Five Tips for Visiting a National Park Service Cave


Last Updated on February 20, 2024 by Grant

Visiting a National Park Service cave is an amazing experience but it does take some planning to do safely, prevent the spread of disease and make sure you can get in and see the sights!

The National Park Service protects hundreds of miles of underground networks across the more than 4,700 caves it manages. These different caves include Karst sinkholes and caves, solution caves, lava tubes, sea/littoral caves, talus caves and ice caves. 

Caves carved out by the sea and ice on Lake Superior at Apostle Islands NL.
Ice caves from the shore at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Some of the National Park Service caves, like Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Timpanogos Cave National Monument, are dedicated to visiting the underground spaces. Others, like Great Basin National Park and Lava Beds National Monument, include the ability to visit a cave but that’s not the park’s sole purpose. Other sites have caves but visiting the those requires either technical expertise or special permitting and are generally not open to the public. 

Still, every cave we have visited has offered a wonderland of views and a completely different perspective on the formations of the world.

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A Brief List of the Most Popular National Park Service Sites with Caves

  • Mammoth Caves National Park
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Wind Cave National Park
  • Pinnacles National Park
  • Sequoia National Park
  • Great Basin National Park
  • Channel Islands National Park
  • Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
  • Oregon Caves National Monument
  • Timpanogos Cave National Monument
  • Jewel Cave National Monument
  • Lava Beds National Monument
  • Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
  • Coronado National Memorial
  • Craters of the Moon National Monument
  • Russell Cave National Monument
  • Sunset Crater National Monument
  • Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
  • Buffalo National River

Tip #1: Plan Ahead

Many of the National Park Service caves that allow public visitation require visitors to acquire tour tickets in advance. Oftentimes, that means getting on and reserving your tickets well in advance.

Some parks offer tickets in person for tours. That said, in-person ticket sales can have significant lines and limited availability, depending on the park and time of year. Wind Cave National Park, for example, does offer some in-person sales but its website also says tours often sell out at least an hour before the tour. 

Along the Grand Tour in Mammoth Cave.
Our tour group walking through Mammoth Cave.

Pro tip: Take a screenshot of your tickets for the tour before you arrive at the park. Many of these parks have limited to no cell phone service and if you do not have the tickets downloaded, you will not be able to load them on your phones when you arrive.

The difficulty, especially post-COVID restrictions, is that each park decides how far in advance tickets will be offered, how many (if any) tickets will be available for sale the day of and how tickets will be sold. Additionally, this process sometimes changes.

For example, Oregon Caves National Monument did not offer online ticket sales when we visited in 2021. To secure a ticket, we had to show up at the visitor center before it opened and wait in line to purchase a ticket. To be fair, that was Fourth of July Weekend, so it was the highest visitation for the park. Now, the park offers online ticket sales. 

Inside Oregon Caves
Inside Oregon Caves

Some caves do not require tickets to visit and allow visitors to explore on their own, like Lava Beds National Monument and Coronado National Memorial. 

The bottom line is that you should always check the official NPS website for any park you want to visit and check the information for tours in advance of your trip. Also, don’t assume that the process will stay the same. If you do your research in 2023, things could change by 2025.

Tip #2: Plan What You Pack in Advance

Every cave you visit will have its own requirements for visiting the cave. As a general rule of thumb, you should plan on bringing the following to any cave: sturdy, closed-toe shoes and warm clothing. 

Even the most well-developed of the caves have rough or slippery sections. Having a solid pair of shoes is a good idea. You don’t have to wear hiking boots… tennis shoes will do but having that extra bit of protection and traction on your feet will make a difference. 

A ranger gives reminders about cave etiquette at Timpanogos Cave National Monument.
The ranger giving our cave tour a briefing before we head into Timpanogos Cave. Note, despite the 90+ degree heat, everyone is wearing layers.

Next, bring warmer clothes than you would expect, especially in the summer. Indeed, most of the caves are between 45 and 55 degrees year-round. While that will feel nice, briefly, on a hot day, most tours are about an hour long. By the end of the tour, your teeth will be chattering if you don’t have a few extra layers. 

If you are exploring a cave on your own, make sure you bring at least two light sources (and your phone does not count!) as well as spare batteries. We will always suggest headlamps as opposed to flashlights just because we like to have our hands free while exploring. 

Pro tip: Before you walk into any cave or mine, take a picture of what you are wearing/carrying. 

Grant on the trail to Timpanogos Cave.
Grant on the trail up to the cave entrance. This will help him remember what he wore into the cave.

Tip #3: Don’t Spread White-Nose Syndrome

White-nose Syndrome is a fungus found in caves that kills hibernating bats. The fungus infects the bats’ skin, disturbing their hibernation and causing starvation and dehydration. White-nose syndrome was discovered in New York in 2006 and has since spread to the West Coast.

The spores for this fungus are highly resilient and can survive for years even on washed clothing. 

