Despite the fact that I’m relatively claustrophobic, I am strangely attracted to caves. There’s something about exploring the lesser traveled underground world that intrigues me. You expect caves to be dark, rocky and kind of damp, right? And they are. But depending on where the caves are located, they may also be filled with stalagmites, stalactites and other otherworldly features; waterfalls, easily annoyed bats or even ancient human bones.
Crystal Cave Park
One cave that really surprised me, more for its history than anything else, was Crystal Cave Park near Kutztown, PA. After watching a short video, you follow steel-railed paths 125 feet below ground to ‘the ballroom,’ where dances used to be held in the 1900s. And while the cave now has paths and lights to direct you, you have to imagine it back in the day; women in 19th-century dresses, inching their way through the dark cave by kerosene torch just to attend a social function deep underground. It kind of boggles the mind. The cave, which stays at a comfortable 54 degrees all year, holds a range of mineral formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, and something called “cave bacon,” some of which are thought to be half-a-million years old.
Another fascinating cave in the Keystone State is Penn’s Cave, located in Centre Hall, PA. I wasn’t sure what to expect since you first walk through a large gift shop before heading out to the cave—I thought it might be pretty commercial, but happily, it wasn’t. Once you’re away from the hubbub of the store, you follow an easy path through quiet woods before heading down a steep 48-step staircase to this limestone cavern that you can only see by flat-bottomed motorboat. Not having to worry about where you’re stepping allows you to really take in the beauty of the stalactites that hang from the ceiling, and a well-versed guide manages to make geology fun. Did you know, for example, that it can take more than 100 years for a stalactite to grow an inch? And if you touch one, the oil on your hands can prevent the tiny crystals from bonding, which is why you should never handle any of the formations you find.
Barton Creek Cave
Barton Creek Cave in western Belize, near the town of San Ignacio, is another cave that you view by boat; our Mayan guide, who may or may not have been joking about crocodiles in the water, took us on a canoe journey that wound back centuries. The cave’s cathedral-like rooms, which feature stalagmites, stalactites and bats, used to serve as a Mayan burial ground—if you look closely, you can still see where bones lie along the shelves. The Mother Nature Network named Barton Creek as one of the nine most beautiful and unusual cave destinations, and while you have to travel on some pretty rough roads to get there—including a kind of surreal jaunt through a Mennonite community—I’d have to agree.
Blue Creek Cave
If you’re more action-oriented, you can visit Blue Creek Cave in southern Belize, where you can swim through the cave to visit three waterfalls—which you then have to climb around. The cave is known locally as Hokeb Ha—where the water enters the earth. While the water is calm, there are two factors that make this excursion a challenge; first, there are a lot of rocks that you can’t see under the water, so much of your time is spent accruing bruises. Second, when your headlamp is turned off, the cave is black. Pitch black. This is not only disorienting, but kind of frightening once you start thinking about the fact that you’re treading water in the dark in a cave…..yeah, my light went back on pretty quickly. This is definitely a trip that you want to do with a guide—the rocks can be slippery and you can get pretty tired by the time you reach the last waterfall.
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