The 23 Most Magical Caves in the United States
YOU DON'T HAVE TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY TO GO SPELUNKING.
Even if you wouldn't consider yourself Indiana Jones, per se, a trip to an ancient cave is still within your reach. In fact, there are many, rife with history and impressive geologic features, right here in the United States. From Jesse James' infamous hideout to underwater lakes with limitless depths, American caves are far from the dark and grimy interiors of the Earth that you might have been picturing. In fact, if anything, these stateside caves prove that some of the country's most beautiful relics have been hiding underground all this time. We've gathered the most magical caves from sea to shining sea.
Antelope Canyon; Page, Arizona
Where to fly: Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)
This slot canyon in Arizona is one of the most awe-inspiring caves in the world. It's split into two sections—the "Upper Antelope Canyon" (otherwise known as "The Crack") and the "Lower Antelope Canyon" (or "The Corkscrew"). This ancient canyon was formed by the erosion of Navajo Sandstone, mostly due to flash flooding. The best time to see Antelope Canyon is during the summer, when the natural light hits its walls at just the right angle to create a warm red glow. This national treasure is only accessible via guided tours, which can be photography-based, hiking-intensive, or more in-depth, depending on the time of year and flooding potential.
Pro tip: After your trek through the canyon, remain immersed in the impressive scenery by booking a room at the Lake Powell Resort, where you can take a boat tour, dinner cruise, or rent a powerboat to explore the perimeters of the resort.
Carlsbad Caverns; Eddy County, New Mexico
Where to fly: El Paso International Airport (ELP)
These caverns, which are located in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico, once served as a coastline for an inland sea. Nearly 250 million years later, the Carlsbad Caverns are the remains of this ancient coastline, with the eroded Permian reef creating dazzling structures that attract thousands of tourists every year. Throughout the year, the park offers bat flight viewing programs and celestial night sky parties.
Pro tip: Housed in a historic building in downtown Carlsbad, the Trinity Hotel is an elegant place to rest, dine, and drink wine after a long day of trekking through caves.
Black Chasm Cavern; Volcano, California
Where to fly: Sacramento International Airport (SMF)
A trip to Black Chasm Cavern is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This magical cavern in Volcano, California is well-known for its bright blue lake surrounded by thousands of sparkling helictites, a mineral that's only present in around 5 percent of all caves in existence. After a trip through the cavern, visitors can revel in the wonders of the Zen Garden, an area full of marble monoliths that were uncovered during the hydraulic mining of the Gold Rush era. For those looking for a personalized cavern experience, guided tours are offered throughout the year.
Pro tip: To truly experience the historical charm of the Gold Rush era, stay the night at the Hotel Sutter, a chic hotel first established in the thick of the rush in 1851. Of course, the hotel has been updated to fit the times, but still maintains its historic charm.
Lava River Cave; Bend, Oregon
Where to fly: Portland International Airport (PDX)
Located in Deschutes National Park, just outside of Bend, Oregon, the Lava River Cave features a series of arches, like the one shown here, that make visitors from all over the country stop and revel in Mother Nature's creations. Legend has it that the cave was discovered by Leander Dillman, who'd followed a wounded deer to the entrance of the cave. More than a century after its discovery, visitors can tour Lava River Cave between May and September. It remains closed during the other months of the year to protect the bat populations.
Pro tip: After your trek through the cave, head to nearby Bend to indulge in some of the sweetest treats the city has to offer at Foxtail Bakeshop & Kitchen.
Luray Caverns; Luray, Virginia
Where to fly: Dulles International Airport (IAD)
The Luray Caverns in Luray, Virginia are the biggest set of caverns in the Eastern United States. They feature some of the country's best folded stone formations, all made of translucent calcite. Visitors should be sure to check out the cave's largest lake (pictured here), which forms a spectacular optical illusion and adds a certain mysterious quality to the formations looming from above. Aside from exploring the caverns, tourists can also visit the Car & Carriage Caravan Museum, the Luray Valley Museum, and Toy Town Junction to learn more about Luray's interesting past.
Pro tip: For a true taste of Southern hospitality, book your room at The Mimslyn Inn, located conveniently between the Luray Caverns and Shenandoah National Park.
Natural Bridge Caverns; New Braunfels, Texas
Where to fly: San Antonio International Airport (SAT)
About 10,000 years ago, the Natural Bridge Caverns in Texas were home to a group of prehistoric settlers, which is evident in the large amount of artifacts discovered just within the entrance to the caverns. For those visitors who would like to explore the gorgeous depths of the cave, which is one of the most popular destinations in Texas, there are multiple tours offered, from the Hidden Passages Tour to the Canopy Ropes Course just outside of the network of caves.
