Funky Spelunking Spots in National Parks

Katherine RivardPursuits
Lights illuminate the caves in Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park - NPS Photo

In Greek, “spelaion” means cave, so it makes sense that “spelunking” refers to visiting caves! Several national parks are home to incredible networks of caves, making them ideal spots for visitors interested in caving. As you tour these special places, you will have the chance to learn about these interesting geologic formations and enjoy a different kind of #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque trip.

Caving in Kentucky

A group of cavers and a ranger stop in the middle of the pathway along Broadway, a long canyon passage in Mammoth Cave National Park

Broadway passage in Mammoth Cave National Park

NPS Photo

The world’s longest cave lies in Kentucky — Mammoth Cave. The 412+ miles of the cave are further combined with more than 200 caves that sit within Mammoth Cave National Park. The area’s unique features create the perfect classroom for natural science.

The karst basins that have formed here are now the most thoroughly understood conduit flow aquifers in the world. This is particularly important, as about 40 percent of the U.S. population drinks water from karst aquifers. Another cool characteristic of the caves? Many of the underground waters eventually flow out as springs within the park, including the River Styx Spring and Echo River Spring.

A Legendary Cave

Mountain range covered in trees, view from the steep incline trail at Timpanogos Cave National Monument

View from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument

Ken Lund - WikiMedia

A cave shrouded in legend, Utah’s Timpanogos Cave National Monument will awe visitors in more ways than one. The adventurous will be ready to take on the challenge presented by Timpanogos Cave, as visitors must complete a strenuous 1.5 mile hike uphill to access this cave.

Once you’ve made it to the top, enjoy a 55-minute ranger-led tour. Other specialty tours include the Introduction to Caving Tour, which teaches participants about caving and caving etiquette. But be warned: Tours are required (like in many of the caves within the National Park System) and they only run in the summer.

A Beauty in the Black Hills

Caver standing in the illuminated caverns of Jewel Cave National Monument

Caver standing in the passageway leading to the Crushing Deep, Jewel Cave National Monument

NPS Photo / Dan Austin

Visitors to the Black Hills are stunned by the mountainous landscape, but head underground and you’ll be equally as astonished by the incredible formations within Jewel Cave National Monument, the third longest cave in the world. Until 1959, only two miles of the caves had been surveyed, but thanks to the curiosity of a small group of individuals, 200 miles of the caves have now been mapped.  

Despite being underground, you’ll want your camera on hand to capture this cave’s unique beauty. Most of the cave slowly formed as acid-rich groundwater circulated through the area. The geology of the cave is complicated — the product of numerous processes and materials mixing together over billions of years.

A Volcano’s Aftermath

Caver standing in the icy caverns of Crystal Ice Cave, Lava Beds National Monument

Caver in Crystal Ice Cave, Lava Beds National Monument

NPS Photo

With high ceilings and smooth floors, some of the caves at Lava Beds National Monument make for easy caving, yet the most challenging ones require visitors to crawl. These caves were created thousands of years ago by flows of smooth lava, which cooled and solidified on the tops and sides of the tunnels. Similar tubes can be found at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, though they are closed to the public.

Within this network, there are more than 700 caves, and 20 of them have been developed for visitors to explore. Keep your eyes peeled as you travel through the caves — you might just see some of its inhabitants like bats or cave crickets!

Deep Within the Desert

A large amount of soda straw stalactites hang from a small cavity, Doll's Theater, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The Doll's Theater at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

NPS Photo / Peter Jones

The beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert is hard to surpass, but when visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, the true prize lies beneath the desert floor. With names like King’s Palace and the Hall of the White Giant, you know you’re in for a spectacle.

All visitors are welcome to tour the caverns alone, but with reservations, visitors can also enjoy ranger-guided tours. Stick around after the sun sets for the Bat Flight Program, which runs each evening from late May through October. Excited to see the lots of bats fly from the cave’s mouth? The best bat flights are in August and September, right as baby bats begin to fly and migrating bats from the north join in.

Two Worlds, One Park

Boxwork in Wind Cave National Park

Boxwork in Wind Cave National Park

NPS Photo

Not far from Jewel Cave, sits another wonder — Wind Cave National Park. Rolling prairieland filled with bison and elk covers an incredibly complex cave, waiting to be explored. Speleothems, or cave formations, decorate the cave ranging from popcorn (yes, that’s one type of structure!)  to the park’s most famous formations — boxwork.

Popular tours include the Candlelight Cave Tour, where you can explore the cave by candlelight, or the Wild Cave Tour, which requires visitors to wear old clothes and gloves as they crawl and trek through the cave. But be careful! To prevent the spread of white nose syndrome, visitors to the park may not wear clothes previously worn at Jewel Cave.

The Karst Systems of Nevada

Narrow pathway through the Lehman Caves at Great Basin National Park

Lehman Caves at Great Basin National Park

NPS Photo

There are endless unique ways to experience Great Basin National Park, from cycling to pine nut gathering to … caving! While, the park is home to four distinctive cave systems, many of them are off limits in order to protect their fragile ecosystems. However, visitors can enjoy Lehman Caves, which provide an exquisite example of a limestone cave, complete with an assortment of formations.

To explore the cave, you’ll need to take a guided tour, which run daily, year-round, except for some major holidays. There are two options of varying length, both of which require tickets in advance of your visit and often sell out. During the tours, you’ll learn about the history, ecology, and geology of the caves.

When Acid Hits Marble

Warm lights glow in the dark Ghost Room in Oregon Caves National Monument

Ghost Room in Oregon Caves National Monument

NPS Photo

While Crater Lake National Monument sits atop the Cascade Mountain Range, Oregon Caves National Monument sits within the Siskiyou Mountains. Through a guided tour, visitors travel with a park ranger through small, winding passages to explore the caves created by acidic water seeping into marble. Together, they discover what has been dubbed as the “Marble Halls of Oregon.”

Because of the manner of its formation, Oregon Caves is considered a solution cave, meaning it was formed as underground water and acid dissolved the soluble carbonate bedrock. While solution caves are the most common type of cave, including Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Cavern, Oregon Caves is unique in that the process occurred in marble. 

Cool temperatures, dewy air, dimmed lights, and a feeling of being enveloped create a sensory experience unlike any other. Bring a light jacket, wear comfortable, close-toed shoes, and be sure to reserve tickets in advance. Spelunking and caving add just one more way to explore some of the unique places preserved within the National Park System.

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