Caves with Kids

Caves are a unique and exciting part of nature to explore with kids. There are estimated to be more than 45,000 caves in the US with The National Park Service managing over 4,700! While no exact count exists, there are likely millions of caves worldwide. These caves are home to diverse and often fragile ecosystems and exploring caves with kids helps teach them how they can be protected.

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Father and daughter in a cave looking up with headlamps on

Preparing for Cave Exploration

Choosing a Cave: Cave Types

Karst: Karst caves are formed when water carves away soluble rock. National parks with Karst caves include Buffalo National River in Arkansas, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, and Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.

Solution Caves: These are the most common type of cave which are formed from both physical and chemical erosion. Great Basin National Park in Nevada, Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota, and Oregon Caves National Monument in Oregon all contain solution caves.

Lava Tubes: Lava tubes are formed when hot lava flows under cooled lava and leaves a tunnel behind. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in Hawai’i, Lava Beds National Monument in California, and Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho all contain lava tubes.

Sea Caves: Sea caves are formed along the ocean or lake edge where water erodes rock. Acadia National Park in Maine, Channel Islands National Park in California, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan all contain sea caves.

Talus Caves: Talus caves are formed by mechanical process – when rock slides created piles of rubble. These types of caves often shift and change and can be dangerous. Pinnacles National Park in California and Yosemite National Park in California contain talus caves.

Ice Caves: Ice caves are caves in rock that contain ice formations. Glacier Ice Caves occur on the edges of melting glaciers. Ice caves are present at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, Lava Beds National Monument in California, and Sunset Crater National Monument in Arizona.

Boy in blue coat climbs stairs at exit of cave
Exit of a lava tube cave system

Reservation Systems

Many National Parks and National Monuments offer ranger-led cave tours or allow people to do self-guided exploring of caves! Be sure to research what the reservation or ticket requirements are before heading to caves because with increasing popularity, many – if not most – require advance reservations. Some cave tours have age, height, or physical ability requirements.

Family enters stairs down to a cave
Entrance to Lava River Cave in Oregon

Protecting Caves

Caves are unique ecosystems that have a variety of different species. Make sure to listen to rangers’ directions before exploring a cave to learn how to protect each specific cave.

Some general rules that apply to most caves include no pets in caves, do not write or mark cave walls, do not bring food inside caves, do not bring fire/candles/gas lights etc. inside caves.  Make sure everyone uses the restroom before entering a cave since there are no restrooms or places to go to the bathroom inside caves.

White Nose Bat Syndrome is one reason why cave protection is taken so seriously. The fungus was first found in the US in 2006 but has spread throughout the US killing millions of bats – up to 90% of bat colonies in some situations. Because the fungus can potentially be spread from one cave to another on human clothing, rangers often will discuss making sure to not repeat wearing the same clothes/shoes/backpacks, etc. when exploring different caves.  

More information about White Nose Syndrome and steps being taken to prevent its spread can be found here.

Gear for Cave Exploring

Gear for cave exploring may vary from cave to cave depending on the type of cave and type of tour, so make sure to check the guidelines for your specific cave before you go. Generally, however, you will need an excellent light source, warm clothing, and sturdy closed-toed hiking shoes.

Light

It is typically recommended to bring 2-3 light sources per person and backup batteries. Do NOT rely on your cell phone as your light source. Some parks have flashlights available for rent. The easiest way to give kids a light source is by having them use a headlamp.

The Black Diamond Kids Headlamp uses two AAA batteries and runs for about 120 hours and has 30 lumens. Rechargeable headlamps are another option, just remember to fully charge them before you leave. The Ledlenser Kidled4R Headlamp has 40 lumens and will run for about 2 hours on high mode and 18 hours on low (5 lumen) mode.  A third option for kids is to use a beanie with a rechargeable light built in like the LL Bean Pathfinder Beanie. These are especially good for younger kids who do not like the feeling of having a headlamp strapped on their heads. The LL Bean Pathfinder has 80 lumens of light and comes with a cord for recharging.

For a second light for kids, either a small flashlight like the Ledlessner Kidbeam 4 or a small lantern like the Black Diamond Moji work well. One advantage to small lanterns is they prevent kids from accidentally shining flashlights directly in to other people’s eyes when traveling in the caves.

