The wonder of stepping into a subterranean world is an experience every child should have at least once in their life. There are some amazing caves in the United States that can safely be explored on foot and offer you an opportunity to take an amazing adventure with your children.
Exploring Caves with Kids
Caves are unique environments that spark the imagination in children. It is an exciting real-world classroom they can fully immerse themselves in and learn about science and nature in a natural environment. Kids of all ages can enjoy caves but keep in mind that strollers are prohibited in most caverns. Ideally, the best age for children to start exploring caves is 6 and up. Caves, even those designed to accommodate tourist, can be dangerous and children should be old enough to appreciate this as well as understand and follow directions.
Also, caves are dimly lit and often very humid with chilly temperatures. Most caves have a temperature between 50-60 degrees. The ground can be wet and uneven as well. Children and adults should wear sturdy footwear, a long-sleeved shirt, and possibly long pants and even gloves.
Check ahead with the rules of the cave you plan to visit as to what items can be brought into the cave. Some parks will allow children to carry a flashlight and this sometimes goes a long way in calming any anxiety they might have about walking around in a dark, cool cave.
Food is typically not allowed into most caves, this also includes candy and gum. You can bring water, but most parks are very specific that it be plain bottled water. Again, check the cave requirements before visiting.
Cave Facts to Share with your Kids
Caves are known for the crystallized calcite formations that create natural works of art throughout the floors and ceilings. These formations are caused by the dripping of minerals in the moist cave environment for thousands of years. Each of these types of formations has specific names and you can point them out to your children when you embark on your caving adventure.
Stalagmites are formations formed on the floor of the cave from the dripping of mineral-infused water from the ceiling and accumulating on the floor. Stalactites are the formations found on the ceiling of the cave and also caused by dripping of water from the ceiling of the cave. An easy way to remember the difference between stalactites and stalagmites is to remember the “T” in stalactites and remember they are at the top of the cave. These formations should never be touched as the oil from your hands will stop the calcite minerals from attaching and will change the structure of the formation.
There are a few creatures that inhabit caves and call these cold, wet environments home. These include salamanders, fish, and bats. Other animals can and will use caves for shelter, but it is not necessarily their natural environment, such as raccoons, foxes, and opossums. Bats sometimes make people a little squeamish. Have no fear, bats do not usually reside in the same areas of the caves where people visit. In caverns that are set up for tourists, also called “show caves”, it is unusual to see bats.
Cave visitors should be aware of a disease that is spreading amongst the bat population of the United States call White-Nose Syndrome. There is no need to worry that you might contract this illness, this disease does not affect humans. However, humans can transmit it to bats just by tracking the spores into the cave. White-Nose Syndrome is attacking and killing the bat population and in order to prevent further damage, many parks have begun screening visitors as they enter and exit caves across the United States.
Best Caves in the US for Kids and Families
Mammoth Cave National Park – Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave is not only the world’s longest cave but an incredible wonder to share with your family. Children need to be able to walk and cover a long distance on foot. There are lots of different tours available including some, like the Frozen Niagara Tour, which is a shorter walk and designed for families with children ages 4 and older. Tours vary in price and some tours such as the Violet City Lantern Tour, Star Chamber, and Grand Avenue Tour have a minimum age limit of 6 years old. You will want to make reservations prior to your arrival at the park will not accept same day reservations. The only way to view the cave is to participate in a tour. Visitors are not allowed to freely walk about the Cave.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park – Carlsbad, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of the few caverns that you can explore at your own pace in a self-guided tour. This cavern is more suited for families with young children, while strollers are prohibited, baby backpacks are permitted. The cavern is a crisp 56 degrees year-round, so make sure to wear appropriate clothing. Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns has the distinction of being the largest single cave chamber in the United States. Families can take a 1.25-mile self-guided tour through the chamber and witness all the beauty and wonder of this natural underground marvel. There is a shorter walk around Big Room if you don’t think your children can handle the full journey. Ranger-guided tours are available, but reservations must be made 48 hours in advance and there is a minimum age of 4 years old on guided cave tours. Carlsbad Caverns offers a nightly Bat Flight Program (May through October), where a ranger will educate families on the local bat life while waiting to watch the mass exodus of the bats flying out from the cave. A truly spectacular site for young animal lovers and a chance to learn about these fascinating creatures.
Kartchner Caverns State Park – Benson, Arizona
Kartchner is a rare warm cave where the temperature stays at approximately 70 degrees and 99 % humidity year-round. There are several tours available, however, there is only one tour for children under the age of 7, the Rotunda/Throne Tour which is approximately ½ a mile long. The park also offers an exit clause for parents with children who become too frightened on the tour and need to leave. Older children (10 and up) can enjoy a Helmet and Headlamp tour where they can experience the cave, just as the founders discovered it in 1974, wearing only headlamps for light. Cave tour reservations should be made in advance and tickets can be picked up at the visitor center 30 minutes prior to the start of your tour. The park also holds parents responsible for watching their children and keeping them from touching any of the formations within the caverns. The park very clearly specifies that touching or damaging the formations is an unlawful offense and they will pursue legal action.