Pro tip: The Schlitterbahn Waterpark and Resort is located right along the Comal River in downtown New Braunfels. There, guests can enjoy the sights of the city from their spacious private balconies—or even make the easy walk to New Braunfels' burgeoning arts district.
Meramec Caverns; Stanton, Missouri
Where to fly: St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL)
First gaining notoriety as the official hideout of the notorious Jesse James, the Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri present some of nature's most awe-inspiring creations. Tours through this series of caverns have amazed guests for decades, with its limestone "Wine Table" and seven-story mansion built underground. Whether you're interested in getting to know the legendary past of the Meramec Caverns, or just looking to experience its natural geologic wonders, there are a number of tours to pique anyone's interest.
Pro tip: Revel in the beautiful countryside and amazing amenities at the Cedar Creek Center, where you'll have to choose between adorable cottages or breathtaking manors. While you're there, pay a visit to the Town Hall building, which turns into a lively bar and grill during the weekends.
Caverns of Sonora; Sonora, Texas
Where to fly: Midland International Air and Space Port (MAF)
Situated at the intersection of Texas Hill Country and the Chihuahuan Desert, the Caverns of Sonora have become known as "crystal kingdoms," thanks to the thousands of calcite crystal formations lining its walls. For those feeling especially adventurous, the Caverns of Sonora offer a Discovery Challenge Tour that actually takes visitors to explore off-trail passageways as any other experienced spelunkers would do.
Pro tip: To fully immerse yourself in the antique charms of the Texas Hill Country, book a cabin at the X Bar Ranch Nature Retreat. From discovering new constellations in the sky to hiking through hills and valleys of the ranch, this Texan retreat will not disappoint.
Moaning Cavern; Vallecito, California
Where to fly: Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT)
Located in the heart of California's Gold Country, the Moaning Cavern outside of Vallecito, California is named after the sound that the cavern makes. It's believed that the "moaning" lured the original gold miners to its depths in the 19th century. But what really put this cavern on the map was the discovery of some of the oldest human remains in America, dating back nearly 12,000 years. Actually, archaeologists have found numerous remains in Moaning Cavern, which in turn led to theories about it being haunted. So, if you can set aside your fear of ghosts, walk, climb, or rappel your way through Moaning Cavern for one of the most breathtaking experiences of your life.
Pro tip: Just a short drive from Vallecito is the town of Murphys, where the historic Dunbar House has been providing guests with elegant rooms and enchanting gardens since 1880. Visitors will get a feel for what life might have been like with a stay at this charming bed and breakfast in the heart of California's Gold Country.
Mammoth Cave; Brownsville, Kentucky
Where to fly: Louisville International Airport (SDF)
Mammoth Cave National Park boasts a series of caves that are actually the longest in the world, spanning an impressive 400 miles long… though that's just the part that has actually been discovered. Visitors can experience Mammoth Cave in a number of different ways, from easy walking tours, to a stop at the "Frozen Niagara," to historic and geologic tours focusing on aspects of the cave system that make it one of the most special on the planet.
Pro tip: Experience true Kentucky charm with a stay at the Grand Victorian Inn in Park City. Its comfortable and sophisticated rooms provide immaculate views of the surrounding rural countryside.
Ohio Caverns; West Liberty, Ohio
Where to fly: John Glenn Columbus International Airport (CMH)
Also known as "America's Most Colorful Caverns," this set of underground treasures contain a brilliant array of colors, ranging from blue and orange to white and a deep, reddish-black. Visitors to the Ohio Caverns will also have a chance to see a truly ancient creation in the flesh. Ohio Caverns feature rare "dual formations," combinations of iron-oxide and calcium crystals, in every corner of the cave system.
Pro tip: For a true Midwestern dining experience—picture spacious booths, greasy food, and plenty of small-town ambiance— enjoy at least one meal at Don's Downtown Diner in nearby Bellefontaine, Ohio.
Jewel Cave; Custer, South Dakota
Where to fly: Denver International Airport (DEN)
With more than 195 miles of mapped and surveyed passageways, Jewel Cave in Custer, South Dakota is the third-longest cave in the world. The cave got its name from the beautiful calcite spar crystals that line every cramped passage, glittering in bold colors and entrancing visitors over a century after it was first discovered. From historical lantern tours to intense wild caving adventures that require shimmying on your belly through tight passages, there's something for everyone to enjoy at Jewel Cave.
