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The Top 10 Most Amazing and Beautiful Caves in the World

Matthew loves to research unique destinations and write about his travel experiences, nature, and science.

These 10 caves are among the world's most spectacular subterranean destinations.

These 10 caves are among the world's most spectacular subterranean destinations.

The 10 Coolest, Largest, and Most Unique Caves in the World

  1. Cave of Crystals (Chihuahua, Mexico)
  2. Hang Sơn Đoòng (Quảng Bình Province, Vietnam)
  3. Waitomo Glowworm Caves (New Zealand)
  4. Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves (Salzburg, Austria)
  5. Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico, USA)
  6. Škocjan Caves (Slovenia)
  7. Reed Flute Cave (Guangxi, China)
  8. Luray Caverns (Virginia, USA)
  9. Mulu Caves (Borneo)
  10. Mammoth Cave (Kentucky, USA)
The Mammoth Cave system is still being surveyed, but the presently mapped 400 miles of caverns make it the longest known system in the world.

The Mammoth Cave system is still being surveyed, but the presently mapped 400 miles of caverns make it the longest known system in the world.

10. Mammoth Cave (Kentucky, USA)

Located in the heart of Kentucky, Mammoth is one of the oldest and most well-known caves in the United States. This cavernous behemoth boasts the longest cave system in the world, featuring over 400 miles of subterranean passageways.

Mammoth Cave was "discovered" by American settlers in the late 18th century, but was well-known to indigenous communities long before before the settlers' arrival. It was made a national park in 1941, a World Heritage site in 1981, and an international biosphere reserve in 1990.

What Makes It Stand Out

  • A giant, 300-foot-deep sinkhole named "Cedar Sink" was formed within the region's karst topography by mineral dissolution.
  • A huge, atrium-like cavern known as "Frozen Niagara" features walls lined with stalactites that resemble a frozen waterfall.
Like the Mammoth system, the Mulu Cave system is still being actively explored and charted by researchers.

Like the Mammoth system, the Mulu Cave system is still being actively explored and charted by researchers.

9. Mulu Caves (Borneo)

The discovered portions of the caves beneath Mulu National Park, located in a rainforest in Malaysian Borneo, cover over 125 miles. Some caving experts posit that two-thirds of the system may remain as of yet undiscovered.

According to the Sarawak Forestry Department, Mulu Caves lay claim to the largest passage, largest chamber, and longest single cave in Southeast Asia. A variety of tours are offered within the Mulu system for both beginners and experienced spelunkers. Whoever said that there was nowhere left on Earth to explore must have forgotten to look underground!

What Makes It Stand Out

  • Some caves in this system are known for producing helectites. These are unique stalactites that may display horizontal growth and are said to resemble twigs.
  • According to Mulu Caves Project's website, this cave system is still being actively explored, and new areas of the system are likely to be discovered in coming years.
The Luray Caverns were discovered after a group of explorers noticed cool air emanating from a sinkhole near a limestone outcrop.

The Luray Caverns were discovered after a group of explorers noticed cool air emanating from a sinkhole near a limestone outcrop.

8. Luray Caverns (Virginia, USA)

Discovered in 1878 by Andrew Campbell, Luray Caverns quickly became known for its impressive size and diverse array of calcite-based spleleothems. A report created by cave scientists from the Smithsonian Institution stated " . . . it is safe to say that there is probably no other cave in the world more completely and profusely decorated with stalactite and stalagmite ornamentation than that of Luray."

Some as high as 10-story buildings, Luray's vast and magnificent caverns are lined in certain areas with clear pools of water. The caverns of the system are connected by paved pathways that lead through 11 individual rooms, making portions of the area highly accessible.

What Makes It Stand Out

  • One of the cave's many spleleothemic highlights is a "stalacpipe organ" formation comprised of hollow stalactites that resonate musically when struck with rubber clappers.
  • An underground spring known as Dream Lake is so reflective that the countless stalactites above it appear mirrored as stalagmites despite the spring's mere 20-inch depth.
Despite having been visited hundreds of years earlier, Reed Flute Cave did not become the well-lit destination it is today until after it was rediscovered by refugees fleeing the Japanese military in the 1940s.

Despite having been visited hundreds of years earlier, Reed Flute Cave did not become the well-lit destination it is today until after it was rediscovered by refugees fleeing the Japanese military in the 1940s.

