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.
- 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. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday, May 1-October 31
- Pricing (2015): $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 throughout summer
- Pricing (2015): $16/adults, $8/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: Spring Valley, Wisconsin
- Phone: 715-788-4414
- Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Memorial Day-Labor Day; check online for spring/fall hours; closed winter (November-March)
- Pricing (2015): $14.98/adult, $9.98/ages 4-12, free/kids under 4
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; check website for other times
- Pricing (2015): $14/adults, $7/ages 4-11, free/kids under 4
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.
- Location: Maquoketa, Iowa
- Phone: 563-652-5833
- Hours: 4 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily
- Pricing (2015): Free, but you’ll be required to watch a brief educational video
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.
- 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 (2015): 40-minute walking tour is $15/adults, $8.50/kids, free/ages 3 and under (many other tour packages are available, from 60-minute walking tours to five-hour underground adventures)
Ready to get dirty? For adventurous kids (ages 12 and up on this one), venture on hands and knees – and stomach! – as part of the Waterfall Crawl. This tour lasts two hours. But there are plenty of other options, both for more adventures (think crawling through even-rock caverns) and simple walking tours for all ages. 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)
- Pricing (2015): $18.95/adults, $9.95/kids 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 55-minute tour (notorious outlaw Jesse James was a visitor, too). The complex includes the Cameron Cave, which has a longer, one-hour-and-20-minute tour – where you’ll be led by lantern-light. The caves are about an hour south of Hannibal, and 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 summer months; check site for hours year-round
- Pricing (2015): $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 a 1 1/2-mile round-trip journey.
- Location: 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): 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily
- Pricing (2015): $17/adults, $9/ages 5-12, free/ages 4 and under
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, Indiana
- Phone: 812-849-4129
- Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Memorial Day-mid August, daily; tours run every half hour
- Pricing (2015): $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. But for cave fans, there’s a 20-minute boat tour that takes visitors 600 feet into a cave – where you might be able to spy the rare, endangered blind cavefish. Note: Reservations are available on 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.
This article was originally published in 2012 and has been updated in 2015 by Kristy Case.
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