Exploring the unexplored and unmapped parts of the underworld has always been a source of allure for travelers and this list of the best caves in the US will help you get started.
Think lava tubes that extend for miles, astounding crystal formations, pigment-free animals and gravity-defying formations.
There are thousands of caves in the US, most of which provide an adrenaline rush, unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
The largest caves in the US will make you feel like the next Indiana Jones.
Putting on your hiking boots, reveling in caves that are rife with history, and gawking at impressive geological formations is only a small part of it all.
But where do you start?
Choosing where to start is not easy.
After all, there are over 17,000 caves in the United States, with some of the world’s most popular caves. Here are some of the most noteworthy and largest caves in the US.
The 8 Best Caves to Visit in the US
1. Mammoth Cave
Time needed to visit: One to two days.
Mammoth Cave is one of the world’s largest cave systems. It’s also one of the largest caves in the US. Spanning over 400 miles and located in Kentucky, there are plenty of passageways that snake their way through caves that you can visit.
Mammoth Cave will open up your eyes to a whole new subterranean world – one of peculiar canyons and massive rooms.
Stephen Bishop, one of Mammoth Cave’s top guides, explained it perfectly: “a grand, gloomy and peculiar place” and I couldn’t agree more.
If you’re visiting the cave for the first time, you need a tour to explore both – the underground tight passageways and the long trails winding their way through the hills above.
Mammoth Cave fun facts:
- The cave extends for more than a staggering 400 miles. It’s also the longest cave system and one of the largest caves in the US.
- Mammoth Cave was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What you’ll see in Mammoth Cave:
- Because of how massive Mammoth Cave is, there are plenty of vast chambers, rooms, and labyrinths that you can explore.
- This cave in the US is specifically known for its unique flora and fauna. There are rare gypsum flowers, mirabilite flowers (minerals that look like flowers) and a lot more. On top of that, the diverse ecosystem of Mammoth Cave allows for over 130 animal species (from bats to blind fish) to survive.
- You’ll most likely experience the cave through a guided tour.
- Expect to see gorgeous bubbling springs, unique rock formations, and falls.
Mammoth Cave extra activities:
- If you’re done exploring the underground and want to spice up your trip a little it, you can choose anything from camping to horseback riding to biking.
Tours offered at Mammoth Cave:
There are three types of tours you can go on:
- The kid-friendly ones.
- Moderately strenuous.
- Challenging and strenuous.
Pro-tip 1: Don’t worry about getting your own equipment to Mammoth Cave. You will be supplied with everything – equipment, outerwear, and gloves. The only thing you’re allowed to bring is a pair of boots.
Pro-tip 2: I highly recommend going on the Wild Cave Tour – a tour with plenty of climbing, crawling and a lot more adventure than your normal tour.
2. Jewel Cave
Time needed to visit: 1- 3 hours
Jewel Cave is the third largest cave in the world and easily one of the best caves in the US.
Located in South Dakota, the cave is a staggering 160-miles of passageways that are yearning to be explored. A lot of the cave has remained undiscovered until today. Yet, caves in the US are known for their scenic wonders and Jewel Cave is no exception.
Jewel Cave fun facts
It took the Conns couple around 6,000 hours of exploration and mapping just to discover the mysteries held by the Jewel Cave.
What you’ll see in Jewel Cave:
You probably expected it.
You’ll be seeing jewels.
A lot of them.
During your tour, you’ll be exploring the types of crystals that are eminent throughout the cave system: the nailhead spar and dogtooth spar.
Expect to see formations of boxwork, cave popcorn, flowstone and much more.
You’ll peer into the mysteries of the cave – from the giant boulders to the eerie fissures and strands of gypsum.
Tours offered at Jewel Cave
There are no self-guided tours available at Jewel Cave.
- There are two types of tours that need plenty of physical strength – the Scenic and Historic Lantern Tours. Both of these require an ascend up 600 ladder-like steps.
- The tours are also moderately strenuous and not recommended for beginners or people with low fitness levels.
Pro-tip: Due to White Noise Syndrome (a disease that is currently destroying the cave-dwelling bat population caused by an invasive fungus), most caves in the US will not allow you to bring in your own resources. So backpacks, handbags, and hiking sticks will not be permitted.
3. Wind Cave
Wind Cave, located in South Dakota, is the sixth longest cave in the world and one of the largest caves in the US, spanning over 145 miles of passageways that are divided into three levels.
