A Cross Country Tour of Mind-Blowing Tourist Caves

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One of the most stunning — albeit weird — examples of design in nature, tourist caves are a fascinating hybrid of kitschy roadside Americana and wondrous natural splendor. These unconventional attractions combine things like stalagtite ballrooms and underground wedding chapels with faux-Tudor architecture, patriotic son-et-lumière shows and awesome retro View-Masters for stereoscopic sightseeing that beat anything James Cameron could ever do.

We first discovered this subgenre of odd tourist destinations in the The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s comprehensive online database. A self-proclaimed “research and education organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth’s surface,” or, in layman’s terms, an offbeat cultural CIA tracking the many wacky things we humans put on this earth, CLUI is our newest learned obsession.

Starting with Howe Caverns, New York’s second-most-visited natural attraction, complete with a guided boat tour on an underground lake, and ending with a cave in New Mexico that’s famous for its bat amphitheater, we invite you to take a minute out of your day and join us on a virtual trip across our great nation to check out some of the most original natural design inspiration we’ve ever seen. Then (because we’re dying to know more), tell us about any real-world cave experiences you’ve had in the comments below!

Howe Caverns — Howes Cave, New York

Image credit: The Center for Land Use Interpretation; Howe Caverns

Secret Caverns — Central Bridge, New York

Image credit: R.S. Moreland

Located right next door to Howe Caverns, Secret Caverns was discovered by two cows (no joke) almost 100 years ago. In addition to being home to a spectacular 100-foot underground waterfall, the caverns are also famous for their entrance, a lodge hand-painted by a team of local artists featuring inventive bat art.

Penn’s Cave – Centre Hall, Pennsylvania

Image credit: Itinerant Wanderer

“America’s Only All Water Cavern” offers a one-hour tour by motorboat on an underground stream.

Luray Caverns — Luray, Virginia

Image credit: The Center for Land Use Interpretation

CLUI’s comprehensive database tells us that this tourist cave has a “stalacpipe organ, an instrument with padded hammers that strike individual stalactites, generating an unusual and wondrous sound.”

Mystic Caverns – Harrison, Arkansas

Image credit: The Center for Land Use Interpretation; Mystic Caverns

A part of the nearby Dogpatch resort (a theme park in the style of the Li’l Abner comic strip), Mystic Caverns and the adjacent Crystal Dome Cavern are pretty typical of the 40 or so southern “show caves” listed by the National Caves Association as open to the public, complete with a gift shop chock full of foraged gemstones, pipe handrails, and a Christian aura.

Inner Space Cavern — Georgetown, Texas

Image credit: Al Braden;

Just outside of Austin and accessed by vintage cable car, this 80,000-year-old cavern was discovered by a Texas Highway Department drilling team 50 years ago during construction of a large freeway overpass. Today, “stalactites and stalagmites surround you from every angle and formations such as the ‘Flowing Stone of Time’ and the ‘Lake of the Moon’ bring to life the pages of every history book you’ve ever read about the early days of Mother Earth.”

Bridal Cave — Camdenton, Missouri

Image credit: Bridal Cave and Thunder Mountain Park

Rated as one of the most scenic caves in America, this magnificent natural wonderland makes for an unconventional underground wedding ceremony. Local folklore tells that a legendary Osage Indian wedding ceremony was held in the cave in the early 1800s. Since then, over 2100 couples from around the world have exchanged vows in the stalactite-adorned Bridal Chapel.

Meramec Caverns — 55 miles southwest of St Louis, Missouri

Image credit: The Center for Land Use Interpretation

As CLUI’s Land Use Database explains, “this highly developed cave has an underground ballroom, and an underground theater with a patriotic son-et-lumière show, in which an American flag is projected onto a curtain of stalagtites.” Apparently, the underground gift shop is not to be missed.

Fantastic Caverns — Springfield, Missouri

Image credit: The Center for Land Use Interpretation

America’s only Ride-Through Cave, Fantastic Caverns’ website tells us that “because the beauty of the caverns is vulnerable, the Cave is toured in Jeep-drawn trams. Since you ride all of the way through, you experience the magnitude, the stillness, and the splendor of Fantastic Caverns while preserving its natural features.”

Carlsbad Caverns — 27 miles south of Carlsbad, New Mexico

Image credit: CLUI

Part of a major cave system, Carlsbad Caverns is most known for its bat amphitheater, where at certain times of the year, hundreds of thousands of bats rush out of the cave at once. The amphitheater is built directly under this aperture, so tourists can witness this phenomenon. Not to miss: the old-school View-Masters for sale and an underground lunchroom.