Tag Archives: caving

Top 10 Caves in National Parks  

Some of our favorite units in the National Park Service system include caves.  Here is a list of our 10 favorites.  We now have a page just for all of our Top 10 lists.

  1. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (Hawai‘i)

Thurston Lava Tube is an electrically lighted half-mile walk through a high-ceilinged cave.

  1. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (Kentucky)

Reservations are recommended for the ranger-guided two-hour tour of Gap Cave.

  1. El Malpais National Monument (New Mexico)

Short lava tubes are open to the public if you pick up your free cave permit at a visitor center.

  1. Great Basin National Park (Nevada)

Lehman Caves is only 0.6 miles long, but it is full of beautiful formations, like Parachute Shield.

  1. Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota)

Boxwork is an uncommon cave formation and 95% of the world’s known quantity is right here (see photo at the top of page).

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  1. Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky)

The many tour options will keep you coming back to this wonderful park.

  1. Timpanogos Cave National Monument (Utah)

Start by hiking switchbacks up 1,092 feet, then your ranger guide will show you the gravity-defying helictite crystals.

  1. Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)

The Wild Caving Tour here is reportedly the most difficult in the entire National Park Service System.

  1. Lava Beds National Monument (California)

Pick up a guidebook and chart your own course through dozens of unlit lava tubes.

…and finally our #1 cave in a National Park!


  1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico)

Visit this incomprehensibly huge cave during the summer to witness the Evening Bat Flight Program.

Honorable Mention

Sequoia National Park (California)

Having not yet visited Oregon Caves National Monument, we will defer to Crystal Cave for this spot since it is the first cave Scott ever entered in 1988.

Jewel Cave National Monument


Sometimes overshadowed by nearby Wind Cave National Park, the third-longest mapped cave system in the world is located within Jewel Cave National Monument.  Thick calcite crystals are the sparkly jewels that adorn the walls of this gem in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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Lantern Tour, Scenic Tour, Wild Caving Tour

Must-Do Activity

The Wild Caving Tour is reserved for those willing and able to squeeze through the 8.5 x 24-inch crawlspace located out front of the visitor center.  It is a taste of what is to come during sections like the “Brain Drain.”  Thick layers of manganese will permanently stain clothing worn by those brave enough to take this epic 4-hour journey that crawls less than half a mile past rare hydromagnesite balloons and gypsum flowers.

Best Trail

Most of the forest within the monument has burned, but Canyons Trail makes a 3.5 mile loop from the visitor center or Historic Ranger Cabin.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Most cave tours do not allow you to touch anything, but on the Historic Lantern Tour at the historic entrance to the cave (summer only) you can feel the 4-inch long calcite crystals (also called dogtooth spar) that formed like a bathtub ring as water slowly drained out.

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Peak Season

Summer when the Historic Lantern Tour and Wild Caving Tour are offered.




None to park, but there is a charge for all tours.

Road Conditions

All roads paved.  Note that the Historic Lantern Tour at the historic entrance to the cave is not at the main visitor center where the elevator is.


None, but plenty of places at Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, and Black Hills National Forest.

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Wild Caving Tour patrons have to prove they can squeeze through this 8.5×24-inch crawlspace.

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Thick layers of manganese will permanently stain clothing worn on the Wild Caving Tour.
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Ranger at the entrance for the Historic Lantern Tour.

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This formation is known as “Madonna and Child.”

Explore More – How many miles of the cave’s passages have currently been mapped?



Mammoth Cave National Park


Archaeologists have found evidence of exploration dating back 4,000 years when torches of cane were used to light the way.  Mammoth Cave does not get its name from hairy prehistoric mammals, though, but rather from the vast size of its tunnels.  It has been a tourist attraction since the 1700s when slaves served as tour guides, but only became a national park in 1941.

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Bottomless Pit and Fat Man’s Misery on the Historic Tour, Frozen Niagara flowstone formation on the Domes and Dripstones Tour, Wild Caving Tour

Must-Do Activity

There are many great options to explore the cave, including the Violet City Lantern Tour, but we most enjoyed the Wild Caving Tour.  Make an advanced reservation online to secure your spot (and your blue jumpsuit to keep the mud off your clothes).

Best Trail

There are nearly 80 miles of hiking trails in the park, but start by hiking downhill past the Natural Entrance of Mammoth Cave to the River Styx Spring, a short walk from the visitor center.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Keep your eye out for 2-inch long cave crickets on the Domes and Dripstones Tour.  Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed on the Wild Caving Tour.

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Peak Season

The park receives the majority of its half-million annual visitors in the summer, making December a great time to visit the park (though not all tours are offered).




No entrance fee, but cave tours have varying prices.

Road Conditions

All roads paved


A large, shaded campground is located near the visitor center, as well as a smaller one at Houchin’s Ferry (not suitable for trailers or RVs).

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Tiff at the Natural Entrance to the cave where you start the Historic Tour
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Scott on the Historic Tour
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Frozen Niagara flowstone formation on the Domes and Dripstones Tour
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Tiff traversing Fat Man’s Missery.

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Ready for the Wild Caving Tour
This design we created to celebrate Mammoth Cave National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the entire world; how many miles of cave have been explored and mapped?



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Lava Beds National Monument


Near California’s northern border lies isolated Lava Beds National Monument.  There are 700 lava tubes within the monument and many of them are open for self-guided caving.  Lava tubes form when the rapidly cooling surface solidifies into rock and free flowing lava drains out beneath.



Skull Cave, Golden Dome, Petroglyph Point, Captain Jack’s Stronghold

Must-Do Activity

Only one cave near the visitor center is lit, the others all require flashlights, with hardhats and kneepads recommended for some of the tighter squeezes.  Explore as many lava tubes as you have time for, like Skull Cave with its wide entrance or one of several caves that contain ice year round.

Best Trail

1.5-mile roundtrip hike to top of Schonchin Butte where a fire lookout offers panoramic views across lava flows to Tule Lake, Glass Mountain, and Mount Shasta.

Instagram-worthy Photo

All you need is a flashlight to walk less than half a mile underground to Golden Dome, the most spectacular feature of the park.  The gold flecks are actually colonies of hydrophobic bacteria that thrive in this humid, lightless environment.  Other caves containing them include Thunderbolt and Blue Grotto.


Peak Season

Open year round, but due to its elevation (5,000 feet) the aboveground surface can get a bit hot in summer and cold in winter, but it is usually nice inside the lava tubes.




$20 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The entrance road from Oregon and Cave Loop Road are paved, but most are dirt south of the park in Modoc National Forest.


Indian Well Campground is located near the visitor center and Cave Loop Road.  Dirt roads in the neighboring Modoc National Forest provide free dispersed camping.


Standing in the wide entrance to Skull Cave.


Lavasicles hang from the ceiling inside a narrow section of lava tube.
Hydrophobic bacteria light up in Golden Dome
Group shot under the Golden Dome.
Tiff with our guidebook in the Catacombs.
This is what Lava Beds looks like above the surface.

Explore More – How did 60 Modoc warriors led by Captain Jack keep 1,000 U.S. troops at bay for six months in the 1870s?