Hidden below ground throughout the United States are entire worlds. There are an estimated 45,000 caves in the United States. Formed over thousands of years, some are full of history—famous spots where outlaws once hid—while others are still being discovered. All are home to natural wonders and some to a few man-made ones including dance floors and hotels. Whether you’re an expert at spelunking or simply want to do something a little different on your next weekend escape, here are seven U.S. caves you can plan a getaway around.
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
With more than 200,000 square miles stretching throughout three U.S. states and into Mexico you could spend a few weeks exploring the Chihuahuan Desert. Head to the New Mexico part of the desert where you can take in the wildlife and blooming cactus above ground while hiking on a few miles of trails, but don’t forget to make time to go below ground. Known as Carlsbad Caverns, more than 119 caves lie under the desert. Stare in wonder at the natural limestone chamber that makes up a large part of the caverns.
Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, Oregon
Go to Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve for a romantic weekend. Yes, you read that right. The preserve and marble caves within the lush Oregon forest are home to a historic chateau making it an ideal weekend escape. Hike the outskirts of the cave system before heading inside for a tour. Adrenaline seekers will want to sign up for the off-trail caving tour. You get outfitted with a headlamp before trained guides teach you how to fit through tight spaces as you go spelunking through the caves.
Meramec Caverns, Missouri
Missouri is home to more than 6,000 caves but if you can only spend a day or even half a day visiting one make it Meramec Caverns. Rumored to have been the second to last stop along the Underground Railroad and used by Jesse James as a hideout, stepping down into the Meramec Caverns will transport you into the past. Take a guided tour and learn about the creation of the Caverns’ ancient limestone wine table and seven-story mansion. End your day with a meal at the on-site restaurant, or, if you have more time you can camp at designated spots nearby.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Gaze in wonder at the unique boxwork formation inside South Dakota’s Wind Cave. Tiny, skinny pieces of calcite hang off the walls and ceilings of the caves creating a honeycomb pattern that is both mesmerizing and a little spooky. While there are other caves throughout the world that have boxwork formations, these caves are home to the majority of them. After you’ve had your fill below ground, take time to explore the above ground areas of the park, home to wildlife including bison and elk.
Polar Caves, New Hampshire
More than 50,000 years ago receding glaciers created nine granite caves in the White Mountains. Known today as the Polar Caves, the area is a favorite summertime spot for families. Take your time exploring them during a self-guided tour but make sure to leave plenty of the time for the destination’s other activities. Explorers can take a stab at the rock climbing wall or sluice mining and young (or young at heart) visitors will love the animal petting zoo and the maple sugaring house.
Indian Caves, New York
Yes, there are caves in Manhattan. You simply need to know where to look. Inwood Hill Park is perhaps New York City’s most overlooked park and it’s also its most magical. Winding walkways break up the roughly 196 acres of wilderness that compose the park. It’s here you’ll find the Shorakapok Preserve, home to the last remaining salt marsh in Manhattan, and the park’s Indian caves, natural rock hangs used for centuries as the summer camp of the Wiechquasecks. Visit in June and learn the history while listening to drumming and watching dancers during the annual festival that celebrates the park’s history.
Craighead Caverns, Tennessee
Hidden at the bottom of a cave in Tennessee is the largest underground lake in the U.S. As you descend into the cave, tour guides point out the Craighead Caverns’ rooms while talking about the caverns’ vast history from use by the Cherokees to soldiers in the Civil War to the development of a dance floor for public use in the 1900s. But it’s once you reach the lake that the adventure really begins. Glass-bottom boats bring visitors around the lake for views unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.