Notable Caverns: Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns

America’s natural landmarks represent the diversity and beauty of this country’s natural landscape and a visit to any of them will inspire a child’s learning. Whether visiting a historic landmark to see firsthand the documents upon which our nation was built, or gazing in awe at the beauty found in our national parks, visits to these places create an opportunity for memorable family bonding and can bring history to life for a powerful learning experience. This series includes tips and educational resources for visiting some of the most amazing landmarks our country has to offer with your kids. Some may be in your backyard, while others require a longer trip, but all are well worth a visit.

Many years ago, when I wanted to relate more fully to an earth science textbook I was writing, I decided to take a trip from Wisconsin to Kentucky to visit Mammoth Cave National Park. I allowed a full day to see it and decided to take what was called the “Wild Cave Tour.” A ranger guided us through underground passages, domed rooms, and a hole so tiny that we had to learn how to crawl through it. At one point in the four-hour trek, we sat in a small room perhaps 100 feet underground and the ranger told us to all turn out our lights. It was the darkest I think I have ever seen—or ever will see. It wasn’t like night, it was absolutely dark, and in a hundred years my eyes would never adjust to see a single thing. It was at that moment I knew the remarkable nature of caverns, and now whenever I get a chance to go into a cave (a guided tour as I am no longer brave), I always take it.

Perhaps you and your family or friends want to go into a cavern. Many places in the United States have cave tours. Many privately owned caves are spectacular and well worth the admission price. But if you want the most spectacular of all caves, why not plan a trip to two cavern systems that are also national parks—the crown jewels of the American natural landscapes.

Not only are caverns and caves fun for explorers of all ages, but they are a remarkable chance to learn about the biology and geology of caves. Some of the formations are also object lessons in chemistry. Science education is not always learned on a screen, the family can learn some amazing facts about the unusual science of caves while also feeling like true adventurers.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave is in the south central part of Kentucky. The first thing to do if you are planning a trip is to visit the Mammoth Cave National Park website. Here you can get the basics—distance to travel, best times to go, all of the options for lodging and other things to do in the area, and a sense of what the cave has to offer. Be ready to spend some time, the cavern has more than 400 miles of cave, much of which you can explore in safety with guides. The National Park is open from March to November, so map out your dates accordingly.

Learning the geology of cave formation is one of the things a family can do together. The first thing to learn is that limestone bedrock lies below the soil and plants in this part of Kentucky. It is made of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). This limestone was laid down in an ancient sea about 325 million years ago. Then it got covered by other kinds of rock layers. When cracks and holes developed in the rocks, rainwater leaked through the cracks. Water that is slightly acid will chemically dissolve limestone. Over millions of years, the water carved tunnels, passages, and caverns the size of ballrooms out of the limestone. Hence Mammoth Cave was formed—an immense labyrinth in a sea of limestone.

Viewing Mammoth Cave can be as easy as following a knowledgeable ranger into the deep, following safe trails, like this one near an entrance to the cave.

And once you are in the cave, sights like this await you:

Most of us know there are formations of calcium carbonate here—stalactites and stalagmites. But which is which? Tell the kids this: a stalactite has a T and a C, they cling Tight to the Ceiling of a cave. A stalagmite has a G, and they form from the ground up.

Mammoth Cave is all about being underground—the rooms, the passageways, the darkness, and the formations. But this area of Kentucky is beautiful above ground, too. Plan on spending a lot of time looking at nature in this area. The National Park Service site provides basic info. Also, when you’ve finished examining the science and nature, there are a lot of family activities to do in the area. The National Park’s Places to Go site can help you find fun events for the family.

Recommended Books

It takes a brave person to go underground and explore a cave. And caves can be dark and scary places, too. When you think about it, they make a good setting for stories. On that drive to Kentucky you might want to have these books ready for the kids:
Middle school kids solve a mystery among the caverns in Mrs. Jeeper’s Secret Cave.

Brush up on your cave geology and learn about some fascinating caves in Caves and Caverns.

Questions for Discussion

Some questions before and after your visit might help center this experience in an educational context.

Before Your Visit:

  1. What does spelunking mean?
  2. In what biome is Mammoth Cave National Park located?
  3. What is the difference between a cavern and a cave?

After Your Visit:

  1. What is the difference between soil and bedrock?
  2. Name three common trees found in Mammoth Cave National Park.

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Cavern is located in southern New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. The first thing to do if you are planning a trip is to visit the Carlsbad Caverns National Park website. The cavern is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

This is one of the world’s most spectacular caves and one of America’s great natural landmarks and treasures. Limestone is bedrock that is easily eroded by water, and the leeching of water through the stone over the centuries has created some gigantic “rooms” underground. Many of these rooms are named. The Big Room is 4,000 feet long and 250 feet high. Hall of the White Giant has nearly pure white stalagmites that seem to grow out of the floor. And the Mystery Room features a noise that cannot be heard anywhere else in the cavern.

One of the special aspects of Carlsbad Caverns is the presence of bats. Many caves are home for bats, but this place is world-class. There are seventeen species of bats in the cave—but there could be as many as 800,000 bats living in these caverns. Most of them are Mexican free-tailed bats. In the evening, these bats come out of the cave in such awesome numbers that people often think they are seeing an endless black tornado. It may take three hours for all the bats to exit the cave. It is one of the major tourist draws and a biologist’s dream.

You can get a sense of the beauty of Carlsbad Caverns from the images above. This is the kind of sight that awaits you and your family when you take this science-intensive expedition.

These are all flows of calcium carbonate that have “frozen” to make what seems like a gigantic rock waterfall underground. As your family explores this and other amazing sites in this cavern, the exciting possibilities of earth science unfold before you.

Yes, Carlsbad Caverns is amazing underground—but don’t forget the 41,000 acres of the Guadalupe Mountains and the Chihuahuan desert that live above ground here. Before you seek out the plant and animal life of the desert, visit the National Park Service’s website. And this is not all about providing information for adults. The National Park Service is dedicated to the kids having fun while exploring. Check out their fun kids’ site.

Recommended Books

You can’t go caving without a firm scientific basis for how caves and caverns form, this activity book, The Cave Book, by Emil Silvestru will come in handy for the long drive to southern New Mexico.

Amazing Animals: Bats by Kate Riggs
The bats of Carlsbad Caverns are a world-class experience. Learn about bats with this great book full of interesting facts and photographs of the world’s amazing bats.

Discussion Questions

Some questions before and after your visit might help center this Chihuahuan visit.

Before Your Visit:

  1. Who first discovered Carlsbad Caverns?
  2. What is meant by sedimentary rock—the class of rock to which limestone belongs?
  3. What is bat guano and why do people mine it and sell it?

After Your Visit:

  1. What is the role of ocean reefs in the Carlsbad Cavern system?
  2. What is the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite?
  3. What distinguishes a cactus flower from flowers in other plant families?

Image Credit – m01229 / CC by 2.0

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