Going underground for a cool family adventure


Cindy Richards


Getaways We stumbled upon our love of caves while driving home from a trip to Orlando, Fla., to visit Grandma, Grandpa and Mickey Mouse. A look at the map showed we were within a few miles of Kentucky’s famous Mammoth Cave.

It took only a few minutes to convince my kids and husband that a side trip to the cave would be fun. Perhaps they only agreed because it would allow them to escape the car for a few hours, but the taste of caving we got that day turned into a return trip during spring break a year later, followed by a summer vacation traveling through southern Indiana’s famous karst region. ("Karst region" is a fancy phrase for a limestone landscape with sinkholes, underground streams and caves that I use now to demonstrate how much I know about this subject.)

During our cave adventures, we got a look at three types of caves—ancient, middle age and young. These caves were carved out of the limestone bedrock by ancient underground rivers and they dot the Midwest. In the ancient caves, such as Mammoth, the water dried up hundreds of millions of years ago. In the middle-aged caves, water still seeps through cracks, changing the landscape ever so slightly. In young caves, the rivers rage, eating away at the rock more vigorously.

All three kinds make for fun explorations for families.

Cool cave facts

 Caves are cool—literally. The temperature is constant year-round—54 degrees Fahrenheit at Mammoth Cave. Bring a sweater and wear closed-toe shoes whether you’re visiting in January or July.

 Caves are not wheel friendly. Strollers are not allowed on the stairs and rough terrain. Babies in backpacks aren’t allowed either—too many low-hanging rocks. Dad bends over to miss the rock and, well, you get the picture. So plan to carry babies and keep a good hold on toddlers.

 Caves are bathroom-less. Be sure to go before you go.

 Caves form slowly and are very delicate. It takes 100 years for 1 inch worth of speleothem (that’s what those of us in the know call stalactites and stalagmites) to grow. Water seeps through cracks in the limestone, dissolving the calcite and redepositing it on the floor (stalagmites) or ceiling (stalactites). Touching the cave walls leaves human oils behind and disrupts the process, so guides will scold parents who allow tiny hands to touch the rock.

Which cave?

To get a taste of caving, start with a visit to Mammoth Cave, a part of the National Park Service in southwestern Kentucky. At more than 300 million years old and with more than 360 miles of explored passages, this is the oldest and biggest cave of them all.

Mammoth Cave is impressive for its sheer size, but most of the cave tours lack the stalactites and stalagmites that make visitors oooh and aaah. If you crave those formations, and are in reasonably good shape, opt for the two-hour Frozen Niagara tour. But be prepared to walk up and down 500 stairs.

For a more visually interesting cave, head to southern Indiana and Marengo Cave. This middle-aged cave is more than 1 million years old and is still forming. It is filled with awe-inspiring stalagmites and stalactites.

For a look at a young cave, we stopped at Squire Boone Caverns and Villages in the southern tip of Indiana, about a half-hour west of Louisville, Ky.

Named for its discoverer, Daniel’s brother, this cave is cool, but our tour was not. We were marched to the end of the path with little comment (to be fair, it was tough to hear over the rushing waterfall), turned around and marched back to some benches where we heard a rambling lecture that was more about Squire than his cave.

The kids had more fun above ground exploring the 19th century village where they dipped candles, panned for gems, learned how soap was made and played in a one-room schoolhouse.

Where to stay

Mammoth Cave has a hotel on site that is run by a private contractor and looked like a fine place to stay. But we stayed in nearby Bowling Green, Ky., a small town we fell in love with on an earlier trip.

In southern Indiana, we did something we had never done before and never would have considered with kids: We stayed in bed and breakfasts, on the recommendation of the marketing people who helped set up our trip.

My husband and I have enjoyed staying in quaint bed and breakfast inns on those rare adult-only weekends, but the thought of staying in a delicate, antique-laden bed and breakfast with kids of any age (mine are a responsible 9 and 11, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still break things) seemed out of the question.

We bravely headed to the Leavenworth Inn and fell in love. The hostess had just finished baking cookies as we arrived and the house has bikes, tennis rackets, games and other kid-friendly distractions available for free. We could have stayed another day or two.

At Kintner House Inn in Corydon, we found fewer amenities, but the house is just off the town square. A long walk exploring small-town life kept the kids happy—and made sure they didn’t break anything.

Cindy Richards is the senior editor and travel editor of Chicago Parent and the mom of Evan and Tess.

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