May 8, 2016
Show Caves: A Great Family Vacation Destination

Show caves are one of the survivors of the changing leisure economy. Once considered a side stop on the way to grander destinations on family vacation itineraries, they are now considered by many to be worth the trip in their own right.

What Is A Show Cave?

True show caves are underground karsts (caves) that have been developed for foot traffic and do not require specialized equipment or training in caving. They are often reinforced and have been wired for electricity, so they are lit throughout. They are also usually clear of the dust and mud that is found in wild and semi-wild caves.

For the family en route to the latest big-ticket amusement park, this was and still is the perfect mini-vacation within a vacation. The smaller, privately owned show caves provide guided tours with fare that varies from minimally narrated subterranean nature walks to snippets of history that include special effects and dioramas complete with artifacts and mannequin stand-ins for Native Americans, wild west gunslingers, moonshiners, Civil War spies, and star-crossed lovers on the lam from angry parents.

If the history was a little shaky, the provenance of the artifacts questionable, and the guide sometimes forgets the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite, there is still the natural wonder of the caves. That isn't the only appeal of show caves. As any road warrior on a family vacation will attest, there is also the chance to stretch and cool one's heels, literally. The temperatures on the road might push past triple digits, but underneath those hills and mountains, the cool air ranges between the high 60s to the low 70s.

What To Expect?

Production values can vary. Two of the best produced and maintained privately owned show caves are located near Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Rock City is known for its appeal to families with small children. The karst system is relatively shallow, and some of it has been cut away so it is simply composed of open air stone passageways that lead through a maze-like walk. For families looking for something low key after the sensory overload of downtown Chattanooga, the peaceful walks, statues of mountain gnomes, and pretty scenery might be the perfect way to cap off a vacation day. Located on Lookout Mountain, there are a number of attractions, including an observation deck that is alleged to offer a view where the borders of seven states meet, a gallery, a marketplace that includes local crafts as well as mass-produced souvenir merchandise, and a museum.

At first blush, Ruby Falls looks like it might be the more rustic of the two best known show caves in the southeastern U.S. Visitors are briefed about the conditions they can expect once they go underneath, yes, underneath the mountain that looms into view upon approaching the welcome center. This tour is more appropriate for older children and those who are not prone to anxiety in close spaces. While the ceilings are fine for all but the very tall and the trails are some of the easiest to walk in a show cave, there are points where the tour groups feel packed in.

The appeal of Ruby Falls is not only the beauty of the cave but the way it is presented. The narrative is written to put visitors in the shoes of the first people to explore the interior. At some points, there is dramatic lighting and, at one stop on the tour, a soundtrack that would make John Williams jealous. Want to get in touch with your inner Indiana Jones? This might be just the place for family vacationers who aren't afraid of the occasional dark places and a little suspense.

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Show Caves As State Parks or Where The Wild Things Are

While many associate show caves with smaller family-owned roadside attractions, two of the bigger and better known underground places to include on your family vacation wishlist are actually national parks.

Mammoth Cave National Park is not only the largest karst system in North America, it is also recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Located in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, this show cave has a great book store and museum, and tours that range in difficulty from short, easy walks that highlight the nature and history of Mammoth Cave to guided caving expeditions that require some familiarity with spelunking.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located just outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico, offers visitors spectacular views of cathedral-like interior chambers and rock formations that are monumental in scale. While Carlsbad Caverns is by definition a show cave, like its counterpart in Kentucky, nature is the star. Most tour options are self-guided, but walks with park rangers as docents are available with advance notice. It should be noted that the tour itself is safe, but there are parts that are not accessible to visitors in wheelchairs and strollers are not allowed.

If you plan a family vacation that includes a visit to Carlsbad Caverns, plan to spend the day. You won't want to miss one of New Mexico's best natural nighttime attractions as thousands of Brazilian Free-tailed bats exit the cave for a night of whatever bats do with they're out and about.

Show caves are a great, relatively inexpensive, and often educational short vacation destination for you and your family. They are are fairly numerous, and most families in the continental U.S. live within a day's drive of an operating show cave.

Feeling the urge to hit the road? Consult Inquisitr's travel section for more tips for planning that perfect family vacation.

[Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]