Families looking for a great summer vacation are increasingly considering the excitement and romance of exploring the American West. With airfare and destination resorts generally priced beyond the average family budget, traveling by car or mini van and camping out under the stars is an immensely satisfying alternative.
For many families, touring national parks, monuments, national forests and state and federal lands provide an opportunity to see America‚Äôs spectacular natural attractions.
A part of the American West that is less visible, yet equally as awe-inspiring and thrilling as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, are the region‚Äôs commercially-operated caves. These ancient natural attractions are expertly-developed, providing a safe opportunity to enter the weird and unexplained underground worlds hidden beneath our feet. Seeing the mountains from the inside out provides a fresh perspective on the geologic processes that shaped the West.
Increasingly sophisticated in their public presentation, many of the commercial caves of the Rockies have invested in new electric lighting systems, recruited and trained competent guides, opened new chambers and passageways, and added kid-friendly attractions, such as sluice boxes, climbing walls, and sandbox digs for gems and fossils. Although corny jokes and entertaining banter from guides may have served a purpose in an earlier era, many of today‚Äôs public and private caves tours more resemble nature hikes with knowledgeable naturalists. New lighting, too, eliminates the colorful electric lights that brilliantly illuminated many of the caverns in the 20th century, and instead emphasizes their natural darkness and mystery.
Cave of the Winds at Manitou Springs, Colorado is one of the most popular privately-owned commercial caves in the United States. (Richard Rhinehart photograph, copyright 2009.)
Adventure is Underground
For many children, descending deep into a cave is a thrilling experience. Leaving behind the sunlit world, children are intrigued with the darkened underground passageways and the unknown. How far might these caves extend? What life might be found within these passages and chambers? How did these caves form? Is there any gold, treasure or bones within these caves?
A great start for your speleo touring vacation is the National Caves Association. A professional association of the majority of America‚Äôs commercially-operated caves, the NCA‚Äôs web site includes a directory of more than 80 member caves by state, including direct links to each cave‚Äôs web site. The site also includes information about basic cave science, and helpful tips to better enjoy tours.
The National Park Service protects numerous caves across the United States, including several open in the Rocky Mountains. The Park Service‚Äôs Cave and Karst Program web site includes listings of parks that feature caves, as well as a photographic gallery, links to other cave-related web sites and downloadable PDF issues of Inside Earth, a quarterly newsletter about Park system caves. These informative newsletters contain fascinating news and information, some of which has not otherwise been announced to the public.
Before heading off on your underground journey, another worthwhile web site is the American Cave Conservation Association. The ACCA is America‚Äôs leading conservation group, working to study, preserve and protect caves and karst features. The non-profit association‚Äôs site includes many useful pages and sections, including a section specifically for kids. Many puzzles, games, educational activities and even a quiz provide children with a fun opportunity to learn more about caves.
Once you‚Äôve loaded your car, filled up with gas and are on your way, there are numerous opportunities to explore the underground West.
Colorado Cave Destinations
Cave of the Winds ‚Äď Historic limestone cavern at Manitou Springs in the Pikes Peak region opened to the public in 1880. Three scheduled tours: 45-minute electrically-lit Discovery Tour, 90-minute Manitou Grand Caverns Lantern Tour and new 45-minute EcoVenture Tour with flashlights. Free hiking in Williams Canyon with signed waivers.
Glenwood Caverns ‚Äď Scenic limestone cavern and adventure park on Iron Mountain overlooking Glenwood Springs. Originally shown as the Fairy Caves in 1895. Three scheduled tours: 70-minute electrically-lit Cave Tour, 2-1/2 hour Adventure Tour and 3-hour Wild Tour. Park includes an alpine coaster, a big swing over Glenwood Canyon, a climbing wall, a 4D movie theater and other attractions. Visitors take a tramway to and from the park.
Yampah Spa Vapor Caves ‚Äď Hot, vapor-filled limestone cavern at Glenwood Springs features self-guided trips. Most visitors spend 10-12 minutes in the 110-degree Vapor Caves, relaxing on marble benches. Also featured are soothing spa treatments in adjoining spa.
