“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” – Joseph Campbell
For some, the idea of exploring natural wonders beneath earth’s surface is terrifying. For others, the thought is exhilarating. There are more than 55,500 caves in the United States today, but only a fraction of those are open for public viewing. Many caves have been deemed too dangerous for amateurs, while others have yet to be explored. However, you don’t need to be a professional to gaze at the gravity-defying formations and other natural wonders underground. Here’s our list of the 10 Best Caverns to Explore in the USA:
1. Shenandoah Caverns, Virginia
A personal favorite of mine, the Shenandoah Caverns in Virginia have thrilled visitors around the world since 1922. Although smaller than other caverns in the area, the Shenandoah Caverns feature extraordinary crystalline formations and some of the most unique cave configurations in existence. Belowground temperatures hover around 56 degrees year round, so the caverns are an enjoyable attraction during any season.
2. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Living up to its Mammoth name, the Mammoth Cave National Park is the world’s longest known cave system, offering adventure enthusiasts more than 400 miles of cave to explore. Native Americans first discovered Mammoth Cave roughly 4,000 years ago and continued to use it for another 2,000 years. It wasn’t until the late 1790s that settlers “rediscovered” the cave. Tours began in 1816 and Mammoth Cave has welcomed visitors to its underground hideaway since that time.
3. Cumberland Caverns, Tennessee
You’ve heard the term “underground music”, but you probably haven’t heard music underground. Tennessee’s bluegrass roots run deep (literally) at Bluegrass Underground, a radio show recorded 333 feet below Earth’s surface. It was in this space that “water and time entwined 3.5 million years ago to create one of the most acoustically pure natural spaces on earth.” Visitors are invited to book tickets in advance by visiting www.bluegroundunderground.com.
4. Ruby Falls, Tennessee
This isn’t the first time Ruby Falls has made our list, but this 145-foot underground waterfall deserves double recognition. Fed by rainwater and natural springs, the water collects in a pool in the cave floor and continues through the mountain until finally joining the Tennessee River. If you have ever envisioned yourself escaping to a hidden oasis away from the hustle and bustle of life, Ruby Falls is a must-see on your list.
5. Moaning Cavern, California
If your cavern explorations take you out West, you will want to make a stop at Moaning Cavern in California. Moaning Cavern holds the record for the largest vertical cavern chamber in the state. In fact, it’s so big that it could hold the entire Statue of Liberty! However, it’s the various points of entry that make this cave especially unique. Visitors can walk, hike or enter the cavern via a 165-foot rope rappel. How about that for an adventure!
6. Luray Caverns, Virginia
Our list wouldn’t be complete without the world-renowned Luray Caverns in Virginia. Recognized as the largest and most popular cavern in Eastern America, Luray Caverns is open every day of the year and features towering stone formations at every turn. The National Park Service and the Department of Interior have designated Luray Caverns a Registered Natural Landmark.
7. Natural Bridge Caverns, Texas
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and the Natural Bridge Caverns are certainly no exception. Floating 211 feet beneath earth’s surface, Natural Bridge Caverns in Braunfels, Texas, is an active and growing cavern system. Visitors can choose among several guided tour options, including the Bracket Bat Flight Tour. However, if bats aren’t your fancy, the Bracket Bat Flight Tour probably isn’t the one for you. The tour takes visitors through Bracken Cave, home of the world’s largest bat colony.
8. Oregon Caves National Monument, Cave Junction, Oregon
Tucked away among the Siskiyou Mountains, the Oregon Caverns were formed after rainwater from ancient forests dissolved the cavern’s surrounding marble. Nicknamed the “Marble Halls of Oregon,” the cave is known for its complex geology and highly unusual varieties of rare plants and animals. Locals and tourists of all ages are invited to take a tour and learn more about the history, geology and significance of Oregon Caves National Monument.
9. Florida Caverns State Park, Florida
Competing with attractions like Disney, Sea World and Busch Gardens might seem like a daunting task, but Florida Caverns State Park offers something that can’t be found at the theme parks: nature in its unadulterated state. The limestone caverns that make up Florida Caverns State Park were formed over time, as water seeped into local bedrock. This phenomenon developed the stalagmites, stalactites and flowstones still visible today. Indeed, a visit to this natural wonder beats a roller coaster ride any day!
10. Phantom Springs Cave, Texas
Reserved for the most experienced cave divers, Phantom Springs Cave in Texas is now a record holder of its own. In January 2013, a highly specialized team of Texas divers took the plunge to explore Phantom Springs Cave. Their findings revealed a cave depth of 140.8 meters (462 feet), making Phantom Springs the deepest underwater cave system known in the United States. To learn more about upcoming expeditions, visit http://www.admfoundation.org/expeditions.html.
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