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Amazing Caves of the Midwest

Updated on July 7, 2015

Explore the Caves of the Midwest!

When you think of caves, the first thing that might come to mind is "rocks". But there is so much more than that waiting in this underground wonder!

Whenever we plan a family vacation I always check to see if there is a cave nearby to tour. There's just something fascinating about a whole other "world" below us full of breathtaking formations, clear streams and untouched nature's beauty.

Many caves offer guided tours - giving the history of the cave and the unique formations and characteristics.

Below are a few of the more popular cave destinations in the Midwest.

With over 121 miles surveyed, Jewel Cave is recognized as the third-longest cave in the world and the second longest in the United States. Airflow within the passageways of this complex labyrinth indicates a vast area yet to be explored. Just to reach the unmapped, southeastern area, surveyors must make a six-hour trek - and the only way to move toward the unexplored passages is through the Mini-Miseries, so named for its 600 feet of belly-crawling.

Jewel Cave tours range from scenic walks to strenuous wild caving. Regardless of route, visitors have the chance to explore a pristine cave system and see its wide variety of rock formations - including stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, frostwork, flowstone, boxwork, and hydromagnesite balloons. Jewel Cave is also an important winter residence for several species of bats.

In addition to the cave tours, there are many opportunities for exploring on the surface at Jewel Cave National Monument. The 1279 acre park is located in a Ponderosa pine forest and is home to 393 varieties of plants and flowers.

Open: All year

Cave temperature: 49 degrees Fahrenheit year-round

Location: Southwest South Dakota, in the Black Hills

For more information: Call Jewel Cave National Monument at (605) 673-2288

or visit www.nps.gov/jeca/index.htm

Jewel Cave Formations

Flickr Photo Credit: Paul J. Thompson

Stalagmites grow from the ground up.

Stalactites grow from the ceiling down.

Niagara Cave, Minnesota

Niagara Cave, one of the Midwest's largest limestone caverns, offers such notable underground sights as Paul Bunyan's Bed, a wishing well, an echo chamber, and the Wedding Chapel - over 300 wedding ceremonies have been performed in the latter. At the cavern's lowest level, the Stalactite Room holds a rainbow of rock formations in a massive chamber.

Carved out by underground streams, Niagara Cave's ceiling reaches over a hundred feet high, with deep canyons and gorges below. Many of these streams are still active today, one of which tumbles for 60 feet - the cave's namesake waterfall.

After your tour, check out the gift shop where you'll find authentic fossils and unique mineral specimens from all over the globe, nature identification books, T-shirts, sweatshirts, stuffed animals, plus science and nature kits.

Open: Hours vary by season; regular season is May through September

Cave temperature: 48 degrees Fahrenheit year-round

Location: Southeast Minnesota, on the Iowa border, outside of Harmony, MN

For more information: Call Niagara Cave at (800) 837-6606

or visit www.niagaracave.com

Types of Cave Formations

Above are just some of the amazing cave formation types.

To learn more about them, check out CavernTours.com

Meramec Caverns, Missouri

This family-friendly show cave is located under the Ozarks in the Meramec Valley. Meramec Caverns' seven stories are composed of a series of natural underground openings, with another 26 miles of underground passages. One incredible speleothem, the Stage Curtain, measures 70 feet high, 60 feet wide, and 35 feet thick - the largest single cave formation in the world. Besides this 70-million-year-old, calcium-carbonate curtain, other notable formations in Meramec Caverns include the Wine Table and Onyx Mountain.

The largest cave in the "Cave State" - Missouri is home to nearly 6,000 caves - Meramec Caverns has earned some notoriety for its various historical occupants. Used by local Indian tribes for shelter and, according to legend, used as a station by the Underground Railroad, the caverns also provided the perfect post-heist hideout for Jesse James and his gang.

After your tour explore the gift shop filled with rocks and minerals, T-shirts, jewelry, headgear, knives, clocks, pictures, slides, book gifts, postcards, toys, games, etc. Stay for lunch at the restaurant that features home style cooking, a snack bar, and 28 flavors of ice cream.

Open: All year

Cave temperature: 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round

Location: Eastern Missouri, on the Illinois border

For more information: Call Meramec Caverns at (800) 676-6105

or visit www.americascave.com

Meramec Caverns

Flickr Photo Credit: TeresaHsu

Cave of the Mounds - Wisconsin

Commonly referred to as the "jewel box" of America's major caves for the variety and delicacy of its formations, Cave of the Mounds is recognized by the Chicago Academy of Sciences as "the significant cave of the upper Midwest".

A guided tour of the Cave takes you past a varied collection of colorful stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other formations. The main cavern began forming over a million years ago as acidic water dissolved the limestone bedrock far below the surface. As Cave of the Mounds staff like to point out, geologic time is mind-boggling. It is difficult to imagine the time it took for the large caverns to be dissolved within rock that is itself believed to be over 400 million years old! People can enjoy the park-like grounds, with picnic areas, walking trails and rock gardens.

