This summer, why not take your family to an attraction millions of years in the making? That’s right: It’s time to don a hard hat and go cave exploring. (Don’t worry – you don’t have to have your own hard hat; they’re provided for visitors!)
The twisting passageways of many of these caves come from thousands of centuries of groundwater seeping into limestone beneath the surface, dissolving it. Then, as the water table lowers, the passageways remain, revealing narrow tunnels and soaring caverns just waiting to be discovered. (Most of the caves on this list were formed in this way, but not all.)
For your family’s next adventure, there are plenty of caves and experiences to choose from – whether your child wants to belly crawl through tight caverns, hike from one shallow cave to another or even take a boat ride right through a cave. Here are some of the Midwest’s popular caves – and what you’ll find during your visit to these million-year-old wonders. Be sure to bring your jackets, as many caves get a bit chilly!
- Location: Hocking Hills, Ohio
- Phone: 740-385-6842
- Hours: dawn-dusk, year-round
- Pricing: Free
There’s no tour guide needed to find this shelter cave that’s perfect for kids who don’t want to venture into an underground space. Several trails in Hocking Hills State Park lead you to this massive cave, which spans 700 feet across and just 100 feet in. To add to the appeal of this natural formation, there’s a waterfall that goes over the cave’s edge. Picnic areas are available nearby.
- Location: Buchanan, Michigan
- Phone: 269-695-3050
- Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily May 1-Oct. 31
- Pricing (2016): $3/adults, $1.50/ages 6-11, free/ages 5 and under
Venture into Bear Cave after walking on a winding 40-foot staircase into the 15-foot-deep, four-to-six-foot-wide and 10-to-15-foot-high cave. This small cave has a storied history: A bank robber chose to stash his cash here in 1875. The incident worked its way in the 1903 silent film, The Great Train Robbery. Today, the area is known for its great camping and fishing along the St. Joseph River.
- Location: Bedford, Indiana
- Phone: 812-279-9471
- Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily June-October; closed during winter months.
- Pricing (2016): $16/adults, $9/children ages 3-15 (very young kids not encouraged on this tour)
Bluespring Caverns was discovered in the 1940s when a farmer’s pond disappeared overnight – only to reveal the series of caverns just below the surface. Today, visitors take an 800-foot steep ramp to get into the caverns and to where the boats are docked. A guide then takes you on an hour-long boat ride along Myst’ry River, which flows through the caverns, pointing out rare fish that call the caverns home. There’s also an overnight cave experience.
- Location: Blue Mounds, Wisconsin
- Phone: 608-437-3038
- Hours: Change seasonally; Summer (Memorial Day-Labor Day): 9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily; Fall/Spring (Tuesday after Labor Day-Nov. 15 and March 15-Friday before Memorial Day): 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays (every hour) 9 a.m.-6 p.m. weekends (every half hour); Winter (Nov. 16-March 14): Tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends (every hour).
- Pricing (2016): $17.95/adults 13 and up, $9.95/ages 4-12, free/3 and under; additional fees may apply for other activities.
Visit this Wisconsin show cave, a National Natural Landmark, for a one-hour guided tour on an illuminated, paved walkway. Start with an 8-minute video and proceed through the limestone wonder. Above ground, there’s more fun, like gem stone mining, a fossil dig, hiking trails, barn discovery center and gift shops, too. Parents looking for a little alone time on summer vacation can drop their kids at the summer camp for fun activities. Look for special events here as well. Fun fact: It’s about 50 degrees year-round in the cave!
- Location: Spring Valley, Wisconsin
- Phone: 715-788-4414
- Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Memorial Day-Labor Day; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. after Labor Day until Oct. 31 and in April-May; closed winter (November-March)
- Pricing (2016): $14.98/adult, $9.98/ages 4-12, free/kids under 3 (one per paid adult ticket)
Discover Crystal Cave’s wonders on a one-hour tour. Explore Wisconsin’s longest cave’s passages more than 70 feet underground. Learn about the geology of caves, including how cave formations (speleothems) develop and the biology of bats.
