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Ten of the most impressive, most beautiful and most unusual caves on earth, and why you should visit them if you have the chance.

 

1) Sótano de las Golondrinas (The Cave of Swallows) – Aquismón, Mexico

Why visit? Base jump into the largest cave shaft in the world.

This immense open air pit cave lies in the middle of the Mexican jungle. Water eroded the limestone beneath so that the Cave of Swallows is now the largest cave shaft in the world, but it has been known to the local Huastec people since ancient times.

The cave is a truly awesome structure. Lush vegetation spills over the cave mouth and the dramatic cliffs are home to abundant birdlife. The pit widens as it gets deeper, and the cave floor is an impressive 303 x 135 metres.

The Cave of Swallows is a popular destination for base jumping and vertical caving. The cave floor is a 333m freefrall from the lowest side of the cave mouth, and 370m from the highest. Jumping from either is a truly exhilarating prospect! See how it’s done in the Caves episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth series.

The Cave Of Swallows

 

2) Eisriesenwelt Cave – Werfen, Austria

Why visit? Eisriesenwelt is the largest ice cave in the world.

Eisriesenwelt is German for 'World of the Ice Giants'. Before its ‘official’ discovery in 1879, locals believed the cave was the entrance to Hell. It's a natural limestone ice cave formed by the Salzach river, which eroded passageways into the Hochkogel Mountain. The resulting 26 mile cave system is an ethereal network of halls decorated with impressive frozen waterfalls, stalactites and stalagmites, frozen towers of ice and glaciers.

The ice formations in the cave are formed by thawing snow which drains into the cave and freezes during winter. In summer, a cold wind from inside the cave blows toward the entrance and prevents the formations from melting. Interesting fact - while the cave is 50 to 100 million years old, the ice only formed around 1000 years ago.

Only the first 0.6 miles of the cave is covered in ice but this makes a visit to this spectacular ice world easy.

Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave

 

3) Waitomo Caves – Waitomo, New Zealand

Why visit? Glowworms!

The Waitomo Caves are luminescent. The ceilings are scattered with magical blue lights, strung like fairy lights on lines of silk across the caverns. It’s a mesmerising experience and is the result of a bug the size of a mosquito. Arachnocampa luminosa, commonly known as the New Zealand glowworm is a species of fungus gnat endemic to New Zealand. The bugs glow to attract prey, which they catch in silken strands dangling from the cave ceiling. The glow is the result of a chemical reaction in the bugs’ abdomen. Interesting fact: a hungry glowworm will glow more brightly than one that has just eaten.

The Waitomo Caves themselves formed over 30 million years ago. In addition to their light show there are majestic formations, deep limestone shafts and a cathedral-like cavern known for its superb acoustics.

Waitomo Caves

 

4) Gaping Ghyll – Yorkshire Dales, United Kingdom

Why visit? Cave, climb or dive in a big cave system right here at home. 

Fell Beck stream flows across the limestone moors of the Yorkshire Dales before it cascades into the 98m deep pothole of Gaping Gill. It’s the tallest unbroken waterfall in England and the cave beneath is the largest underground chamber naturally open to the surface. An industrial laser rangefinder showed that its volume is comparable to that of York Minster.

How you can visit: On certain bank holidays the Bradford Pothole Club and the Craven Pothole Club set up a winch above the shaft to provide a ride to the bottom and back out again for any member of the public who pays a fee. An extreme rock-climb (graded E3, 5c) is possible up the main shaft. It requires very dry conditions.

Gaping Gill Cave

 

5) Hang Sơn Đoòng (Mountain River Cave) – Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, Quang Binh province, Vietnam

Why visit? The biggest and most beautiful cave in the world.

Hang Son Doong is (currently) the biggest known cave in the world. It is an exciting labyrinth of secret gardens, grand chambers and epic formations on a scale you’ve never seen before. Words do not do it justice. Take a look for yourself.

The cave was named after the large, fast-flowing river coursing through its underground passages. ‘Son Doong’ means ‘mountain river cave’. It was created 2 - 5 million years ago as river water eroded the limestone underneath the mountains of the national park. Where the limestone was weak, the ceiling has collapsed creating huge, magical skylights.

In early August 2013, the first tourist group explored the cave on a guided tour at a cost of US$3,000 each. Future exploration trips are planned – so watch this space!

Hang Son Doong Cave

 

6) Cueva de los Cristales (The Cave of the Crystals) – Chihuahua, Mexico

Why visit? Home to an incredible display of the largest natural crystals ever found.