Montana Cave Destinations
Lewis and Clark Caverns ‚Äď Limestone cavern located west of Bozeman along the Jefferson River. Montana‚Äôs first state park, originally designated a national monument. Two hour, entrance-to-entrance guided tour with electric lights. Featuring a new park visitor‚Äôs center in 2010, Lewis and Clark Caverns offers a family discount, plus cabins, a campground and hiking trails. Discovered in 1892.
Mystery Cave ‚Äď Rustic limestone cave in the southern Pryor Mountains, near the Wyoming border. The cave is administered by the Bureau of Land Management in Billings. Until 2009, the cave was open during the summer months to scheduled guided tours, with visitors carrying their own lights. The Bureau closed Mystery Cave to access in 2009 owing to concerns about the spread of White Nose Syndrome to western caves. Check first with the Billings office before visiting. Located within the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
Idaho Cave Destinations
Minnetonka Cave ‚Äď Idaho‚Äôs only commercially-operated limestone cave, Minnetonka is located in southeastern Idaho, northwest of Bear Lake. Open for visits during the summer, Minnetonka Cave is within the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Commercial tours are operated by a licensee of the US Forest Service. Guided 90 minute tours, electric lighting.
Idaho‚Äôs Mammoth Cave ‚Äď Located near Shoshone, the cave is an extensive lava tube. Visitors carry lanterns along the 30 minute tour route. The Shoshone Bird Museum of Natural History featuring stuffed birds is adjacent to the cave. Discovered in 1902.
Shoshone Ice Caves ‚Äď Located north of Shoshone. One hour tours in a lava tube featuring an ice-covered floor, keeping it chilly even in the summer. Warm jackets are recommended. Indian artifact and mineral museum adjacent to cave. Nearby, the Bureau of Land Management‚Äôs Shoshone Field Office manages 14 undeveloped lava tubes open to the public, including the popular Tee Maze Cave, an extensive, multi-level, branching lava tube.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve ‚Äď Established in 1924, contains more than 300 known lava tube, fissure and weathering caves. Located northeast of Shoshone. Jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the park‚Äôs Caves Trail provides access to four caves of interest to visitors ‚Äď Beauty Cave, Boy Scout Cave, Dew Drop Cave and Indian Tunnel. Excepting the large, multi-entranced Indian Tunnel, each of these lava tubes requires lights and minimal caving equipment to explore.
Utah Cave Destinations
Timpanogos Cave National Monument ‚Äď Located in American Fork Canyon east of Provo. Reached by a paved 1-1/2 mile long trail gaining 1,160 feet in elevation, the limestone cavern is actually three caves joined together by short, mined tunnels. Established in 1922. Guided, electrically-lit one hour tours by the National Park Service are scheduled throughout the summer. Advance ticket sales are recommended, as tours will sell out.
Crystal Ball Cave ‚Äď a rustic limestone cave near the Nevada border is located on Bureau of Land Management land. For many years, the cave was operated as a commercial public attraction by Jerald and Marlene Bates, the owners of the Warm Creek Ranch. Discovered in 1956. Unfortunately, the cave did not open for business in 2009, and may not open in 2010 owing to ongoing legalities regarding ownership.
South Dakota Cave Destinations
Wind Cave National Park ‚Äď An extensive limestone cave located in the Black Hills north of Hot Springs. Wind Cave currently offers five tours for visitors. These include the three tours that are electrically lit: the 1-1/4 hour Natural Entrance Tour; the 1-1/2 hour Fairgrounds Tour; and the ¬ľ mile Garden of Eden Tour. The two hour Candlelight Tour requires visitors to carry candle buckets for illumination and the four hour Wild Tour visits rooms and chambers not improved or developed.
Jewel Cave National Monument ‚Äď The second longest cave known in the world, this limestone cave is located west of Custer in the Black Hills. Jewel Cave offers four guided trips, including two including electrically-lit routes: the 80-minute Scenic Tour and the 20-minute Jewel Cave Discovery Talk. The 105-minute Lantern Tour enters and exits the cave through the natural entrance, located in scenic Hell Canyon. Participants carry hand-held lanterns. The three to four hour Wild Caving Tour includes tight crawls and squeezes as narrow as 8-1/2 inches by 24 inches.