- Location: Dubuque, Iowa
- Phone: 563-556-6451
- Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through summer (5 p.m. last tour); check website for other times
- Pricing (2016): $14/adults, $7/ages 4-11, free/kids under 3
Discovered by lead miners in 1868, Crystal Lake Cave was opened to visitors in 1932. The 30- to 45-minute tour includes a trek through 3,000-plus feet of lit passageways, led by a guide who explains the history of the cave. Your guide also lets your kids take a peek at Anthodite, a rare formation of crystals that looks like spidery flowers bursting from the cave walls. Now offers “Wild Cave Tours” for those looking to take a longer, crawling tour through the unexcavated passageways (Minimum age is 10 years old, must call two weeks in advance. Cost is $50/person).
- Location: Maquoketa, Iowa
- Phone: 563-652-5833
- Hours: 4 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily
- Pricing (2016): Free, but you’ll be required to watch a brief educational video (2-minute presentation, then receive your cave permit)
Unlike other cave destinations, where you take a single tour of one cave, this 323-acre state park includes 13 named caves – although there are more than 40 in the area! Your family can walk through six miles of trails to visit the various caves. Camping sites available, which you can reserve online.
- Location: Marengo, Indiana
- Phone: 888-702-2837
- Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Memorial Day-Labor Day; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Labor Day-Memorial Day
- Pricing (2016): 40-minute walking tour is $16/adults, $9/ages 4-12, free/ages 3 and under (many other tour packages are available, from 60-minute walking tours to five-hour underground adventures) $3/person for The Crawl
There are plenty of options, both for the more adventurous and simple walking tours for all ages. For adventurous kids (ages 8-plus on this one), venture on hands and knees – and stomach! – as part of The Crawl. It lasts about 30 minutes. With so many ways to explore the cave, it’s no mystery why this is Indiana’s most visited show cave!
- Location: Hannibal, Missouri
- Phone: 573-221-1656
- Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. through summer (check website for year-round hours, which vary by season)
- Pricing (2016): $18.95/adults, $9.95/ages 6-12, $4/ages 5 and under
First opened in 1886, the Mark Twain Cave, originally called McDowell’s Cave, was a frequent haunt of the young Sam Clemens (Twain’s real name). The cave is now a registered National Natural Landmark where you can tour 6 1/2 miles of winding, narrow passages during the one-hour tour (notorious outlaw Jesse James was a visitor, too). The complex includes the Cameron Cave, which has a longer, one-hour-and-30-minute tour – where you’ll be led by lantern-light (prices vary). Camping spots are available on the property.
- Location: Stanton, Missouri
- Phone: 573-468-CAVE
- Hours: 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily in July-August months; check site for hours year-round May-June.
- Pricing (2016): $21/adults, $11/ages 5-11, free/children ages 4 and under
Known as “America’s Cave,” Meramec Caverns has a long and storied history since its discovery by a French explorer back in 1720 (at one time, Jesse James used this one as a hideout, too!). The extensive cave has several rare formations tucked within its seven stories and 26 miles of passages. The tour lasts about one hour and 20 minutes and makes about a 1 1/4-mile round-trip journey.
- Location: West Liberty, Ohio
- Phone: 937-465-4017
- Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. in the summer (April 1-Oct. 31), daily; winter hours (Nov. 1-March 31): 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily
- Pricing (2016): $17/adults, $9/ages 5-12, free/ages 4 and under (Natural Wonder)
Ohio Caverns is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state – for good reason. The extensive caverns boast an array of colorful formations, including some in blue, orange and bright whites. There are several tours available, including a few that will take you into rooms dubbed “Fantasyland,” “Palace of the Gods” and the “Big Room” because of their unique formations, colors and sizes.
- Location: Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell, Indiana
- Phone: 812-849-3534
- Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily Memorial Day-mid August; tours run every half hour, weather permitting
- Pricing (2016): $3/person (note that kids ages 3 and under aren’t permitted on the boat tour)
Twin Caves is just one of several attractions located within the Spring Mill State Park. The park houses four interpretative facilities where families can learn about early pioneer life in the area, including a pioneer village of approximately 22 buildings, like a blacksmith, leatherworker, and operating gristmill. But for cave fans, there’s a 20-to-25-minute boat tour that takes visitors 600 feet into a cave – where you might be able to spy the rare, endangered blind cavefish and other creatures. Reserve a spot at the inn or campground, too. Note: Reservations for cave tours are available on a daily basis, so staff suggests getting tickets early that day; once the daily slots are filled, no more tickets are sold. Tickets are not available in advance. Must show in person.
This article was originally published in 2012 and has been updated in 2016 by Megan Krueger.