The maze-like passageways are home to an astounding natural display of underground lakes, boxwork, and diverse geologic formations.
Think calcite resembling honeycombs and plenty of other mysteries that you’ll explore along the way.
Wind Cave fun facts:
- The cave has over 95% of the world’s collection of boxwork cave formations.
- Wind Cave is also the first of its kind to be designated a national park.
- The cave was named after the ever-present whistling wind that emanates through the entrance of the complex.
Tours offered at Wind Cave:
- There are no self-guided tours in the cave.
- There’s the Historic Candlelight Cave Tour (which is also suitable for children) and the Wild Cave Tour (which is more strenuous and involves more physical activity)
4. Natural Bridge Caverns
Time needed to visit: 45 minutes – 60 minutes.
The Natural Bridge Cavern deserves to be called one of the best caves in the US.
It’s the largest commercial cavern in Texas and extends for over 55 meters underground. The cavern drips with water, glistens with prehistoric formations and has a massive amount of artifacts.
Natural Bridge Caverns fun facts:
- The Natural Bridge Caverns go way back – to over 10,000 years. They were originally home to prehistoric settlers, which you’ll find evidence of in all of the artifacts that were found there.
- One of the best otherworldly experiences you can experience while visiting the cave is the Bracken Bat Flight that takes place during the summer months. This is when the largest bat colony in the world (we’re talking millions) spiral out of the cave into the night in an almost ethereal manner.
What you’ll see in Natural Bridge Caverns:
- The Natural Bridge Caverns have long been known for their interesting structures. Some of the most popular include The King’s Throne, Valley of the Fallen Lords, and the Castle of the White Giants.
- Not only is this one of the best caves in the US but it’s also one of the most interesting in terms of things you can see inside. For example, look out for the 14-foot soda straw stalactite.
Tours offered at Natural Bridge Caverns:
There are plenty of tours available – from the Canopy Ziplines to the Hidden Passages Tours. To add to your experience, you can explore the nearby Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch which is directly located next to the caves.
It’s a drive through safari and you’ll have zebras, ostriches, and more come right up to your car window. Buy an extra bag of food at the gate!
The Hidden Passages Tour involves exploration with nothing but a headlamp light and a lot of crawling!
5. Antelope Canyon Arizona
Are you ready to explore one of the beautiful caves in the US?
The Antelope Canyon in Arizona is simply awe-inspiring. Split between sections, the slot canyon is considered a national treasure.
Antelope Canyon fun facts:
- The canyon was originally formed as a result of flash flooding that led to the erosion of Navajo Sandstone.
- I highly recommend visiting the caves during the summer months where the natural light hits the walls creating an ethereal red glow that is part of why this canyon is the epitome of grandeur.
Tours offered at Antelope Canyon:
- You can only explore the caves on guided tours. Some are hiking-based, others are photography-based, while others are more intensive and give you a more in-depth outlook on the cave.
6. Meramec Cavern
Another one worth mentioning on the list of best caves in the US.
The Meramec Cave is one of the most well-known caves in the US and for all the right reasons. Located in Missouri, known as the cave state, the Meramec caves are home to gorgeous cave formations.
Meramec Cavern fun facts:
- There’s a reason why every year over 150,000 visitors walk through the walls of the Meramec Caves.
- The Meramec Caves are notorious for being the former hideout of Jesse James.
What you’ll see inside Meramec Cavern:
- What’s the last thing you’d expect to see in a cave? Let me tell you. Neon lights, manmade props and multicolored lights spanning miles.
- You’ll get to see an ancient limestone Wine Table (told you: it’s everything you wouldn’t expect).
- There is an entire seven-story mansion that was built underground.
Out of all of the other caves on the list, this is one of the best caves in the US when it comes to interesting things you can see while you explore.
The attractions on the way are only half the fun until you get to the 400-million-year-old rock formations adorned with neon lights.
7. Moaning Caverns
Time needed to visit: 1 – 3 hours.
The mysterious Moaning Cavern, located in Vallecito, California, is one of the most unique and best caves in the US.
Get ready for an interesting sensory overload – the sound of water dripping into holes of the cavern floor, the skeletal remains around you, the eerie sounds coming from inside….
You’ll need to keep your ears and eyes open.
Moaning Caverns fun facts:
- The Moaning Cavern is the final resting place of hundreds of prehistoric bodies that fell into the cave’s opening. Those skeletal remains date as far back as 13,000 years.