Pro tip: You don't have to be particularly outdoorsy to enjoy a rugged hike along the Cathedral Spires Trail in the depths of nearby Custer State Park. Along the route, enjoy prime opportunities for wildlife sightings and rock climbing.
Lost Sea Caverns; Sweetwater, Tennessee
Where to fly: Knoxville McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS)
For those looking for a truly epic vacation, look no further than the Lost Sea Caverns in Sweetwater, Tennessee. Serving as just one part of the historic Craighead Caverns, the Lost Sea is listed as the largest underwater body of water in America by the Guinness Book of World Records. While there are many historical and geologic features that make these caverns so amazing, one of the most interesting occurred thousands of years ago, when a giant Pleistocene jaguar became one of the first visitors to enter the cave system. The bones of this animal were discovered within the depths of the cave and are on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. No matter the time of year, visitors can embark on a tour of the Lost Sea—and even learn about the caverns' important role in history.
Pro tip: Located just six miles outside of Sweetwater is the Tsali Notch Vineyard. It offers majestic views of the Appalachian Mountains and specializes in "Muscadine" wines (grapes grown and curated in the Southern portion of the United States).
Blanchard Springs Caverns; Stone County, Arkansas
Where to fly: Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport (LIT)
Composed of three magical layers, the Blanchard Springs Caverns in Arkansas is a breathtaking example of a "living" cave system, with formations like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and flowstones still changing and growing along the cavern walls. Visitors can expect a playful romp around in the red clay mud and an amazing view of the natural world in action.
Pro tip: For the quintessential southern vacation, book a room at Arkansas' majestic Wildflower B&B, boasting cozy rooms and daily delicious home-cooked breakfast on its rustic front porch.
Ape Cave; Skamania County, Washington
Where to fly: Portland International Airport (PDX)
Only the most adventurous should embark on this difficult hike through the Ape Cave in Washington state. Throughout both the lower and upper caves, visitors will have the chance to admire the natural wonders of North America's third largest lava tube, along with a hike to a secluded location that features stellar views of Mount St. Helens.
Pro tip: Take your adventure to new heights by visiting the nearby Lava Canyon, where you'll explore thunderous rapids, stunning views of the mountains, and a delicate suspension bridge that feels straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Niagara Cave; Harmony, Minnesota
Where to fly: Rochester International Airport (ROC)
While these falls may exist on a smaller scale than that of the Niagara Falls in New York and Canada, Niagara Cave in Minnesota features an impressive 60-foot subterranean waterfall, 100-foot-high ceilings, ancient fossils, unusual limestone rock formations, an echo chamber, and even a wedding chapel for those who want to say "I do" underground. This cave was also recently recognized for being the first commercial cave in the world to use solar power, producing 45,000 kilowatts of energy per year. Visitors to Niagara Cave can take an hour-long trek through its wonders, as well as pan for gemstones and play mini golf.
Pro tip: After your travel underground, kick back and relax in your renovated cell at The Jail House Inn, featuring a plethora of delicious cuisine and the kind of Midwestern charm only available in a rustic 19th-century jailhouse.
Kartchner Caverns State Park; Benson, Arizona
Where to fly: Tucson International Airport (TUS)
Only discovered four decades ago, Kartchner Caverns State Park in Arizona is composed of various types of speleothems, which are unique formations created from layers of calcite and travertine. Visitors to the expansive cave can take advantage of a number of recreational activities at the park—including tours of the Rotunda and the Big Room, hiking trails leading to the caverns, and the park's amazing view of the constellations. It's been named one of the International Dark Sky Parks, meaning that no outside lights can obstruct your view of the stars.
Pro tip: Book a stay at the Tombstone Monument Ranch, where each room combines the comforts of the 21st century with the nostalgia of the Wild West. Whether you're spending the night at the post office or the county jail, this immersive history lesson is worth every penny.
Fantastic Caverns; Springfield, Missouri
Where to fly: Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF)
It's no wonder that a cave as enchanting and immense as the Fantastic Caverns exists in Missouri, which has been dubbed the cave state. Throughout its long and interesting history, Fantastic Caverns has been a speakeasy during the Prohibition years and concert venue during the 1950s and 1960s. Five decades later, visitors can tour the vast system of caverns in Jeep-drawn trams along a one-mile route that provides an in-depth history of the cave's unique geology, as well as an up-close look at its beautiful rock formations.
Pro tip: While you're in Springfield, you'd be remiss if you didn't indulge in a burger and shake at Black Sheep, where every dish makes you feel a little closer to the true spirit of rock 'n roll.
