Since antiquity, humans have been using, living in, or hiding in caves, and our fascination with them is just as old. They connect us to our distant past because prehistoric remains and artefacts have been preserved in them, that outside would have been lost, especially in the north where Ice Age glaciers scoured everything from the surface. Our ancestors therefore had some choice over whether to venture into these places; so we today are "cave people" as much as they were.
- . . . through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea . . . - Xanadu, by Coleridge
Caves are natural underground spaces that are formed by various geological processes; they may have been adapted and modified for human use. They range from tiny recesses, to gigantic multi-mile systems such as Mammoth Cave in the United States. The forms of caves are as varied as the geological processes by which they form.
Karstic caves are the commonest type. Slightly acidic water (through natural carbonation) dissolves limestone, marble, dolomite or gypsum. Streams then enlarge the space, carving out long tunnels. Water drips from the roof, evaporating to leave a limestone deposit, which over thousands of years builds up into a stalactite. Similar deposits grow from the ground below as stalagmites, and eventually the two may unite into a column. This creates "decorated" caves, filled with strange natural architecture and sculpture. Above ground, the outcrops and cliffs are also curiously eroded, so karst countryside is often very scenic. Here and there it's blighted by industry, as the stone is quarried for building masonry, quicklime, cement, chemicals and scores of other uses. Karst country is found worldwide and is riddled with caves, many of which are still being explored or remain to be discovered.
Sea caves are carved out by wave action into fault lines, perhaps supplemented by frost. They're usually fairly short, as the power of the waves is spent within a few metres, but the larger caves are embellished by legends of pirate stash, fugitive princes and sleeping monsters. Striking examples are Fingal's Cave in Staffa, Scotland, and the "Hole in the hat" through Torghatten summit in Nordland - this is 110 m above sea level as post-glacial rebound has uplifted the region. Smoo in Sutherland, Scotland is an unusual hybrid, where a sea cave has become connected to a karstic cave.
Lava tubes result from vulcanism: the outer portion of a lava flow cools, hardens and forms a sheath for the molten interior. That enables the lava to flow further, before draining away when the eruption ceases to leave a tunnel. But this depends upon a particular fluid form of lava. Volcanoes with such lava form molten lakes (caldera) at their summit, and tend to be active continuously but quietly over years, rather than having intermittent noisy eruptions. Hawaii has the best examples of these volcanoes and lava tubes.
Underground works and mines aren't covered in detail on this page, but sometimes a natural space has been extended, and if they have a natural surface they may feel more like a cave than the entrance to the Metro. Notable examples are the "Fred Flintstone" houses of Cappadocia in Turkey, the multi-coloured chambers of Petra in Jordan, the salt caverns of Wieliczka in Poland, the cellar labyrinth of Budapest, and the ice-sculpture galleries of Jungfraujoch in Switzerland.
The easiest natural underground works to access are tourist show caves, many of which have had tourist facilities installed specifically to aid access by visitors.
Viewing natural caves that are not clearly adapted or generally open for tourist visits will depend on a number of factors, such as your level of fitness and expertise, availability of local guides, and the goodwill of owners and authorities to let you enter. Obtaining the consent of landowners and the owners of the cave is vital, as is obtaining in advance any relevant official permits from governmental agencies. If you have any doubts as to your fitness, both physically and mentally, stick to 'show caves'.
More advanced 'caving' (or actual spelunking), requires detailed planning, specialist expertise as well as demanding fitness levels. It also typically requires specific technical equipment, and long-term training in the techniques used. For those that clearly understand and fully respect the risks it can be highly rewarding, but as with any extreme activity, the traveler must know the limits before embarking. Given this, detailed information is not provided here, and if you are interested, you should contact or join one of the specialist caving groups that exist.
Caves are numerous worldwide and only the outstanding examples can be mentioned here. For opening times, admission charges and so on see the relevant city or region page, which may also describe other caves in the vicinity.
- 1 Cueva de las Manos ("Cave of Hands") in Santa Cruz province has remarkable prehistoric stencils on its walls.