Cave of the Mounds was accidentally discovered on August 4, 1939. Workers, who were removing high quality limestone from a quarry on the Brigham Farm, blasted into the Cave. The blast tore the face off the quarry and revealed a great underground cavern. All quarrying stopped and never resumed. The dynamite blast revealed a limestone cave more than twenty feet high opening into other rooms and galleries, all containing numerous mineral formations.

The excitement of the discovery brought so many curiosity seekers that the Cave had to be closed in order to preserve it. Soon, lights and wooden walkways were installed. And, in May 1940, Cave of the Mounds was opened to visitors.

A lower meandering portion of the Cave was formed by the rushing water of an underground stream. The contrast between the chemical and mechanical processes of cave formation is one of the geologic lessons illustrated on The Cave Tour.

Open: All year

Cave temperature: 50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round

Location: just off U.S. Highways 18/151 in Blue Mounds, WI.

For more information: Call Cave of the Mounds at (608) 437-3038

or visit www.caveofthemounds.com

Cave of the Mounds

Flickr Photo Credit: MsPatt

Crystal Cave - Spring Valley, WI

Crystal Cave was discovered in 1881 by a local farm boy, William R. Vanasse. The discovery occurred while William was walking through the woods just a short distance from his home. The sixteen-year-old, discovering a small leaf-filled sink, probed and pushed with a stick which suddenly slipped from his grasp, disappearing into the ground.

Discover a unique hour-long tour that will ignite your imagination. Knowledgeable guides will lead you through passages filled with glistening cave formations. Stalactites, stalagmites and rippling flowstone can be seen hanging from the ceiling or covering the ledges.

The cave is accessed by a series of steps and ramps that allow you to descend over 70 feet underground where your journey follows well-lit, graveled trails. The cave temperature hovers near 50 degrees. A sweatshirt is recommended. Caves are naturally humid and will occasionally become slightly muddy on the floor.

Please dress accordingly.

Your adventure at Crystal Cave won't be entirely underground. A self-guided nature trail, The Lodge Gift Shop offering wide variety of items and apparel, and a hands-on gem panning experience are all waiting your discovery.

Open: April - October

Cave temperature: 50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round

Location: W965 State Road 29, Spring Valley, WI.

For more information: Call Crystal Cave at (800) 236-CAVE

or visit www.acoolcave.com

Crystal Cave

Gem Pan Mining

Some caves also have activities such as gem panning. Channel your inner prospector! Pour your bag of mix into the screen and slide it through the sluice. Real gems will appear and will be yours to keep! You might find crystal points, pyrite, garnets, amethyst, and more.

The picture to the left is my family panning at Crystal Cave. It was a lot of fun and we all walked away with at least 15 gems each.

Amazon.com Explores Amazing Caves

Do you enjoy exploring caves? Stop by and say "Hi"!

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    • profile image

      TanoCalvenoa 4 years ago

      I've been to Jewel Cave, it was really great. I love to visit a cave if I can, have been to maybe five or so in my lifetime.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 5 years ago from UK

      Great images of caves, and yes we are quite lucky in the UK to have a number of caves although many are quite small in world terms. Thanks for the read.

    • profile image

      heatherlewin 6 years ago

      Great lens! I grew up going to all the caves you listed with my family. Brigs back memories...

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      i go on nature hikes all the time and take photos about it.. i've added your lens to my blog roll - travel ontario stuff.. looks awesome..

    • honeymishi07 profile image

      honeymishi07 6 years ago

      Interesting sight. Reminds me of one of the scenes in Pans Labyrinth

      Hope you also like and check out my lens! Thanks!

    • profile image

      SeleneMathew 6 years ago

      Jewel Cave is the second longest cave in the world; it is formed by the gradual dissolution of limestone by stagnant, acid-rich water. Cave was discovered in 1900 and became a Jewel Cave National Monumentin 1908.

    • soulswallo profile image

      soulswallo 6 years ago

      Very interesting. I like the bat dividers!

    • squid-janices7 profile image

      squid-janices7 7 years ago

      Fantastic lens! Love the photos and your use of the bat graphics. Haven't been to Niagara cave in MN, but it looks fun. 5*!

    • kimmer1491 profile image

      Kim 8 years ago from Big Lake, MN

      What a neat lens! My 2 boys would love to go exploring in an underground cave, I've just added this to our list of "vacation wannabes" - thanks for the great information!

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 8 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Great cave lens. I also been to the Jewel Cave in South Dakota. Thanks for lensrolling http://www.squidoo.com/experience-the-cave-of-the-... I will lensroll this as well. 5 stars.