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 Midwest caves come from thousands of centuries of groundwater seeping into limestone beneath the surface, causing it to dissolve.
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
- Hours: Dawn-dusk daily
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. The one-way trail systems are open year-round from dusk to dawn. 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
- Hours: The cave is open from May to October
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
- Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
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
- Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Visit this Wisconsin show cave, a National Natural Landmark, for a one-hour guided tour on an illuminated, paved walkway or depart on your own tour throughout the day (last cave entry is 4 p.m. daily).
Above ground, there’s more fun, like gemstone 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
- Hours: April 1-May 27: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday; May 28-Sept. 5: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Sept. 6-Oct. 31: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Closed Nov. 1-March 31
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. Tours stop an hour and a half before the cave closes.
Also offers mini golf, nature trails, gem panning and more.
- Location: Dubuque, Iowa
- Hours: May: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday; May 30-Sept. 5: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; September and October: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Closed November-April
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. Gem mining, too.
The last tour leaves one hour before closing.
- Location: Maquoketa, Iowa
- Hours: 4 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily
Unlike other cave destinations, where you take a single tour of one cave, this 370-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
- Pricing: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
There are plenty of options, both for the more adventurous and simple walking tours for all ages. For adventurous kids, 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
- Hours: May 30-Sept. 5: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, Sept. 6-Oct. 31: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, Nov. 1-March 7: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., rest of March: 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m., April 1-May 29: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
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-20-minute tour — where you’ll be led by lantern-light (prices vary). Camping spots are available on the property.
- Location: Sullivan, Missouri
- Pricing: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas
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: Preston, Minnesota
- Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends until May 22; May 27-Sept. 5: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, Sept. 8-Oct. 23: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Monday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
This cave was discovered in 1937 and is the longest cave in Minnesota. The tour covers 13 miles underground and showcases fossils, flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites and underground pools.
Reservations are recommended. Must be booked at least 24 hours in advance; no same day reservations are available.
- Location: Harmony, Minnesota
- Hours: May 1-Oct. 30: open daily. Tours start and finish at different times daily. View the schedule here.
Take a one-hour mile-long hike underground and discover fossils over 450 million years old. Ascend down 275 stairs, see cave formations, view underground streams and waterfalls, and much more.
Reserve your tour online. Check in 15-30 minutes before your scheduled start time.
- Location: West Liberty, Ohio
- Hours: May 1-Sept. 30: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Oct. 1-April 30: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
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
- Hours: Twin Caves boat tour hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily from May 30-mid July; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday mid August to mid October. Additional hours are posted at the park.
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-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 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.
- Location: Cluster, South Dakota
- Hours: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily with extended hours in the spring, summer and fall.
Check out the Garden of Eden Cave Tour, Natural Entrance Cave Tour or Fairgrounds Cave Tour. Also, a Special Accessibility Cave Tour is available for those guests that have limited mobility.
Tickets are on a first-come first-served basis and cannot be purchased ahead of time. All tours are ranger-guided and are limited to 30-40 people at a time.
This article was originally published in 2012 and is updated regularly.
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