- The Moaning Cavern got its name due to the mysterious moaning sound that came from the inside. This sound was thought to have lured in gold miners.
What you’ll see inside Moaning Caverns
- On your walking tour, you’ll be able to see some of the oldest human remains to ever be discovered in the US.
- You can either walk down 234 stairs to the main space or rappel 165 feet down using a rope.
Pro-tip: Try planning your trip around mid-December where you’ll be able to catch a caroling concert inside the cave’s main chamber.
8. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Millions of years ago, sulfuric acid dissolved miles of surrounding limestone to form the Carlsbad Cavern cave formations in New Mexico.
119 caves make up this national park – and they’re all home to flora and fauna dating back to pre-Jurassic times.
Carlsbad Caverns fun facts:
- Most of the formations you’ll see in the cave dates back to the ice age. As in – they were all active and growing during the ice age. Yup – this is the closest you’ll get to anything from the ice age.
- Those caverns serve as a coastline around 250 million years ago.
- Scientists believe that the cave is home to some microbes that can be a cure for cancer.
What you’ll see inside Carlsbad Caverns:
- Unique rock formations that are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
- If you visit during dusk, you’ll see thousands of bats leaving the caves to hunt for dinner. The sight is simply extraordinary.
- The remains of the ancient coastline are embroidered with an eroded Permian reef that creates a final dazzling structure.
Tours offered at Carlsbad Caverns:
- You can go on a self-guided tour to the Carlsbad Caverns.
- You can also choose between a few ranger-led tours there
Which state has the most caves?
Despite Missouri being called “the Cave State”, Tennessee has the most caves in the US with a staggering 10,000 caves mostly found in eastern Tennessee. A lot of them are also open to the public so you’re more than free to go exploring!
Some of the most notable caves are:
- Ruby Caves
- The Bell Witch Caves
- Cumberland Caverns
- The Lost Sea Caves
Can you visit more than one cave in the same vacation?
If you want to go on a condensed caving-vacation then Missouri is the state to be. It wasn’t called “cave state” for nothing! There are plenty of awe-inspiring caves there and you can do them all in one trip.
Day 1: Head to Marvel Cave in Missouri. It is, however, a strenuous trip that is not recommended for anyone with heart or lung conditions.
Day 2: Rest day.
Day 3: You can visit the Crystal Caverns on a tour that lasts around 80 minutes.
Day 4: Rest day.
Day 5: Head towards the Fantastic Caverns in Springfield for an enjoyable (and non-strenuous) hike. You can even take a tram through the brightly-lit rock formations of the cave and explore the interesting variety of animals and formations inside.
Day 6: Rest day.
Day 7: Spend your last day exploring the Talking Rocks Cavern on a 50-minute tour that will take you through gorgeous mineral and rock formations.
Precautions to Take When Exploring Caves
Caves are dangerous.
Caving usually has a reputation for being dangerous. That doesn’t mean that this should discourage you from exploring. You just need to know exactly what you’re getting into and you need to take the right precautions.
Some risks you might face include:
- The biggest risk: Hypothermia. Luckily for you, this is also the easiest to prevent. Caves are usually much colder than the outside, so make sure you dress in layers so you can adjust your body temperature to your surroundings.
- Getting lost: That’s why tours are always recommended over exploring on your own. Especially if it’s your first time. Make sure you have enough light sources and a fully charged phone.
Always know your skills and limitations.
Make sure you have the right skills for the right tour and cave. You need to be properly trained if you’re planning on cave diving or vertical caving.
Make sure you have the right equipment.
Having the right gear is one of the most important things to keep in mind while exploring the caves in the US. You will need:
- A solid helmet.
- Light sources.
- Hiking boots (unless the cave specifically mentions that they’re not allowed)
- A small first-aid kit.
- Enough food and water for the length of the tour.
Which caves wheelchair accessible?
A lot of the caves in the US are wheelchair accessible. For example:
- Carlsbad Caverns have an elevator service that takes you directly to the Big Room for a self-guided tour. That’s the only wheel-chair accessible route in that cavern.
- Wind Cave offers plenty of opportunities for visitors with any accessibility needs.
- Mammoth Cave also offers accessible ranger-led activities.
The Bottom Line
There are thousands of caves in the US that you can explore. I know that this in itself sounds quite overwhelming, but think of it this way:
The more options you have, the more likely you’ll find a cave that feels like it has been catered specifically to your interests!