The World’s Coolest Caves
Caves have always fascinated human beings. We have used them for shelter, for food storage, as canvases for our art – we have even transformed them into homes and temples. Caves tend to have an otherworldly mystery about them, with their often tortuous, claustrophobic chambers, their strange creatures and the intensity of their darkness. It is no wonder we are drawn to them. And there is no shortage of caverns to explore — the United States alone has more than 55,500 caves, with over 1,000 new ones discovered each year, according to the National Speleological Society. There are countless to choose from, but here is a list of eight of the world’s coolest caves to get you started.
Majlis al Jinn Cave, Oman
Discovered in 1983 by Don Davidson, a geologist studying water resources in the Sultanate of Oman, Majlis al Jinn Cave boasts the ninth-largest cave chamber in the world (as measured by the surface area of the floor). You come here for the adventure and the scale. To give an idea of how big the entrance chamber is, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt (the largest Egyptian pyramid) would fit inside almost exactly — its base is approximately the same as the chamber floor and its height is roughly equal as well.
Majlis al Jinn is located in a remote area of the Selma Plateau, 60 miles southeast of Muscat. Access to the cavern is via a free descent down from one of three vertical entrances in the ceiling, meaning you’ll be lowering yourself down on a rope or, if you’re brave enough, base-jumping with a parachute.
Cave of the Crystals, Mexico
The Cave of the Crystals is located 1,000 feet underground in the working Naica Mine near Chihuahua and contains the largest crystals ever discovered. Some of its translucent selenite crystal columns are more than four feet in diameter and 30 feet long! The cave was discovered in 2000 by two brothers who were drilling in a lead and silver mine.
Nothing remotely like the gigantic crystals they found inside has been discovered anywhere else. The crystals were formed from groundwater saturated in calcium sulphate which, when warmed by the hot magma about a mile below, began filtering through the cave system millions of years ago. Unfortunately the cave has a rather hostile environment, with more than 90% humidity and temperatures reaching up to 136 degrees. Because of this access is restricted to a few researchers and much of the cave remains unexplored.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand
Located deep in the lush, subtropical hills of New Zealand’s North Island, visitors come to the Waitomo Caves not for the caves themselves, but for the quarter-inch-long bioluminescent glowworms that radiate a tiny blue light and dangle everywhere from the ceiling. These Arachnocampa luminosa, which are found exclusively in New Zealand, are a type of fungus gnat species, which tend to glow at their brightest in their larval stage. The strange bugs lower down sticky, filamentous, glowing ‘fishing lines’ to attract prey, and the hungry ones glow brighter than those which have just eaten. The blue light they emit is actually a chemical reaction occurring inside a special capsule in their tail.
Although glowworms can be found in many other caves, their densely concentrated numbers in Waitomo transform the inner chambers into a turquoise starscapes, making this grotto unique.
Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, China
The largest collection of Chinese Buddhist art is not to be found in some museum in Beijing or Shanghai, but rather buried inside hundreds of caves along on an isolated stretch of the ancient Silk Road near Dunhuang in Gansu province, China.
The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, also known as the Mogao Caves, contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art in the country, with more than 2,000 multicolored sculptures and intricate paintings that span a period of more than 1,000 years. They were first dug by wandering monks in the 4th century as places for meditation and worship, then eventually developed into pilgrimage sites for the public. The caves became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Mountain River Cave, Vietnam
Concealed by dense tropical rainforest in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, the Mountain River Cave in Vietnam wasn’t discovered until 1991. It is now considered the world’s largest cave passage, stretching for 2.5 miles and reaching more than 600 feet high — five times larger than the Phong Nha cave, previously considered the biggest cave in the country.
The coolest thing about this cave, besides its great volume, is the underground river that roars through it, echoing of the limestone walls. In several places the ceiling has collapsed, creating skylights — some more than 100 feet in diameter — that permit sunlight to shaft in, which has created a unique underground ecosystem.
Carlsbad Caverns, USA
Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most popular cave systems in the United States. Its largest cave chamber, the Big Room, is almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 350 feet high at the highest point — the third largest cave chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world. One thing that makes Carlsbad so popular is accessibility. It has an elevator that takes you 750 feet below to the Underground Lunchroom.
Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves, Austria
The Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves, located within the Tennengebirge Mountains 25 miles south of Salzburg, is the largest system of ice caves in the world. It consists of more than 26 miles of tunnels and chambers, though only the first kilometer is covered in ice (the rest is just your normal everyday limestone).
The Ice Caves are very different from normal caves, and visitors often report an eerie, otherworldly feeling when walking among the ice formations and frozen waterfalls. Before its official discovery in 1879 the Eisriesenwelt was considered by locals to be an entrance to Hell, and people refused to explore it. From May 1st to October 26th 75-minute guided tours take in several of the immense ice caverns. Be sure to wear warm clothes, as temperatures inside the cave are usually below freezing.
Puerto-Princesa Underground River, Philippines
The impressive rock and mineral formations of the Puerto-Princesa Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have earned it the title of one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. As the name suggests, the cave is a subterranean waterway, containing a five-mile section of the Cabayugan River before it dumps into the South China Sea.
Tour boats ferry visitors 2.5 miles into this stalactite-filled world, where you’ll see, among other things, a 360-meter-long chamber with approximately 2.5 million square meters of volume — one of the largest cave chambers in the world. The cave is surrounded by the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park and is located 30 miles north of Puerto Princesa, Palawan.