Beat the Heat: Great Cave Escapes

Five subterranean Southern destinations worth a detour

If you’re feeling fried from August’s dog-day temperatures, you might be plotting to hide out till December. But consider a different approach—beneath the earth, temperatures stay around 60 degrees year-round. These five subterranean Southern destinations are worth a detour or daytrip for a summer adventure that’s cool in every sense of the word.

Caverns of Sonora
Sonora, Texas
Below where the Hill Country meets the Chihuahuan Desert hide seven miles of sparkle. Room upon room of crystal formations look like something out of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude—or a dream. The founder of the National Speleological Society put it best after visiting: “Its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by Texans.”

Crystal formations line the Caverns of Sonora in Texas. (Photo courtesy Caverns of Sonora)

Florida Caverns
Marianna, Florida
The 65-degree temps of Florida Caverns feel like a polar blast after stepping in from a sticky Sunshine State summer. Animals dig them too: These caves are home to the blind salamander, which in addition to being a great potential band name, could be one of the many rare species you see on a visit to the cave and surrounding grounds—from barred owls and gray bats to alligator snapping turtles. The State Park offers guided tours, and the fun continues aboveground, too—fishing holes and horse trails abound.

The Florida Caverns illuminated. (Photo by Matthew Ross)

Luray Caverns
Luray, Virginia
Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, Luray Caverns span 64 acres with cathedral-sized chambers of calcite, a white crystalline form of limestone. Sights aside, the real draw is the sound—the Great Stalacpipe Organ is the world’s largest musical instrument. Soft rubber mallets—controlled by a keyboard that can be played live or automated—strike stalactites of varying sizes throughout 3.5 acres of the cave. It’s the ultimate rock concert.

Dream Lake inside Luray Caverns in Virginia. (Photo courtesy Luray Caverns)

The Great Stalacpipe Organ booth at Luray Caverns. (Photo by Jon Callas)

Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
This year marks 200 years of exploration in the cave that more than lives up to its name—it’s the longest cave system in the world with more than 400 charted miles. Don’t miss the Frozen Niagara, a rocky outgrowth resembling a massive waterfall. Explore above the surface as well—84 miles of tree-shaded trails and creeks show off the best of central Kentucky’s natural beauty.

Green River at Turnhole Bend above Mammoth Cave; Frozen Niagara. (Photos courtesy NPS Photo)

Ruby Falls 
Chattanooga, Tennessee
A visit here is a nod of respect to all the barns dotting the southeast with “See Ruby Falls” painted across their roofs—and to Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison who co-wrote “See Ruby Fall.” Located more than 1,120 feet beneath Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls is the country’s largest underground public waterfall, accessed by guided tours. Consider spelunking here on a rainy day—the cascade is even more spectacular when showers strengthen the streams that pour over its 145-foot drop.

Tennessee’s 145-foot underground waterfall. (Photo courtesy Ruby Falls)