For adults, the Petzel Actic Core Headlamp is great because it works with either the rechargeable pack or with 3 AAA batteries. Its highest setting is 600 lumens which will run for about 2 hours. Similarly, the Coast XP11R Flashlight can run on both the included rechargeable battery or 3 AAA batteries in case the rechargeable one does not last long enough. It has 2100 lumens on high and runs for 5 hours on high.

Father and daughter wearing headlamps stand inside a cave
Having two light sources and backup batteries is essential.

Warm Clothing

Most caves have stable, cool temperatures throughout the year. For example, it can be 90F outside the Ape Caves in Washington State and the caves remain at a stable 42F! Wind Cave in South Dakota remains stable at 54F and the Lava Beds Caves in California average 55 degrees. Because of this, it is important to pack warm clothing. A light puffy coat, long pants, close toed shoes, and potentially even a beanie and cotton gloves will help keep kids comfortable.

If you need help choosing a puffy jacket for kids, check out Best Puffy Jackets for Kids

Some caves also require protective helmets which can also help with warmth.

Two kids wearing bright jackets and headlamps
Bundling up to go inside Ape Cave even though it was 80 degrees outside!

Sturdy Shoes

No matter what length or type of cave kids are exploring, sturdy hiking shoes are essential! Caves have uneven terrain and even with good light, kids aren’t always to see their feet. Some caves have metal stairs or metal walkways that would be very unsafe with inappropriate footwear. The Best Hiking Shoes for Kids discusses a variety of hiking shoes for kids depending on what other kinds of outdoor activities your family enjoys.

Choose close-toed shoes that have good traction, are durable, have enough support, and are comfortable. This can vary from kid to kid depending on their foot shape so the best bet is trying them on in store if possible! We love both the Merrell Nova 3 and the Keen Targhee (the womens and little kid’s Targhee shoes are also great hiking shoes).

Pairing the shoes with wool socks can help with warmth for the cooler cave climates. We typically bring a change of shoes if we are cave exploring in the summer so we can switch back to summer hiking gear once caving is done.

Family climbing down metal staircase into cave
Sturdy shoes are important for cave exploration!

Caves for Kids by Region

This is not an exhaustive list but can be a good starting point to begin cave exploring! Don’t forget to check out the National Park Free Days if the cave you will be exploring is in a National Park or Monument!

Northwest

Ape Caves (Washington State)

  • Open: May-October
  • Reservations Required: YES, from recreation.gov
  • Cost: $2 reservation fee, $5 vehicle pass (or Recreation Pass)
  • Best ages: Any (including babies in packs!). The lower cave is 1.6 miles round-trip. The upper cave is better for older kids or adults since it requires climbing an 8-foot lava fall. 
Toddler sitting next to a sign that says Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Ape Caves are located in Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument

Lava River Cave (Oregon)

  • Open: May-September 15
  • Reservations Required: YES, from recreation.gov
  • Cost: $5/vehicle/day
  • Best ages: Any (including babies in packs) but there are some stairs to navigate.

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park (Montana)        

  • Open: Wednesday-Sunday May 1- September 30
  • Reservations Required: Only guided tours available, can be reserved online or some first-come, first-served tickets are available but they do sell out!
  • Cost: $8 park entry fee, tours are $15/adult, $10 age 5-14, $5 for 4 and under
  • Best ages: Classic tour – better for older kids (2 hours/2 miles), Paradise Tour (1 mile/1.5 hours)

Northeast

Laurel Caverns (Pennsylvania)

  • Open: April-October
  • Reservations: Not required
  • Cost: $17 per adult, $13 middle/high school students, $11 kids 5+, $3 pre-K, infants free. Guided or non-guided tours (or both) are available and the same price.
  • Best Ages: The lighted portions are suitable for any age. The unguided tour is more strenuous and descends 17 stories in elevation. They also have a self-guided spelunking/cave exploration option that requires kids to be 12+ and is much more strenuous. Additional fees apply for this option.