Rushmore Cave ‚Äď Opened to the public in 1952, Rushmore Cave is located southeast of Keystone in the Black Hills. Two guided tours are offered through this limestone cavern. The one hour electrically-lit Walking Tour follows paved trails, while the 2-1/2 hour Xpedition Adventure Tour requires visitors to carry their own lights and climb and squeeze.
Black Hills Caverns ‚Äď Located just west of Rapid City in the Black Hills. Discovered in 1882, the limestone cave features two electrically-lit guided tours; the one hour Adventure Tour and the 30 minute Crystal Tour.
Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns ‚Äď Located southwest of Rapid City in the Black Hills. Features 45-minute electrically-lit guided tour into a limestone cave well-known for its large dogtooth spar. Native American gift shop adjacent to cave. Discovered in 1929.
Wonderland Cave ‚Äď Located northeast of Nemo in the Black Hills, Wonderland Cave is a part of the Black Hills National Forest but is managed under permit by a private operator. The limestone cave offers a one hour, electrically-lit tour. Gift and rock shop adjacent to cave. Discovered in 1929.
Arizona Cave Destinations
Kartchner Caverns State Park ‚Äď Located south of Benson, the spectacular limestone Kartchner Caverns offers two electrically-lit guided tours for visitors. The 90-minute Rotunda/Throne Room Tour is available year round, while the 105-minute Big Room Tour is only scheduled during the winter season. Reservations are recommended for all tours. Discovered in 1974. Camping, gift shop, caf√©, and visitor‚Äôs center can be found in the park.
Grand Canyon Caverns ‚Äď Along historic Route 66 northwest of Seligman in northern Arizona, this limestone cavern offers two electrically-lit guided tours. The 45-minute Regular Tour and 25-minute Short Tour each descend and ascend into the cavern by elevator. The Explorers Tour is off-trail and visits rooms not shown on the electrically-lit tours. Also offered is a ‚ÄúCavern Suite‚ÄĚ for a unique underground overnight stay, horseback riding and Jeep Tours to the Grand Canyon. Discovered in 1927.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park ‚Äď Located southeast of Tucson along the Old Spanish Trail, Colossal Cave offers multiple visitor tours. The 50-minute Colossal Cave Tour is the most popular and the only tour with electrical lighting. More adventuresome is the 90-minute Ladder Tour, which visits partially improved regions of the cave. The 90-minute Candlelight Tour visits the regular tour route, but with only candles for illumination. Most challenging of all the tours is the Wild Cave Tour, which requires basic caving skills and visits unimproved sections of the cave. Exhibits, picnics, camping, and trail rides are also available in the park. Discovered in 1879.
New Mexico Cave Destinations
El Malpais National Monument ‚Äď South of Grants in northwestern New Mexico, El Malpais National Monument is a rugged volcanic region featuring several undeveloped lava tubes open to the public. Many tubes can be explored, including Junction Cave, Four Windows and Big Skylight Caves. Adjacent is the El Malpais National Conservation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Horseback riding, hiking and sightseeing are other activities in the region.
Ice Cave ‚Äď Located southwest of Grants, the Ice Cave and adjacent Bandera Volcano are accessible by self-guided trails. Privately owned, the Ice Cave is a lava tube with a deep ice layer on its floor. A stairway and viewing platform provide access to the cave.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park ‚Äď Southeastern New Mexico‚Äôs Carlsbad Cavern is world-famous, with the National Park Service offering a variety of guided and self-guided tours. Two self-guided electrically-lit tours are available in the limestone cavern, including the Natural Entrance Tour and the Big Room Tour. Each route takes from 90 minutes to two hours to complete. The Kings Palace Tour is a 90-minute guided tour through Carlsbad‚Äôs four scenic rooms; the route is illuminated. Three other tours to non-illuminated sections of the Cavern are available: the two-hour lantern-lit Left Hand Tunnel Tour; the three-hour Lower Cave Tour, which includes ladders; and the four-hour Hall of the White Giant Tour, a caving route that includes crawls, squeezes and climbs. Elsewhere in the park, the rustic Slaughter Canyon Cave offers two-hour guided walking tours, including a steep half mile hike to the canyon side entrance. The four-hour Spider Cave Tour includes squeezing, crawling and climbing, plus a half mile hike to the cave entrance.