Mexico: The Cenotes of the Yucatán cover a wide area of that peninsula. The limestone bedrock is riddled with caves filled with fresh or sea water, so any small pool in a forest clearing may be the entrance to a vast underground network. Cenotes played an important role in Maya religious ceremonies and may have promoted the advance of American civilisation - one famous example is called "Car Wash".
- 2 Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the world's most extensive known cave system.
- 3 Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico no longer hold the record for the world's largest cave chamber, but they're still pretty enormous.
- 4 Timpanogos are three caves in the Wasatch Range of Utah, linked by man-made tunnels.
- 5 Russell Cave in northeast Alabama is a remarkable archaeological site, with remains from several cultures going back over 10,000 years.
- 6 Lava Beds National Monument in the Shasta Cascades region of California has over 800 lava tubes, many of which can be explored, and some of which extend for more than a mile.
- 7 Oregon Caves of Southern Oregon are formed in marble. That's slower to dissolve, but the chemistry and formation of dripstone decorations are the same.
- 8 Jewel Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota has over 200 miles of passages, with sparkling jewel-like calcite deposits.
- 9 Naracoorte Caves near Naracoorte in South Australia have mammal fossils found nowhere else, particularly of Australian Megafauna.
- 10 Jenolan Caves in New South Wales are the most outstanding in Australia. These date back to 340 million years, which make them the world's oldest known cave system.
- 11 Yarrangobilly Caves are within Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales.
- 12 Mole Creek Karst National Park are a set of over 300 caves in Tasmania, although only two are open to the public. One has an extensive network of sediment and bone deposit, while the other is popular for its fantastic glow worm display.
- 13 Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park in south-west Western Australia contains over 100 caves, some of which are open for tours. One of which; Jewel Cave contains world's longest straw in a tourist cave with impressively large stalagmites.
- 14 Guilin and 15 Yangshuo – The region around these towns in Guangxi (Southwest China) is one of China's most famous and popular tourist areas, primarily because of sensational scenery. The terrain is karst limestone and includes many caves. See the city articles for details on caves that are set up for tourist visits. The area is a major destination for rock climbers, and some of the climbing shops in Yangshuo organise trips to other caves; these all need at least basic rock-climbing skills, and some require advanced spelunking skills and equipment.
- 16 Mogao Caves. A group of caves near Dunhuang in Gansu Province, in the west of China along the old Silk Road. They have many Buddhist frescoes, mostly from a few centuries CE, and are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- 17 Panzhihua. This is a mining town in the south of Sichuan, on the highway and rail line into Yunnan. It is a popular tourist destination, mainly for Chinese travellers. Attractions nearby include forest and mountain areas, and many caves.
- 18 Shilin. The "Stone Forest" outside Kunming, the most famous karst landscape in China.
- 19 Zhangjiajie. Another popular destination for Chinese tourists, famous for karst landscapes, in Hunan province.
- 21 Magura Cave in Rabisha, north of Belogradchik, has an extensive gallery of some 750 Neolithic paintings, about 8000 to 10,000 years old.
- 22 Moravský kras in South Moravia has many caves. Five that are publicly accessible are Punkevní jeskyně, Kateřinská jeskyně, Jeskyně Balcarka, Sloupsko-šošůvské jeskyně and Jeskyně Výpustek.
- 24 Lascaux Caves in the Vézère valley of Dordogne can no longer be visited, to preserve the prehistoric drawings, but they've made an exact replica.
- 25 Franconian Switzerland. Being a Karst region, it has quite a few caves of which some are open to the public on guided tours or for special events like concerts.
- 26 Teufelshöhle (Devil's cave), Schüttersmühle 5, 91278 Pottenstein, firstname.lastname@example.org. Summer: 9:00-17:00 Winter: Sunday 11:00–15:00 and on request. A nice limestone cave about 2 km out of the delightful village of Pottenstein with many fascinating rock formations. Adults €4.50 below 15 years: €2.50.
- 27 Binghöhle, 91346 Wiesenttal, email@example.com. Summer 10:00–17:00 winter: upon prior request. Adult €4.50 child (4–14): €2.50.
- 28 Sophienhöhle. Summer: Tu–Su: 10:30–17:00, winter and Mondays (except holidays): closed. Run by the same people that also run Burg Rabenstein, a nearby castle, this cave offers breathtaking limestone formations as well as an honest to god real live cave bear skeleton that was discovered on site. Adult: €5.00 child (4–14): €3.00.