This cave defies reality. It is home to some of the largest natural crystals ever found: giant selenite crystals, a type of gypsum. Crystal beams jut out from the rock at all angles 300m below the earth’s surface. The resulting chamber is like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. To date, the largest crystal found is 12m long, 4m wide and weighs 55 tons. The cave is incredibly hot, up to 58oC with 90 – 99% humidity. Without proper protection and equipment it’s only possible to endure about 10 minutes in the cave.

These incredible crystals formed as magma heated groundwater saturated with sulphide ions. Cool oxygenated water from the surface mixed with the heated groundwater. The oxygen and sulphide slowly reacted and crystallised over 50,000 years to create the enormous crystals found today.

The cave became accessible when a mining company pumped water from the chambers. The crystals are now slowly deteriorating as they are exposed to air. The Naica Project has been set up to visually document the crystals before they disappear further.

The Cave Of Crystals

 

7) Cenote Dos Ojos – Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Why visit? Snorkel or scuba dive in this spectacular underwater cave system.

An ethereal turquoise world greets divers as they float past underwater stalactites and stalagmites illuminated by dramatic shafts of sunlight. Cracks in the limestone landscape above created a network of flooded caves and sinkholes on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula around 6,500 years ago. Extending to 51 miles, Dos Ojos is one of the longest underwater cave systems in the world. It’s an anchialine cave system meaning that it’s connected underground to the sea and is influenced by tides. The surface water of the cave system is often fresh, getting saltier with depth.

There are 28 known sinkhole entrances, or cenotes, to the system. These are used by divers and snorkelers to access Dos Ojos. Most dives descend to 5 – 7 metres so exploring the surreal depths is relatively safe and easy. The deepest known cave passage, Quintana Roo, in the system is 119.metres deep. Imagine exploring that!

Cenote Dos Ojos

 

8) Lechuguilla – Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, USA

Why visit? The pristine condition of its rare geological formations.

The wonder of Lechuguilla Cave is not its size but the variety and quality of its formations. It holds a vast collection of rare speleothems (mineral deposits), including lemon-yellow sulfur deposits, 6 metre long gypsum chandeliers, hairs and beards, 4.5 metre long soda straws, hydromagnesite balloons (a kind of puffy but crumpled bubble), cave pearls and deep pools that reflect the marvels all around in sharp clarity.

The main attraction is the Chandelier Ballroom - an incredibly pristine cavern with pure white gypsum 'chandeliers' that hang from the ceiling.

Unfortunately, access to the cave is limited to scientific researchers, exploration teams and the National Park Service, but tourists can still visit other caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Lechuguilla Cave

 

9) Ape Cave – Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington, USA

Why visit? Hike through the subterranean tunnels of a volcano. 

Ever been in a lava tube? It’s like being in the home of a giant sandworm from the sci-fi novel Dune. Around 2,000 years ago, a molten lava flow poured down Mount St. Helen’s south flank and left behind a 2.5 mile long tunnel. It’s the longest lava cave in the continental USA. The name Ape Cave comes from the frequent sightings of Bigfoot, Sasquatch or ‘Hairy Ape’ in the Mount St. Helens area.

Some of the first explorations of this cave were carried out by the Mount St. Helens Apes – the local Scout troop!

You can hike several exciting miles of a National Recreational Trail that runs through the tunnel’s tubes and caves, scrambling over boulders, scaling an 8 foot lava fall and squeezing past blocks of cooled lava wedged in cracks.

Ape Cave

 

10) The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (Mogao Grottoes) – Gansu Province, China

Why visit? Stare agog at over 2000 ancient Buddhist sculptures carved inside a desert cliff.

On an isolated stretch of the ancient Silk Road in China’s far north-west is the largest and most impressive trove of Chinese Buddhist art. It’s buried within 492 caves dug out of the desert cliffs by wandering monks in 366 AD. Over 2000 religious sculptures, spanning 1000 years of history, have been carved into the walls spanning five floors.

It’s possible to trace the development of globalisation in these caves. The artwork from the 5th century onwards show how Buddhists were influenced by cultures, such as Greek, Persian and Indian, as merchants brought goods along the Silk Road.

The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Caves of the Thousand Buddhas 

 

Have your own caving adventure at Great Tower Scout Activity Centre. Check out their website or download their list of training and permit courses.

 

What do you think? Is there a more magnificient or unusual cave you think should be on the list? Tell us on Facebook.

 

 

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