Great Basin works hard to keep White-nose syndrome away from the bats in its' caves.
This disinfectant bath is designed to prevent White-nose Syndrome from spreading to the bats in Great Basin National Park.

Every park handles White-nose syndrome differently. Some parks, like Oregon Caves National Monument, outright ban ANYTHING that has been in another cave or mine. Some, like Great Basin National Park, require footgear to be disinfected. Still others, like Mammoth Cave National Park, have disinfecting matting. When we visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we were surprised they were not as concerned about White-nose Syndrome because the bats that roost in the caverns do not hibernate there. 

So, what should you do to avoid spreading this disease from cave to cave? Remember above when I told you to take a picture of everything you wear into a cave? That’s so you can double-check that everything you are planning on taking into the next cave has not been in a cave before. 

A pair of cheap shoes to avoid spreading white-nose syndrome.
We both picked up a couple of pairs of cheap shoes to use when visiting caves on this trip. We did this to avoid spreading White-nose Syndrome.

During 2021, we knew we would be visiting multiple caves in one summer. So, we made a point to make sure we had different outfits for each cave, including hats and accessories. We also made sure we had different shoes for each cave by going to Walmart to buy some cheap sneakers. 

Tip #4: Don’t Be Afraid to Take a Different Tour or Explore on Your Own

There are certain tours at these National Park Service caves which are considered the “main tour” which everyone, it seems, takes when they visit. There is often a very good reason to take one of those tours as they are popular for a reason. Still, there are often opportunities to take more interesting tours, like candlelight or wild caving tours.

We took a candlelight tour in Wind Cave National Park and it was so very cool. We got to experience the cave like one of the early visitors. While the dim light did make it more difficult to see some of the formations, the experience itself was simply profound. 

You need to be a little flexible on the cave tour to avoid hitting some of the formations.
Bonnie hunched over in a tight spot on the cave tour.

We also really enjoyed the moment when the ranger had us put all of the lights out. Sitting in the absolute darkness while our eyes vainly tried to adjust was both terrifying and exhilarating. 

Some of the parks offer “wild” caving tours, which are more difficult and often require squeezing through tight spaces. Obviously, that is for someone who is in the right physical condition and has a hefty interest in a much more rugged experience. We have never taken one of those tours. While I love the idea of getting off the beaten path, I am a bit bigger and I don’t like the idea of being that cramped. I get a bit of claustrophobia when I am that compressed. 

Bonnie Sinclair squeezing through the concrete test at Jewel Cave National Monument.
Anyone going on the Wild Cave Tour has to be able to squeeze through this box. While Bonnie could with difficulty, Grant said, “Nope!”

There are some places, like Lava Beds National Monument and Subway Cave near Lassen Volcanic National Park, where you can explore a cave on your own. When available, you absolutely should do this! While it can be a little intimidating to hike into a cave on your own, especially if you have no idea where it goes, etc., we have truly enjoyed the caves we have explored on our own. And, these caves are typically small with limited passages.

Just make sure you take more than one good light source with you! And, again, the flashlight on your phone doesn’t count!

Grant holding a lantern inside a cave.
Grant testing a Goal Zero Crush Light, our backup light source, to light up Sentinel Cave at Lava Beds NM.

Tip #5: Don’t Ignore the Park Above Ground

While a good number of National Park Service cave sites have a small above-ground footprint, there are quite a few that have excellent above-ground facilities and plenty to keep you busy while you wait for your cave tour. 

Even the most famous of the parks dedicated to caves, Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns national parks, have plenty to see and enjoy above the ground. Even Timpanogos Cave and Jewel Cave national monuments, despite their small footprint, have really cool above-ground areas. Indeed, Timpanogos Cave requires you to hike up to the cave entrance up a steep hill with excellent views of the canyon below. 

American Fork Canyon
Views of the American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave.

One of our favorite parks, Wind Cave National Park, is truly amazing above ground. It straddles the area where the Black Hills meets the prairie. We have hiked there and driven through the park several times and enjoyed it every time. 

Aside from the epic scenery, there’s also a herd of bison and a herd of elk, among the other animals of the Plains, which have made this park home. Honestly, I probably enjoy spending time above ground more than touring the cave at Wind Cave NP.

View of the Black Hills from Rankin Ridge in Wind Cave National Park.
View of the Black Hills from Rankin Ridge in Wind Cave National Park.

Final Thoughts on Visiting a National Park Service Cave

While planning a visit to a National Park Service cave can be a bit frustrating, especially when it comes to seasons of busy visitation, the experience of exploring these underground landscapes is every bit as spectacular as experiencing the majesty of the Rockies or the splendor of Old Faithful. 

Exploring one of the Lava Tubes in Lava Beds National Monument.
A selfie outside the entrance to Sentinel Cave in Lava Beds National Monument

So, get out there and explore all of the underground places this country has to offer! Just be sure to pay attention to the details and do your best to prevent the spread of White-nose Syndrome. 

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