When we think of national parks we tend to think of sweeping mountain vistas or red and orange deep canyons. But underground can be just as amazing. The National Park Service protects many cave systems, with three being the highest level of protection – national parks. Each of these three national park caves is special for its own reasons.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park, and Wind Cave National Park are three unique cave systems worth exploring.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park protects the longest known cave system in the world. Located in central Kentucky, this national park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. The park encompasses more than 50,000 acres and has more than 400 miles of passageways, making it the largest of these national park caves. And each year more passageways are discovered.
Needless to say, with the cave system being so large there are numerous cave tours. When I visited the park, most of the tours were closed due to COVID. The tour I chose was the Extended Historical Tour.
One thing I found interesting about the section of cave in the Extended Historical Tour was that it is a dry cave. While taking the tour, it was the first time I had been in such a big cave without stalactites and stalagmites or water dripping on my head.
But as its name states, this is a Mammoth Cave. So there are other portions with those features.
Mammoth Cave National Park offers other activities in addition to cave tours, like hiking, kayaking, fishing, and horseback riding.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Across the country in southern New Mexico, you will find Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There are more than 119 limestone caves at Carlsbad Cavern National Park. These caves are among some of the largest and longest caves in the entire world. The Big Room, a large limestone chamber, is the largest chamber in North America.
Carlsbad Caverns were carved out of the Capitan Reef. It’s one of the best-preserved Permian-age fossil reefs in the world. With just over 46,000 acres, the park not only protects the cave system but the desert surrounding it. It also has 33,000 acres of designated wilderness.
The park offers two self-guided cave tours that you can enjoy at your own pace – the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room Trail. There are about six ranger-led cave tours as well. When I visited the park, I chose the Natural Entrance Trail simply because I thought it was interesting to hike into the ground.
In addition to cave exploring, visitors can also hike and take part in night sky and bat programs. The Bat Flight Program takes place from May to October. During the Bat Flight Program, rangers educated visitors on bats before watching them exit the cave.
Wind Cave National Park
Carved into the Black Hills in western South Dakota, you will find Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave is one of the oldest caves in the entire world. The national park protects the cave and about 33,000 acres, which includes the largest mixed-grass prairie remaining in the United States.
Its most prominent feature, the boxwork, makes it a unique place to tour. Boxwork is a honeycomb pattern of calcite that projects from the ceilings and walls. These fins remained after weathering removed the limestone and dolomite bedrock, leaving the more resistant calcite behind. Wind Cave has more boxwork than any other cave in the world.
Wind Cave National Park is full of history. It is a sacred site to the Lakota and Cheyenne as well as many other Native Americans. Click here to watch Sina Bear Eagle, a park interpreter and member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, tell the emergence story.
There are three guided tours at Wind Cave National Park – the Natural Entrance Tour, the Garden of Eden Tour, the Fairgrounds Tour. There are also two specialty tours. When I visited the park, I chose the Natural Entrance Tour. Be prepared to get to the park early. Tickets are only sold the day of the tour and can sell out by mid-afternoon.
But, like other national park caves, there are other things to do at Wind Cave National Park including hiking and wildlife watching. There are also many other places to explore nearby in the Black Hills.
In addition to these three national park caves, there are four caves systems that are national monuments – Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota, Oregon Cave National Monument & Preserve in Oregon, Russell Cave National Monument in Alabama, and Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah.
Exploring these caves
It’s fun to explore all of these national park caves and compare and contrast them. There is so much biodiversity and interesting geological features in these underground worlds. Each of these cave systems is made up of unique combinations to make them special and worth preserving. And each of these national parks also offers interesting experiences above ground as well. Hopefully, some of the national monument caves will become national park caves in the near future.