Exploring Virginia’s Luray Caverns in 1969 — as cool then as they are now. (Photo: Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
As summer is heating up, hordes of tourists-to-be are planning their vacations around sun, sand, and sweat. But have you ever considered a subterranean vacation? Caves are some of the most awesome geological treasures and natural landmarks in the States — and perfect in summer, with their naturally cool climates. What lies below are some of the country’s most interesting underground destinations to discover.
Luray Cavern. (Photo: m01229/Flickr)
Discovered in 1878 by the town’s tinsmith, Luray Caverns is the largest underground cavern system in the Eastern United States. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, it houses the world’s largest instrument — the Great Stalacpipe Organ. The instrument taps rubber tipped mallets on stalactites across three surrounding acres to produce a hauntingly beautiful sound.
Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. (Photo: Getty Images)
Under Southern Kentucky’s curvaceous hills and “hollers” is buried the world’s longest cave system. Visitors can craft their tour to accommodate their level of claustrophobia — from navigating well-lighted walkways to crawling through tight, rugged, crevices lit only by the light on a helmet.
Missouri’s Meramec Caverns. (Photo: Missouri Division of Tourism/Flickr)
The famed Route 66 still holds many kitschy roadside attractions along its Missouri stretch. Among them is Meramec Caverns, in Sullivan — the self-described “greatest show under earth.” Jessie James is said to have used the caverns to hide from the law. Its three-story Theatre Room impressively brims with curtain-like limestone formations, exploding in campy appeal as a record-player era rendition of God Bless America plays to a choreograph of color lights flood the formations.
Washington’s Ape Cave. (Photo: Keith Carey/Flickr)
Ever been in a lava tube? Around 2,000 years ago, a molten lava flow poured down Mount Saint Helen’s south flank and left behind a tunnel 2.5 miles in length that, today, is called Ape Cave. And unlike the scorching temperatures of molten lava, Ape Cave, in Skamania County, is a cool and consistent 42 degrees year-round. Bring your flashlight or rent one on site for $5.
The Witch’s Finger at Carlsbad Caverns. (Photo: Peter Jones/NPS Photo)
The legendary humorist Will Rogers called Carlsbad Caverns “Grand Canyon with a roof on it.” One of the best show caves in the United States, this one boasts of its mythical proportions with formation names like Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, and Rock of Ages. An elevator brings you down 75 stories to the beauty below.
San Antonio’s Natural Bridge Caverns. (Photo: VisitSanAntonio/Flickr)
Above ground, this San Antonio destination is built up to entertain the active family; complete with zip lines, mazes, and gem mining. Below, the cave is just as active. It is almost 100 percent actively growing, and the stalactite and stalagmite formations take on a variety of different shapes in each room.
The entrance to New Hampshire’s Polar Caves Park. (Photo: Adam Tucker/Flickr)
Granite caves formed from retreating glaciers some 50,000 years ago. As the name suggests, the temperature in the deeper areas of the cave system in Rumney, New Hampshire, can get downright chilly. But the chill hasn’t stopped many from occupying the caves, from slaves to bootleggers. Tours are self-guided. Visitors can also explore an accompanying rock garden, nature trails, and petting zoo.
California’s Moaning Cavern. (Photo: Iszatso/Flickr)
One of California’s marble caves, gold miners discovered the system in Vallecito during the height of the gold rush. The largest chamber in the cave spans a height of 180 feet. Yet despite this gaping room, the cavern also offers adventurers more confining passageways with names like the Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze, and Birth Canal.
South Dakota’s Jewel Cave. (Photo: South Dakota/Flickr)
The third longest cave in the word, this Custer-based phenomenon gets its name from the calcite crystals that dot and illuminate its inner walls. Ranger-guided tours are available in a variety of levels, and surrounding hiking paths. Researchers continue to discover more passageways each year.