- 29 Grotta Azzura on Capri is a large sea-cave. Light enters through a narrow, almost-submerged opening, so it's filtered by the sea and suffuses the chamber with a rich blue. Small rowboats can get in, but only in calm conditions at the right state of tides.
- 30 Frasassi Caves near Genga in Marche Region are Italy's finest show caves.
- 31 Svarthamarhola near Bodø is the largest natural cave in Scandinavia, and contains a glacier. It's a strenous hike and you need a guide.
- 32 Kollhellaren on the Lofoten island of Moskenesøya has a cave where prehistoric paintings were discovered in 1989.
- 33 Torghatten is a granite hill on an island near Brønnøysund in Helgeland, with a 160 m passage right through its summit. It was formed by wave and ice action.
- 34 Kungur Ice Cave in Kungur, Perm Region, is karst with ice formations within. It's Russia's only show cave.
- 35 Slovak Karst National Park has over 700 caves. The karst spans the border to the Aggtelek cave system of Hungary.
- 36 Postojna Caves near Postojna is one of the largest cave systems in the world, with 20 km of underground galleries, chambers and corridors, up to 50 meters high.
- 37 Migovec Caves in Triglav National Park are almost as extensive.
- 38 Škocjan Caves near Divača holds a huge underground canyon with its own climate.
The UK has a small number of show caves.
- 39 Dan-yr-Ogof (Pen y Cae near Swansea).
- 40 Kents Cavern. Home to early man for some 700,000 years, tourists can visit this subterranean wonderland. The caves have attracted many famous people, among them Agatha Christie, Beatrix Potter, King George V of the United Kingdom and Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie who was so impressed with his visit that he gave his guide, Leslie Powe a gold sovereign.
- 41 Poole's Cavern (southwest of the town centre). Show cave. A pleasant (and free) walk through woodland from here leads to Solomon's Temple, a folly on a limestone hill with elevated views over Buxton and the surrounding area. Another interesting and little-known local curiosity lies in a small valley between Solomon's Temple and the village of Harpur Hill, where water issuing through lime-rich waste rock has created an intriguing area of white calcite deposits.
- 42 Wookey Hole caves, near Wells. series of limestone caverns open as a show cave/ tourist attraction
- 43 Fingal's Cave. The stand-out sea cave in Britain is Fingal's Cave, a great basalt cathedral on Staffa, near the island of Mull.
- 44 Smoo Cave (in Durness on the north coast of Scotland). A large sea cave connected to a limestone land cave.
- The following areas are considered the caving regions of India: Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya and Uttarakhand. There are literally thousands of caves in India. There are caves that are man-made (rock cut), others which are religious sites (with or without temples), archaeological sites representing early human life and finally natural caves to explore. Those marked with the symbol are listed in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- 45 Ajanta Caves (Ajantha Caves) (59 km (37 mi) from Jalgaon). 9:00 am to 5:30 pm - Tuesday to Saturday. Ajanta Caves depict the stories of Buddhism spanning from the period from 200 B.C. and 650 A.D. These caves were discovered in the 19th century by some British Officers who had been on a tiger hunt.These 29 caves were built by Buddhist monks using simple tools like hammer & chisel. These caves were the retreats of Buddhist monks who taught and performed rituals in the Chaityas and Viharas, the ancient seats of learning. The elaborate and exquisite sculptures and paintings depict stories from Jataka tales. The caves house images of nymphs and princesses the treasures they contain are a landmark in the overall development of Buddhism
- 46 Amarnath Cave (Amarnath Temple), Jammu and Kashmir (near Pahalgam). Ice Lingam of Lord Shiva - a stalagmite formation created from water drops from the roof of the cave that freeze. This is considered a holy cave. Except for a period of time during the summer it is covered with snow. Because of the mountainous terrain it is difficult to reach. In addition, there are many rock cut caves (temples) in India that may be of interest.
- 47 Belum Caves, Bellum, Andhra Pradesh. Formed in black limestone, Bellum Caves is one of the largest and longest caves in India. There are stalactite and stalagmite formations, long passages, several large chambers and fresh water galleries.