Howe Caverns

  • Open: Year-round (privately owned)
  • Reservations: Required to be purchased online ahead
  • Cost: Adults: $29.50, Children: $19.50, 4 and Under: Free
  • Best Ages: Any

Southwest

Lava Beds National Monument (California)

  • Open: Year-round but some caves may be seasonally closed depending on safety or for wildlife protection.
  • Reservations Required: No, but a free permit must be obtained at the visitor center before entering any cave.
  • Cost: $25 per vehicle to enter Lava Beds National Monument (unless you already have an America the Beautiful National Park Pass). Don’t forget about the Free Entrace Days for National Parks! Cave exploring is free once inside.
  • Best Ages: There are 24 caves to explore ranging from beginner to difficult. The best caves for kids are Mushpot Cave, Valentine Cave, and Skull Cave.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico)

El Malpais National Monument (New Mexico)

  • Open: May-October (Junction Bridge Cave is open year-round though)
  • Reservations Required: YES – 10 people are permitted in each cave per day. Permits are issued at the El Malpais Visitor Center or the El Morro National Monument Visitor Center.
  • Cost: Cave permits are free
  • Best Ages: El Malpais lava tubes are rugged and undeveloped – they are not recommended for children under age 10 and many require a high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Alternatively, along the first ¼ mile of the El Calderon Trail, there is a short Lava tube called Junction cave that does not require a permit and is open for anyone to enter year-round.

Southeast

Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky)

  • Cost: No fee to enter Mammoth Cave National Park but the cave tours, camping, and shelter rentals have fees. Fees vary by tour ranging from $13-49
  • Ages: Most tours are for all ages but under 16 must be accompanied by an adult and most include stairs. Lantern Tours require kids to be ages 6+
Family sits in front of sign that says Mammoth Cave National Park Visitor Center
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky

Tuckaleechee Caverns (Tennessee)

  • Open: Year-Round, privately owned
  • Reservations: Not required
  • Cost: Adult: $22, Child 5-11: $10, Children 4 and under: Free
  • Ages: All ages

Florida Caverns State Park (Florida)

  • Open: Year-Round Thursday-Monday
  • Reservations: Available online, but First-come, first-served tickets can be purchased at the Florida Caverns Gift Shop on the day of your arrival.
  • Cost: Age 13+ $15, Age 3-12 $8, Ages 2 and under free
  • Ages: Good for all ages but does include 33 steps and lasts about an hour

Midwest

Jewel Cave (South Dakota)

Wind Cave (South Dakota)

  • Open: Year-round
  • Reservations: Strongly recommended from recreation.gov and can be purchased 3-120 days before the tour. Half of cave tickets are reserved for first-come, first-serve purchase but tend to sell out so arrive early if that is your plan!
  • Cost: Varies by tour – 6 tours available, ranges from free to $16 per person
  • Best Ages: Garden of Eden, Natural Entrance, and Fairgrounds Tours are all ages. Candlelight Tour is for 8+, and Wild Cave Tours are only for ages 16+.

Timpanogos Cave (Utah)

  • Open: Mid-May to Mid-October (depending on weather)
  • Reservations Required: YES, from recreation.gov up to 30 days in advance. All visitors must be with a guide and have a cave tour ticket.
  • Cost: $12 for adults, $7 ages 2-11, $2 under 2. $22 for the Intro to Caving Tour (ages 14+ only)
  • Best Ages: All ages are welcome, but the trail is 1.5 miles long and no strollers or wheeled vehicles are allowed due to the steep grade.

Time to Explore Caves with Kids!

Cave exploring can take some preparation ahead of time but is a memorable experience for kids and adults!

Junior Cave Scientist Program

The National Park Service has a phenomenal learning booklet about caves and caving for kids. It is targeted for kids ages 5-12 but kids younger and older (or even adults) can learn information from the book! Kids can earn a Junior Ranger Badge by completing the activities in the booklet.

Kids getting sworn in as Junior Rangers
Being sworn in as Junior Rangers at Newberry National Volcanic Monument

Virtual Cave Tours

While not nearly as exciting as taking a real cave tour, a virtual cave tour can be taken to prepare kids ahead of time for what to expect or to see inside caves that may be seasonally closed. Timpanogos Cave and Lehman Caves are two of many virtual cave tours the NPS has available.

Related Links:

Caves with Kids

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  • Kara and her husband Seth are a Pacific Northwest family of 5. They enjoy camping, hiking, mountain biking, and getting outside in all kinds of PNW weather. They enjoy homeschooling, visiting National Parks, and growing some of their own food! You can follow along on their adventures on Instagram @karalswanson.

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