tour is a solid bet that takes visitors through more than eight kilometers of passages with a good mix of rock climbing, belly crawling and squeezing through impossibly tight tunnels. Claustrophobes need not apply.
The most musical: the caves of Luray
Nestled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is one of the most visited cave systems in the country, with over 500,000 visitors a year. Luray Caverns isn’t the biggest, toughest or most spectacular, but it does have the unique Stalacpipe organ. This one, the largest musical instrument in the world, relies on electronically controlled rubber mallets to “play” the stalactites in the cave. The notes echo through more than three acres of the cave with 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 might be what you’re looking for. The centerpiece of this commercial cave is a towering vertical chamber that is officially California’s largest public cave. It’s so tall, in fact, that the entire Statue of Liberty could fit on it. The best part is that visitors can abseil the 165 feet to the bottom. Less adventurous travelers are advised to walk all the way via a spiral staircase. A 2.5-hour in-depth tour explores the depths of the cave system through unique rock formations with charming names such as 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.
Craziest: Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
No “best of” list of American caves would be complete without a mention of the Carlsbad Caverns. Buried beneath the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, this 250 million year old underground system has more than 300 limestone caves. There’s plenty to see here, including the 14-acre cave’s flagship Great Hall, as well as other natural creations shaped by sulfuric acid that dissolved the surrounding limestone over millions of years. The most fascinating feature of the cave occurs from May to October every year. During these months, the Bat Flight program offers visitors a mass exodus of more than 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats that escape daily from caves at sunset in search of dinner. It’s a spectacular photo shoot!
Windiest: Wind Cave National Park
Hot Springs, South Dakota
Nestled in southwestern South Dakota is one of America’s most fascinating caves. Wind Cave National Park – so named for the constant wind that whistles at its entrance – is one of the oldest and least visited national parks in the country. It is also one of the longest caves in the world with an intricate underground network of caverns stretching over 230 km. To cave nerds, it’s particularly noteworthy for its unique “box” formations that cover the ceiling with an eerie cobweb-like network of calcite.
The most adventurous: the natural caves of the bridge
San Antonio, TX
Everything in Texas needs to be bigger. With that in mind, it’s fitting that San Antonio is home to Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest trading caverns in the United States. Here, visitors can experience a 14-foot soda straw stalactite (again, the largest of its kind in the country). During the summer, millions of bats come out of the cave every night to look for food. The spectacular exhibit alone is reason enough to visit the caverns. Several guided tour options are available. Particularly adventurous explorers should opt to visit the Hidden Passages, however. Highlights include rappelling 160 feet down a 22-inch-wide shaft, then belly-crawling through a legitimate wilderness cave nearly 300 feet below the surface.
Wettest: Craighead Caverns
Huge underground lake looks like either the world’s most incredible bucket list destination or the setting of an underground horror movie straight to Netflix (to see Lowering). It depends on your imagination. Either way, Craighead Caverns is worth a visit. This Tennessee cave system is home to Lost Sea, the largest non-subglacial underground lake in the world, as well as an underground waterfall and more than 50% of the anthodites (also called “cave flowers”). Book a place on the Wild Lost Sea Cave Tour to explore it all on a once-in-a-lifetime night caving expedition. They even give you a free sewing patch!
Laziest: Fantasy caves
For those who enjoy caving but hate the physical activity usually required, there is Fantastic Caverns. This Springfield, Missouri attraction is the only guided end-to-end cave tour in North America. Visitors relax aboard a jeep-pulled tram for a one-kilometre ride. It should be noted, however, that this is not to flatter ‘lazy Americans’, but rather to protect the pristine state of the cave’s fragile, age-old formations.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, it’s a good idea to check each cave’s official websites to confirm their respective opening hours and safety protocols. If you want more ideas for a more adventurous vacation, check out our Big Sur guide, our Wyoming travel guide, our Oaxaca (Mexico) travel guide, and our Iceland travel guide. Long live safe and happy travel!
The cover photo was taken by Yinan Chen, under a Creative Commons license, and made available by Wikimedia.