- 48 Borra Guhalu (Borra Caves), Araku Valley. The Borra Caves are called Borra Guhalu, located in the Ananthagiri hills of the Araku valley on the East coast of India are the deepest cave(s) in India and home to bats, golden gecko, fulvous fruit bat and Insects.
- 50 Elephanta Caves, Elephanta Island. The Elephanta Caves (Gharapurichi Leni) at Elephanta Island are two groups of sculpted caves. Five Hindu caves make up the 1st group and two Buddhist caves the second group. Winthin the caves there are numerous carved panels and shrines. The original stone elephant stone-cut statue for which Elephanta Island was named is now located in the Jijamata Udyaan (zoo and garden) in Mumbai.
- 51 Ellora Caves. These are an impressive complex of rock shrines that represent the three faiths of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism and were created between the 5th and the 13th centuries CE. The caves are 30 km northwest of central Aurangabad, a few km from Khuldabad, and 330 km northeast of Mumbai in Maharashtra state.
- 52 Krem Liat Prah Cave, Meghalaya. Located in the Shnongrim Ridge, Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, it is the longest cave (25km) yet discovered in India and noted for a large passage called the Airplane Hanger. Meghalaya has over 1000 caves to explore.
- 53 Kutumsar Caves (Cotumsar Caves), Chhattisgarh. Limestone caves located in Kanger Ghati National Park - see also: Dandak Cave
- 54 Nellitheertha Cave (Nellitheertha Cave Temple), Nellitheertha, Karnataka. Located within the Nellitheertha Cave Temple, it is a cave with a low ceiling. Also located here is a small lake and Shiva Lingam.
- 55 Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka. They are an archaeological site representing early traces of human life on the Indian subcontinent. There are rock paintings that are similar to those found in Australia and France.
- 56 Jomblang Cave (Goa Jomblang), Wonosari, Yogyakarta. A 50-metre vertical collapse-doline cave and a forest at the bottom of the sinkhole. Connected to the Grubug cave, where you can see rays of sunlight shining through the roof of the cave.
- 57 Caves of Hercules (14 km west of Tangier). Partially natural, partially man made, has functioned as a brothel and a concert venue for the metal band Def Leppard and today probably the most popular place for a quick sidetrip outside Tangier. According to a legend, the Roman god Hercules rested here and supposedly there is an underwater connection across the Strait to Gibraltar. Dh 5.
- 58 Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Palawan Province). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, 8km (5 miles) of navigable subterranean river with tours by boat available. Usually reached from provincial capital Puerto Princesa, an hour and a half away by bus.
- 59 Caves near Mabinay (on bus route between two provincial capitals, Bacolod and Dumaguete). This small town is in a mountainous area of Negros Island and has many caves.
There are also many caves on Samar Island, some accessible to the general public.
- 60 Cappadocia. The early Christians dug numerous underground cities — complete with sleeping chambers, food storage, kitchens, wineries, and even an inn for traders — into the soft volcanic soils of the Cappadocia region, to escape raids and persecution.
- 61 Damlataş Cave, Alanya. Gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites cover all surfaces of this cave, although some might prefer that it weren't so over-visited.
- 62 Dupnisa Cave, near Demirköy. Deep inside the dense forests of the Istranca Mountains in the northwest of Istanbul, Dupnisa is the home of a bat colony and has a "dry" and a "wet" entrance; a shallow underground stream flows through the latter.
- 63 Heaven and Hell, near Narlıkuyu. Two sinkholes near each other on a hillside looking over the Mediterranean, formed when the ceilings of the respective caves naturally collapsed in. Locals likened the larger of the duo, with its evergreen shrubs on its floor, to "heaven" (and a monastery inside dating back to the 5th century attests to this fact), and the smaller and unexpectedly deep one to an abyss.
- 64 Darvaza. In the middle of the remote Karakum Desert of already little-visited Turkmenistan, this man made crater is engulfed by a huge fire burning since 1971, when the Soviet geologists drilling for natural gas in the area accidentally had the ceiling of the cavern collapse. Popularly known as the Door to Hell, it is said to be especially impressive at night.
