Descend into 4 of our favorite underground experiences that are perfect for the family
NOTHING QUITE reawakens your sense of awe like descending into the earth. It’s been that way for a long time. The ancients imagined a passage to the afterlife. Jules Verne took us to the very center of the earth in fiction. And children, of course, have always imagined hidden kingdoms just beneath their feet. Walk into a cave of wonder, and you have to admit: The kids got this one right. Strange and terrible rock formations evoke a sense of the surreal. Giant rooms and massive chambers suddenly appear after long passages. The whole idea suggests a paradox: These hidden kingdoms, full of weird beauties, are surely meant to be seen. And when you find yourself in these underground halls, there’s no escaping the feeling that your eyes are the ones they’re meant for. No matter where you are in the country, you’re likely within driving distance of a magnificent cave. (This is good news for all of us trying to save some gas money this summer.) It’s estimated that there are 17,000 all across the U.S. The following four are our favorites, but, trust us, there’s a cave of wonder near you wherever you are. So grab those little ones! Squeeze your
significant other into the cab. And begin an unforgettable descent into fun.
Bruce Wayne’s Dream Cave
► BEST PARKING SPOT: Carlsbad RV Park, 4301 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220, (575) 885-6333
► BEST EATS NEARBY: This is a desert country. Get a jump on the heat and start your morning with some French toast at Blue House Bakery.
► WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Hike the Guadeloupe Mountains (just 40 minutes away) and then visit the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park.
When CARLSBAD CAVERNS was first discovered, no one believed the reports. But something magical was just beneath the earth in New Mexico’s Land of Enchantment. Giving away its location with a tell-tale sign worthy of the Dark Knight (we’re talking clouds of bats here), Carlsbad Caverns became one man’s secret, Jim White’s, until the public finally began to believe the unbelievable. Today, an elevator takes visitors 750 feet down into the cavern’s eerie, magnificent chambers. The names of the sights themselves are suggestive of Carlsbad’s unparalleled power over the imagination: Big Room, Temple of the Sun, King’s Palace, Spider Cave, Rock of Ages, and Hall of the White Giant. But what’s inside is only half the fun. Each summer evening, a giant, swirling, echolocating mass of Mexican free-tailed bats emerge in all their thousands. At the peak of their flight, 5,000 bats leave the caverns per minute. Needless to say, you’ll be as awestruck as any kiddos you may take. Beware though: It might be the exact push you need to start wearing a cape.
Lava Tube of Mystery
► BEST PARKING SPOT: Cougar RV Park & Campground, 16730 Lewis River Road, Cougar, WA 98616, (360 ) 238-5224
► BEST EATS NEARBY: Eating Bigfoot BBQ Bacon and Crazy Ape burgers at the Lone FirCafe is the perfect finish to your caventure.
► WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Hike around Mount St. Helens and visit the Lewis River Falls to see a stunning cascade of water.
they are mysterious. (More on that in a sec.) And with a name like APE CAVE , you could be forgiven for thinking that something primitive happened here. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s “Murders of Rue Morgue.” Or an gunsolved assault that the locals attribute to Bigfoot. You know, monkey business. But whatever the truth is about how the cave got its name, at two and a half miles long, it remains the third longest lava tube in North America—with a creepy sensation like no other. Unwinding deep beneath the forest floor of Mount St. Helens National RVX > CAves of Wonder RVX earth in New Mexico’s Land of Enchantment. Giving away its location with a tell-tale sign worthy of the Dark Knight (we’re talking clouds of bats here), Carlsbad Caverns became one man’s secret, Jim White’s, until the public finally began to believe the unbelievable.
Today, an elevator takes visitors 750 feet down into the cavern’s eerie, magnificent chambers. The names of the sights themselves are suggestive of Carlsbad’s unparalleled power over the imagination: Big Room, Temple of the Sun, King’s Palace, Spider Cave, Rock of Ages, Hall of the White Giant.
But what’s inside is only half the fun. Each summer evening, a giant, swirling, echolocating mass of Mexican free-tailed bats emerge in all their thousands. At the peak of their flight, 5,000 bats leave the caverns per minute. Needless to say, you’ll be as awestruck as any kiddos you may take. Beware though: It might be the exact push you need to start wearing a cape. Volcanic Monument, Ape Cave is damp, dark, and covered in living cave slime (that’s a real thing). We’re talking total darkness. The only light inside is what you bring. (Wear a headlamp and bring
a second flashlight, because your phone won’t cut it!) The temperature underground averages 42ºF year-round. Adding to its eerie effect, visitor groups are spaced out by reservation (one ticket covers an entire vehicle), so the experience feels more individual, without the clamor (or comfort) of a bustling crowd. Here, like Gilgamesh of old, you have to press on in complete darkness till you escape.
Into Earth’s 400-Mile Maze
► BEST PARKING SPOT: Rock Cabin Camping, 5091 Mammoth Cave Road, Cave City, KY 42127, (270) 773-4740
► BEST EATS NEARBY: Who feels like hot pizza after spelunking one of the world’s coolest caves? Everyone. Make Cave City Pizza your stop.
► WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Give the kiddos a prehistoric glimpse at Dinosaur World and cycle together on the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail.
MAMMOTH CAVE’s massive name can lead to some wild expectations. There are no wooly mammoths—live or fossilized—here, so keep your inner Alan Grant under control, at least partially. (The cave does have live troglobites, which were thought to be extinct, but’s not exactly Jurassic World.) The true mammoth is the cave itself. As the world’s longest-known cave system, Mammoth Cave is an underground treat with 400 miles of space for the whole family. Throughout, the cave is well-lit by lanterns that give the walls an ambient orange glow. Because of its expanse, you’ll have a variety of cave tours to choose from, ranging from short to long walking tours, lantern tours, and adventurous crawling tours (you know you want to). No matter what tour you choose or what sights you see, the most impressive thing about Mammoth Cave is that it just … keeps … going. And with more always there to explore, you have every reason to keep going too.
► BEST PARKING SPOT: Raccoon Mountain Caverns & Campground, 319 West Hills Drive, Chattanooga, TN 37419, (423 ) 821-9403
► BEST EATS NEARBY: All that exploration might just create a craving. Stock up on tacos and share nachos at Taco Mamacita.
► WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Continue your underwater exploration at the Chattanooga Aquarium. After that, three words: See Rock City.
RUBY FALLS was never meant to be discovered. In fact, the whole story reads like a fantasy. A man breaks open a rock on the side of Lookout Mountain and discovers a narrow passageway. Descending, he beholds a geological gem never seen by man: a towering waterfall hidden in the heart of the mountain. In awe, he then returns with his young bride and names the falls after her: Ruby. Today, getting inside the mountain is much easier. When you begin your tour, you’ll descend 260 feet into historic Lookout Mountain while riding in a glass-front elevator. Once you arrive at the bottom, you can begin your guided walking tour, see ancient cave formations and arrive at the breathtaking, now-illuminated waterfall. Tours typically last one hour to an hour and twenty minutes, depending on the date and time of the visit. You’ll need to reserve tickets ahead of time. If you are feeling adventurous, there’s an after-hours tour, available for ages 5 and up and on select evenings, where the cavern and trails are lit only by the use of hand-held lanterns. Whether you go here with the kids or save it for date night, seeing Ruby Falls is an experience you’ll treasure together.