The Southwest is known for spectacular views of towering mountains, deep canyons, and pristine lakes, but there’s also a whole other world beneath the surface waiting to be discovered. Adventure seekers can safely experience the mystery and magic of the region’s countless cave systems on guided tours.

In Texas, groups can explore several cave landscapes, including the largest one in the state, Natural Bridge Caverns. Located in San Antonio, Natural Bridge Caverns offers tours with varying levels of difficulty, recently adding the new Hidden Wonders Tour, which explores two new chambers not previously seen, accompanied by a sound and light show. “Our philosophy is based around stewardship of these incredible natural spaces,” says Winter Prosapio, director of communications at Natural Bridge Caverns. “People don’t realize the wonders that are right under their feet.” In addition to the caverns, Natural Bridge offers several eateries on-site, as well as an adventure ropes course, an outdoor maze, and shopping opportunities.

Emerald Lake in the Discovery Cavern,
Credit: Natural Bridge Caverns

A sister to the Natural Bridge Caverns and internationally recognized as one of the most beautiful caves in the world, the Caverns of Sonora, located in Sonora, Texas, is also worth adding to your underground itinerary. All tours offer an intimate group setting, and guides lead visitors through crystal corridors more than 150 feet below the surface. Groups are welcome to personalize their entire experience, too. Beyond the beauty of the caverns themselves, the destination is in a ranch-like setting, complete with a gift shop, hiking, camping, and other fun activities such as panning for gemstones.

For cave explorers looking for an out-of-the-ordinary experience, Lehman Caves in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is a must-visit. The caves are full of stalactites and stalagmites, but they also have some less commonly seen formations as well. “Lehman Caves have some highly unusual formations, including what is known as shield formations … over 500 of them,” says Christopher Amidon, acting chief of interpretation at Great Basin National Park. The national park gives groups the opportunity to enjoy a wide spectrum of Nevada’s landscape at the highest of heights down into the earth itself. 

Lehman Caves,
Credit: National Park Service/Rick Bowersox

Another national park for underground exploration is Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, also known as “the Grand Canyon with a roof over it.” Among other formations, Carlsbad Caverns is home to the Big Room, the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. Above ground, visitors can enjoy hands-on exhibits, a bookstore, a restaurant, and more. 

Meanwhile near Bend, Oregon, groups can check out a different type of “cave” experience with a self-guided tour of the Lava River Cave Interpretive Site. It is one of the first lava tubes discovered in the state and the longest. The trail is 2 miles round trip and takes about an hour and a half to complete. The cave is complete with large chambers, caves within caves, and sand gardens.

Written by Danielle Devota

Main Image: Caverns of Sonora, Credit: Caverns of Sonora