If you are permitted take simple photos, take them. You should however be aware that taking photos in low light will require a 'fast' sensor and/or a fast lens. Many shots in a cave will be easiest with a wide-angle lens. Seek appropriate local advice if you wish to use a flash.
Some caves are a habitat for bat species, and with careful planning you may be able to on the surface view the bats leaving a cave (which serves as a roost). Viewing bats leaving their roosts is best done as part of an organized group or with an experienced guide who will be able to advise on how to view without disrupting the normal pattern of the bats, who can be unduly disrupted by lights, noise or certain electronic devices.
Bats are rarely aggressive, but keep your distance since they may bite if threatened. Bats may carry rabies; anyone bitten or scratched by one should see a doctor immediately, and anyone doing a lot of caving should consider getting rabies vaccinations.
- Cave canem! - Roman warning against entering the underworld, guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus.
- Thing is, he wasn't there to stop you getting in. But getting out again?
Even in publicly accessible caves, you need stout footwear – simply reaching the entrance may involve a hike.
A show cave has its own lighting. You need a good flashlight for others; a mobile phone light won't do to illuminate the decorations above and the perilous chasms yawning at your foot. What happens if it fails or you drop it in the stream? Carry a spare, as you value your life.
Consider the weather outlook. A downpour many miles away can suddenly turn a damp passageway into a torrent, with no place to shelter or even to breathe air. Flash floods may also scour the surface gullies that access the cave.
Don't enter a cave alone. You need someone within hollering distance who could fetch help if you came to grief. You also want somebody on the surface to raise an alarm if you got lost or trapped, at an agreed hard deadline. Let them know your detailed plan and make sure they know what they are expected to do. Mobile phones don't work underground.
Bad air is seldom a problem in natural caves, but a serious hazard in old mine workings, as the exposed coal strata continue to oxidise. This creates lethal pockets of carbon dioxide and monoxide. The weather may shift this into pools at the surface, which you'll notice when your dog (the modern canary) drops dead. Cave canem!
You must have adequate training, equipment and support to venture further than the public limits, even without plunging into the many underwater sumps. The first step is to look up the caving training agency for your part of the world. Their members often act as guides for local caves that are a bit beyond the normal public range – indeed, who else could? This gives you a chance to decide, as you wring the mud from your boiler suit and rub your bruised head and elbows, whether it's really for you.
There are no particular health risks in a well-managed show cave, but actual spelunking — exploring caves that are not set up for easy visiting — does carry some risk. The main tactic for reducing it is to seek advice from knowledgeable locals; often hiring a local guide will be wise.
Bats can carry rabies and rabies vaccination is recommended for spelunkers likely to encounter bats. It is also recommended for all travellers in certain countries, and for those who will spend time in rural parts of others. Anyone planning a major trip should consult a doctor, preferably a travel medicine specialist, beforehand and rabies vaccine may be a wise precaution for many.
Animal droppings, in particular bat guano which collects in large amounts is some caves, can spread an infection called histoplasmosis; the cause is a fungus which grows in the droppings and releases spores when disturbed. In many people this infection has no ill effects, but in some cases it can be fatal if left untreated. Antifungal medications are effective against it, but it is better to avoid the infection by giving guano a wide berth.
Be respectful of the underground environment you are visiting. Ideally you should try to leave the underground environment as you found it as far as possible. No garbage and human waste should be left behind. Many flora and fauna are adapted to the underground environment, so the overuse of lights or camera flash can disrupt some fauna. The very presence of human beings and light can also severely change the micro-climate. Lampenflora – plants growing due to the light and warmth of artificial light sources – are a serious problem in some caves. Some natural caves include unique prehistoric cultural heritage (see paleontology) and care must be taken to preserve this for the future.
Touching any surface will leave organic material from your skin, and the resulting microfauna can leave handprints. Just watch beautiful or odd surfaces, leave feeling them to allowed surfaces in show caves.
Many caves are also home to bats, which in many jurisdictions are protected species, and interference with them should be avoided in nearly all circumstances. It is not unusual for caves in some regions to be closed over that region's fall and winter seasons in order to ensure that hibernating bats don't wake up too early due to human influence.