Ohio Caverns – West Liberty, Ohio
Known as America’s most colorful cavern, Ohio Caverns is the largest cavern system in the state. This cave cannot accommodate strollers, but the Limestone Tour is intended for those who aren’t able to walk long distances and is perfect for young children and seniors. The cave is unique not only because of a large amount of white calcite crystal but the multitude of other colors such as blues, oranges, and reds that permeate the caverns. The caverns are a cool cave with a year-round temperature of 54 degrees with 90 % humidity. The Ohio Caverns offer kids the chance to mine for their own gems, fossils, and minerals. Young miners can purchase “mining rough” from the gift shop and learn how to pan and find their own specimen. The park has both an indoor and outdoor sluice, a water controlled panning device, so children can enjoy mining all year long. Tickets for tours should be purchased in advance to guarantee availability.
Luray Caverns– Luray, Virginia
Luray Caverns is a great place for young children and is by far the most stroller friendly cave on our list. There are a few spots within the cavern where parents will need to lift strollers over stairs but otherwise, they are welcome. Reservations are not required, and tickets can be purchased on arrival. The cavern is fairly well lit and not nearly as dark as most other caverns, so it is a perfect place to explore with little ones who aren’t crazy about dark places. The walkways are paved making it easier for young children to walk without tripping. The cave is an impressive site with lots of columns and underground pools. Luray Caverns also has the largest musical instrument in the world! A giant stalactite pipe organ that creates music will awe and amaze as it is played during your tour of the caverns. Admission to the caverns also includes admission to the Car & Carriage Caravan Museum, Toy Town Junction, and the Luray Valley Museum.
Lost Sea Caverns – Sweetwater, Tennessee
Lost Sea Caverns is home to the largest (4 acres) underground lake in the United States, upon which visitors can take a boat ride at the end of their cavern tour. This cave is better for older children who can deal with the strenuous walk out of the cavern from 140 feet below the surface. The cavern has quite a history, involving both the Cherokee Indians and The Southern Confederacy. One of the most incredible features of this cave is the anthodites or “cave flowers.” These spiky crystal formations are rare and only found in a few caves across the world. This park also offers children the opportunity to mine for gems during their visit.
Fantastic Caverns – Springfield, Missouri
This cave is perfect for families with young children because you tour the cave in a tram. Families can sit back comfortably with their children and observe the wonders of nature. The cavern maintains a temperature of 60 degrees, so it is quite pleasant all year round. There is a special area of the cavern where kids can actually touch the formations. The oil from skin kills the formations, so this is a huge “no-no” in pretty much any cave you can visit. The Fantastic Caverns understand that it is human nature to want to touch these beautiful formations and they have found a way to safely preserve the rest of the caverns formations by allowing visitors to get this compulsion out of their system right away. There is one small area within the Fantastic Caverns, at the beginning of the tour, where this is allowed. It is exciting for children to actually be able to touch these formations and feel their texture.
Jewel Cave National Monument – Custer, South Dakota
Discovered in 1900, this cave was made a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. The park rules state that children must be able to walk unassisted through the entire cave tour. The Discovery Talk is the best tour for people with small children since the tour is only 20 minutes and doesn’t require a great deal of walking. The park does not offer advance reservations for any tours except the Scenic Tour. The Historic Lantern Tour is a unique tour that takes visitors back in time, complete with a ranger guide in 1930’s national park uniform. Older children will love exploring the cave in the same manner as the early cave explorers. This tour requires children to be at least 6 years old to participate. The cave is one of the coldest caves at a frigid 49 degrees, so visitors will want to be prepared for chilly conditions.
Cave of the Winds – Manitou Springs, Colorado
The Cave of the Winds is one of the most popular caves in Colorado. Discovered in 1881, it has grown considerably over the last 100 years, with more areas of the cave having been discovered and opened up to the public. Strollers and child backpacks are prohibited and there are over 200 steps to climb when leaving the cave. The Discovery Tour is the most family-friendly tour at this park. The part of the cave that is explored has electric lights and is lit up for those taking the tour. The tour only lasts about an hour but the walk out of the cave can be strenuous. The Lantern Tour allows children ages 6 and up to traverse the cave by candlelight. This can be scary for those children who are afraid of the dark. This park has a number of above-ground activities for older children with a sense of adventure, such as an aerial obstacle course as well.
Florida Caverns State Park – Marianna, Florida
The Florida Cavern State Park is the only cave park in the state that is open to the public with cave tours. This is a popular attraction, although it is a bit off the beaten track. It is well lit and the tour last approximately 45 minutes. This cave hike isn’t too strenuous at only about ½ mile. There is no minimum age limit for children but as with most caves children should be old enough to handle walking on their own for a while.
There is something mystical about exploring a cave with your children. Seeing these underworld wonders first hand is something they can’t experience in a book or classroom. Cave exploration gives children a chance to learn about geology and nature in a living environment and they offer a unique and unusual chance to show your children a part of the world that you don’t see every day.