10 caves to explore in national parks
Aug 22, 2018 08:40AM
● By Editor
With summer’s heat bearing down, thoughts tend to drift beachward – or northward. But many wise travelers are planning their explorations to go down – underground, that is. There are more than 4,700 caves in our national parks that can give you refuge from that relentless sun. Some of those caves are among the world’s most spectacular; four of the world’s longest caves (Mammoth, Jewel and Wind Cave, and Carlsbad’s Lechuguilla) lie within our national parks. And two of our nation’s 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites are caverns: Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave.
There are parks specifically established to preserve a cave or caves, such as Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave national parks. There are parks that have caves but were not specifically established for the caves; Grand Canyon National Park, for example, has hundreds of caves.
We contacted Vince Santucci and Limaris Soto from the National Park Service and Dr. George Veni of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute to give you a peek at some of the best.
All extended the warning that caving is serious business, so please take precautions and follow the rules; your life and that of others may be at stake. In particular, please pay heed to the warnings, and if you’ve already been to a cave, get screened before you enter another one for white nose syndrome, one of the worst wildlife epidemics of modern times that has already killed millions of bats across the nation and can be carried by visitors.
Most of the world’s caves – and many of the more spectacular – are formed in carbonate or sulfate bedrock by the slow movement of groundwater or underground rivers. Many feature showy speleothems or cave formations – stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, columns and the like.
• Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico: If you could only explore one cavern in your lifetime, this would be the one. Of the two UNESCO-recognized caverns in the U.S., Carlsbad is by far the most decorated, with a vast collection of stunning formations. Try your hand at a self-guided tour on the Natural Entrance Trail, where you can marvel at formations such as the Whale’s Mouth and Iceberg Rock. Or sign up for a ranger-guided tour through the King’s Palace or the underground wilderness of Slaughter Cave.
• Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky: This park preserves the world’s longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles of explored tunnels. Marvel at the Frozen Niagara, explore the vast underworld on the River Styx Tour, take a historic tour by lantern-light like the early explorers, and learn about the strange creatures that inhabit these dark labyrinths.
• Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota: The world’s third-longest cave system has at least 195 miles of passageways, featuring fanciful and delicate formations such as gypsum flowers, hydromagnesite balloons, black manganese crystals, aragonite frost, calcite bottle brushes and the whimsically named cave bacon. But it’s the large calcite crystals that formed underwater and are exposed all over the walls and ceiling of the now-dry cave that are its best-known feature, the namesake “jewels.”
Lava tubes or volcanic caves
• Lava Beds National Monument, California: More than 700 caves and a rugged, surreal landscape make this park a good place to explore caverns created by volcanic activity. Used as hideouts by the native Modoc People in the only California war against Native Americans (the Modoc War, 1872-73), these winding corridors range from the relatively easy to navigate Blue Grotto Cave to the labyrinthine Catacombs Cave, more than a mile of twisting passages.
• Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho: This volcanic wonderland gives access to four very different lava tubes on a single 1.6-mile trail. The largest, Indian Cave, is well lit from all the sunlight that filters in through “skylights” that have formed through the collapsed ceiling. Beauty Cave, on the opposite extreme, leads to an intensely dark space that requires a good flashlight.
• Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii: The forces that created the amazing Thurston Lava Tube, also known as Nāhuku, are back at work, spewing forth mighty rivers of molten lava – so put this caving experience on your bucket list for another year, as the park is currently closed.
Sea caves or littoral caves
• Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin: One of the nation’s most outstanding collections of so-called sea caves are scattered among these 21 islands and along the shores of Lake Superior. A boater’s dream, these towering sandstone openings, arches, pillars and bridges stand as testament to the ceaseless power of the wind and waves.
• Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California: An excellent stretch of shoreline to explore some majestic sea caves. A recent inventory in this San Francisco Bay-area park revealed 82 caves or cave-like features such as arches along the park’s Marin County coastline alone.
• Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska: Penetrating the eerie blue depths of a glacier is perhaps the most extreme form of spelunking, and dedicated glacier cavers often go to Iceland and Norway in pursuit of their prize. Alaska is prime glacier cave territory, and the largest U.S. national park, with more than 5,000 square miles of glaciers, boasts some of the more spectacular. Warning: A pair of experienced hikers recently died in this park after becoming lost. It is strongly recommended to hire an experienced local guide in this dangerous endeavor. Alaska Denali Travel and St. Elias Alpine Guides both offer glacier caving tours.
• Mount Rainier National Park, Washington: From the 1930s to the early 1980s, the Paradise Glacier Ice Caves were one of the most popular features of this national park. Rising global temperatures melted the lower portion of the glacier, and the caves vanished, leaving only photos and memories.