It's one thing to engage kids in nature above ground. It's quite another to engage them below ground.
Our kids, like most kids, love nature. They love it even more when it's rainy and they can stomp in a mud puddle. But that's all standard fun above ground. Take them below ground and there's a whole new world to explore -- one that is equal parts dark and mysterious, spooky and mesmerizing.
We stumbled upon our love of caves accidentally. We were on the middle leg of long drive back to Chicago from Orlando, Fla. A look at the map showed we were within a few miles of Kentucky's famous Mammoth Cave.
It took only a few minutes to convince my kids and husband that a side trip to the cave would be fun. Perhaps they only agreed because it would allow them to escape the car for a few hours, but the taste of caving we got that day turned into a return trip during spring break a year later, followed by a trip to Wisconsin's Cave of the Mounds outside of Madison and a weeklong summer vacation traveling through southern Indiana's famous karst region. ("Karst region" is a fancy phrase for a limestone landscape with sinkholes, underground streams and caves.)
Our cave adventures gave us a close-up look at three types of caves -- ancient, middle age and young.
These caves were carved out of the limestone bedrock by ancient underground rivers. They dot the Midwest. In the ancient caves, such as Mammoth, the water dried up hundreds of millions of years ago and left behind an unchanged underground landscape like nothing you'll find up above. In the middle-aged caves, water still seeps through cracks, changing the landscape drip by drip. In young caves, the rivers rage, eating away at the rock more vigorously and making for a damp and intriguing visit along underground waterways and roaring waterfalls.
All three kinds make for fun explorations for families.
Caves are bathroom-less. Be sure to go before you go.
Caves are cool -- literally. The temperature is constant year-round -- 54 degrees Fahrenheit at Mammoth Cave, which can be a welcome relief in July or August. It's tough to remember, but if you want to stay comfortable during a two-hour hike through the cave, bring a sweater. And leave the sandals in the car. Caves require closed-toe shoes for safety.
Caves are not wheelchair or stroller friendly. There are stairs and rough terrain that make wheels entirely impractical. And don't think about putting the baby in a backpack either. There are many low-hanging rocks. Dad bends over to miss the rock and, well, you get the picture. So plan to carry babies and keep a good hold on toddlers.
Caves form slowly and are very delicate. It takes 100 years for one inch worth of speleothem (stalactites and stalagmites) to grow. Water seeps through cracks in the limestone, dissolving the calcite and redepositing it on the floor (stalagmites) or ceiling (stalactites). Touching the cave walls leaves human oils behind and disrupts the process, so guides will scold parents who allow tiny hands to touch the rock.
The closest cave to Chicago is Cave of the Mounds, a national landmark about three hours northwest of Chicago. This limestone cave is a relative baby, less than 2 million years old. It was accidentally discovered in 1939 when quarry workers blasted into the cave. The discovery brought so many curiosity seekers that the cave was closed to preserve it. A year later, it was opened to visitors.
Take a tour of the cave, then let the kids pan for treasure upstairs before taking a hike around the property.
Cave of the Mounds is a reasonable day trip or weekend destination. If you have more time, head to southern Indiana and Marengo Cave. This middle-aged cave is still forming. It is filled with awe-inspiring stalagmites and stalactites.
For a look at a young cave, stop at Squire Boone Caverns and Villages in the southern tip of Indiana, about a half-hour west of Louisville, Ky. Named for its discoverer, Daniel's brother, this cave is cool, but our tour was not. We were marched to the end of the path with little comment (to be fair, it was tough to hear over the rushing waterfall), turned around and marched back to some benches where we heard a rambling lecture that was more about Squire than his cave.
The kids had more fun above ground exploring the 19th century village where they dipped candles, panned for gems, learned how soap was made and played in a one-room schoolhouse.
Once you're all the way in southern Indiana, it's just a short jaunt across the state line to the granddaddy of caves, Mammoth Cave. Part of the National Park Service in southwestern Kentucky, mammoth is more than 300 million years old. It has more than 360 miles of explored passages which makes it the oldest and biggest cave of them all.
Mammoth Cave is impressive for its sheer size, but most of the cave tours lack the stalactites and stalagmites that make visitors oooh and aaah. If you crave those formations, and are in reasonably good shape, opt for the two-hour Frozen Niagara tour. But be prepared to walk up and down 500 stairs.
• Cindy Richards is the editor-in-chief for TravelingMom.com and the mom of veteran cave explorers Evan and Tess. For family travel tips and ideas, follow her on Twitter @CindyRichards.