• Abby Voce

National Parks Underground: Cave-Based Parks to Visit This Winter Season

Where to Explore When the Weather Won't Cooperate


creepy cave scenes at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Stalactites and Stalagmites galore!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM - Photo Credit: Abby Voce

 

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As winter approaches and temperatures throughout much of the country begin to drop, many of us are searching for ways to enjoy the outdoors without being impacted by the cold. Three National Parks in particular are epic year-round destinations due to their constant temperature: Mammoth Cave, Wind Cave and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks all include very diverse landscapes on the surface, but their main attraction is underground. These three unique parks all incorporate caves that hold deep geologic and human history from thousands of years ago. Because the caves are protected from the elements, they keep a steady temperature during the year, and provide a perfect day-trip alternative to a harsh winter day above ground. There are still plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, even while it's getting bleak and depressing above ground!


 

Mammoth Cave National Park

Low ceilings but temperate conditions at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park, KY - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



Mammoth Cave, located in South-Central Kentucky, is home to the longest cave system in the world. The cave's temperature averages 54 degrees year-round, so you can avoid the freezing weather during the winter - but don’t forget to bring layers in the summer months! Cave tours are in high demand, and it is highly recommended to book in advance here. There are tours varying in length from 0.25 to 2.5 miles long. Although the cave is the most popular location in the park, there are also 85 miles of trails, and access to both the Green and Nolin Rivers.


Straight spelunkin' at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park, KY - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



There are three campgrounds located within the park: Mammoth Cave Campground, Maple Springs Campground and Houchin Ferry Campground. I camped at Houchin Ferry Campground, which is a year-round, tent-only camping area with 12 sites located right next to the Green River. When I arrived I was the only one camping in the campground so I was able to enjoy the river peacefully. Because the campground is tucked away in the woods about 15 miles from the visitors center, it gives campers the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors unbothered by much of the outside world. However, be sure to plan ahead since there is no cell phone service. You can make reservations for any of the three campgrounds here. Mammoth Cave has also been newly designated as an International Dark-Sky Park because of its remote location far from light pollution. Take off your rain fly and enjoy the stars!


Be sure to check out the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park right up the road in Hodgenville, KY on your way out!

 

Wind Cave National Park

Descend into the rocky abyss at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota

Wind Cave National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



South Dakota is home to Wind Cave National Park. This park’s aboveground landscape is mostly prairie that offers grand views of the Black Hills National Forest, but underneath the surface Wind Cave is one of the longest and most complex cave systems in the world. Like Mammoth, the cave is 54 degrees year-round, so while South Dakota's average winter temperatures are in the 40’s you can escape the snow by heading underground. Entry into the park is free, although cave tour tickets are $12 each. Tickets can only be reserved in person at the visitors center on the day of the tour, which opens at 8am. These tours are extremely popular - I would recommend getting in line by 7:30am at the latest! If you can’t get a ticket, hike the Wild Cave Canyon Trail or Lookout Point Trail to see the adorable prairie dogs and American bison. But be careful - I was almost charged by a bison on the Lookout Point Trail! Though the temperatures may vary, the landscape is breathtaking both above and below ground.


On the surface above Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, belligerent bison lurk

The Belligerent Bison of Wind Cave National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



There is one campground within the park that rarely fills up - Elk Mountain Campground. Sites are first-come first-serve, and bathrooms are available. Although I was not the only one in this campground, it was quiet and groups usually stayed only a single night - so I had many new neighbors in my three days there.


While you're visiting this region of South Dakota, it is more than worth the trip to Custer State Park, Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial - all three are located less than two hours from Wind Cave!

 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

creepy cave scenes at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Stalactites and Stalagmites galore!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Chihuahuan Desert of southeastern New Mexico. What was once a guano mining area hundreds of years ago is now a world-renowned geological wonder, commemorated as a National Park nearly a century ago. The cavern is 56 degrees year round even though the desert on the surface can have record heat in the summer, and drop down into the 30s in the winter. Reservations for cave entrance must be made here. You can explore the cavern at your own pace on either the Big Room Trail or Natural Entrance Trail - 0.6 and 1.25 miles respectively. After your trip into the cavern, and if the weather permits - hike on the surface of the park to experience the Chihuahuan Desert, with amazing views of the Guadalupe Mountains!


creepy cave scenes at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Stalactites and Stalagmites galore!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



There are no campgrounds inside Carlsbad, but I stayed just outside the entrance at White’s City RV park. The campground had laundry, showers, bathrooms and water available for campers. The campground was quiet enough that two mule deer surprised me as I was cooking dinner!


After your Carlsbad visit, head south to one of the most underrated National Parks, Guadalupe Mountains!


the ominous entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico

The Descent into Madness: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM - Photo Credit: Abby Voce



As the winter chill sets in across the country, exploring the outdoors can be especially daunting, difficult, and in many cases dangerous. These three unique, natural, cavernous environments provide great options to visit year-round, without the need for often expensive extreme weather gear stemming from severe weather conditions. Choose one of these iconic caves and plan a trip - but whenever possible, do so well in advance to maximize your experience while in the area!


 

Get exclusive stories, trail reports, National Park alternatives, recipes, and more delivered directly to your inbox from our growing team of experienced thru-hikers, former National Park employees, and fellow adventure lovers.




 

Pathloom Intern Abby Voce is a senior at Babson College, studying business administration with a concentration in legal studies. Growing up in upstate New York, Abby has been passionate about the outdoors since she was young, and recently completed a trip to visit 51 National Parks across 45 states in the past year alone. Look for more of Abby's stories from her adventures in the upcoming weeks and months on the Pathloom Blog!

 

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