Wind Cave National Park; Hot Springs, South Dakota
Where to fly: Denver International Airport (DEN)
Just underneath South Dakota's prairie lands is Wind Cave National Park, one of America's oldest and most complex parks. Named for the barometric winds at its entrance, the Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world, containing passages of incredibly rare formations called boxwork. Visitors to the Wind Cave can take part in a various array of tours, ranging from the easy Garden of Eden tour with limited walking required, to the Wild Cave Tour, giving thrill-seekers a chance to don hard hats, lights, and knee pads, and traverse up and down the side of the cave as professionals would do.
Pro tip: Located in the heart of the Hot Springs historic district, the Red Rock River Resort Hotel & Spa combines luxury with 19th-century architecture. There's also a spa and plenty of attractions, like the Black Hills, within a few minutes' drive.
Ellison's Cave; LaFayette, Georgia
Where to fly: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
Ellison's Cave is one of the deepest caves in the United States. Situated on Pigeon Mountain in the Appalachian Plateau of rural Georgia, Ellison's is a top destination for expert cavers and spelunkers from around the world, ready to test their skills on one of the many vertical drops that exist in the cave. It features the two deepest pits in the continental United States—"Fantastic" (586 feet) and "Incredible" (440 feet)—along with five other vertical drops down to the bottom. However, despite the adventure teeming from every surface of Ellison's Cave, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources warns that only those with an extensive knowledge and practice of single rope technique climbing should try to master this descent; conditions can often prove to be dangerous for those with less experience.
Pro tip: Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains with a stay at the Hidden Hollow Resort at the foot of Lookout Mountain. You'll be completely secluded from the rest of the world, so there's no better time to turn your phone off and take in the beauty of the mountains from your very own kayak.
Cosmic Cavern; Berryville, Arkansas
Where to fly: Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF)
A visit to the winding rivers of blue water and pristine geologic formations that make up the Cosmic Cavern in Berryville, Arkansas, might feel like a dream. Cosmic Cavern features an abundance of formations, like stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, cave popcorn, cave bacon, soda straws, and helictites. Plus, there are two bottomless lakes, which divers have repeatedly tried to find the bottom of with no such luck.
Pro tip: Located in nearby Eureka Springs, the Crescent Hotel & Spa, once known as the "symbol of hospitality" for the state of Arkansas and Ozark Mountain region, features 72 carefully preserved rooms with upscale suites and four luxury cottages. After daring to leave the sophisticated comfort of their room, guests can roam around the 15 acres of manicured gardens that include hiking, biking, and walking trails at this hotel, which was built a century and a half ago.
Marvel Cave at Silver Dollar City; Branson, Missouri
Where to fly: Springfield-Branson National Airport (SGF)
Located in Branson's Silver Dollar City amusement park, the Marvel Cave features a number of breathtaking feats of geology, including the "Cathedral Room," the largest cave entrance room in the U.S. Based on the 600 stairs that visitors are required to climb throughout every tour, this trek into what was once called the "Devil's Den" by the ancient Osage Native Americans is not for the faint of heart.
Pro tip: Amid the scenic Ozark Mountains lies the posh and serene Chateau on the Lake, offering guests fine dining, live music, spa amenities, and impressive views of the lake and surrounding scenery. After a day spent exploring Marvel Cave, the Chateau on the Lake is the perfect calm oasis, complete with some much-needed pampering.
Polar Caves; Rumney, New Hampshire
Where to fly: Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (MHT)
Though the Polar Caves in Rumney, New Hampshire are closed during the winter months, you'll find that a visit to this sprawling system of caves surrounded by winding creeks and green forests is well worth the wait. The nine granite caves feature a series of adrenaline-inducing drops and tight squeezes through the rocks, which is perfect for the more adventurous traveler. Rock climbers, no matter their skill level, are also welcome to get vertical on the Polar Caves' Glacial Wall, where they can also find different kinds of mica minerals like purple lepidolite, black biotite, brown phlogopite, and clear muscovite as they're climbing. For Instagram-worthy images outside of the caves, meander for a bit on Rocky Ridge Way, where spectacular views of the White Mountain National Forest will give you a new appreciation for the wilds of New Hampshire.
Pro tip: After a long day of exploring, revel still in the more rustic ambiance of New Hampshire with a stay at The Common Man Inn & Spa in nearby Plymouth. From hiking to antiquing to enjoying the on-site spa, there's no shortage of fun and relaxation to be had with a stay at this Walden-esque location.
For more amazing destinations in the country, check out 30 Enchanting Hideaways in the U.S. You've Never Heard of.