7. Reed Flute Cave (Guangxi, China)

Located outside the city of Guilin, Reed Flute Cave has been a popular destination for locals and visitors alike for over 1,200 years. Its moniker comes from the abundance of reeds that thrive outside of its entrance. Historically, these have been used by locals to create flute-like wind instruments.

Like many of the formations on this list, Reed Flute Cave boasts an array of stunning rock and mineral formations, carbon deposits, and stone pillars. What sets it apart, however, are the phantasmagorical light installations that give this locale its other namesake: The Palace of Natural Arts.

What Makes It Stand Out

  • This cave displays over 70 man-made inscriptions dating back to 792 CE, indicating that it has served as a point of interest since long before its rediscovery in the 1940s.
  • A multicolored array of light sources are positioned strategically within small cavities inside the cavern to cast a surreal glow upon its walls, pillars, and other ancient features.
The Škocjan Caves were marked on the Lazius-Ortelius map—the first known map of the  area—in 1561.

The Škocjan Caves were marked on the Lazius-Ortelius map—the first known map of the area—in 1561.

6. Škocjan Caves (Slovenia)

The Škocjan Caves have been a site of international significance for longer than most. Having been mentioned in documents dating back to the 2nd century BCE, this Slovenian system was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986 due to its importance as an underground wetland.

The cave itself is just over 2 miles long, but contains part of the Reka River, which continues to flow underground for an additional 21 miles. Together, this cave system and the Reka river comprise the most significant feature of Italy and Slovenia's Karst Plateau.

What Makes It Stand Out

  • This group of caverns has developed its own microclimate, resulting in a contained ecosystem that features species unique to this location.
  • Visitors to the Škocjan Caves have the opportunity to visit a series of striking underground waterfalls that adorn the system's limestone cavities.
Many of the chambers and features within Carlsbad Caverns were originally named by a teenager named Jim White who explored the caves in 1898 using a homemade wire ladder.

Many of the chambers and features within Carlsbad Caverns were originally named by a teenager named Jim White who explored the caves in 1898 using a homemade wire ladder.

5. Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico, USA)

Probably the best known cave system in the world, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in Southeastern New Mexico and draws over 700,000 visitors each year. Over 20 of the system's cave chambers are large or unique enough to have been individually named.

One of the largest caverns in the system, referred to either as "The Hall of the Giants," or simply "The Big Room," is over 350,000 square feet. That's over 5 times as large as the White House!

What Makes It Stand Out

  • An estimated 17 unique species of bats call Carlsbad Caverns their home. A 2005 study calculated a possible population of 793,000 bats within Carslbad's chambers.
  • The system's huge cavities play host to vast and impressive selection of spleleothems, including stalactites, stalacmites, soda straws, and cave popcorn.
Before the Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves were explored in the early 20th century, locals believed they were an entrance to hell and refused to visit them.

Before the Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves were explored in the early 20th century, locals believed they were an entrance to hell and refused to visit them.

4. Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves (Salzburg, Austria)

Eisriesenwelt, which means "world of the ice giants" in German, is the longest ice cave in the world. Available domestic tours lead visitors through several immense ice caves featuring spectacular frozen waterfalls and other magnificent ice formations.

Beyond the initial ice caverns, 25 additional miles of limestone caves reach deep within Hochkogel mountain. These deeper areas of the Eisriesenwelt system are only accessible with permission from the Austrian Government.

What Makes It Stand Out

  • The frozen walls of this formation remain intact year round. Cold winds from deep inside the cave system flow out toward its entrance during the summer months, cooling the chambers and preventing much of the ice from melting.
  • The spectacular ice formations inside the Eisriesenwelt resemble calcite-based spleleothems such as the stalactites, stalagmites, and pillars seen in limestone caves.
Waitomo means "water hole" or "water shaft" in Māori.

Waitomo means "water hole" or "water shaft" in Māori.

3. Waitomo Glowworm Cave (New Zealand)

Part of the Waitomo cave system, Glowworm Cave is so named due to its native population of Arachnocampa luminosa, an insect that is naturally luminescent during its larval stage. Tours of this cave often include a subterranean boat ride that allows visitors to view the hanging glowworms from below while navigating an underground stream.

This cave system formed under an ancient ocean around 30,000 years ago and hosts some of the most impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations in the world. Some of these spleleothems, located in a cavern known as "The Cathedral," reach nearly 59 feet. Formations of this size are relatively rare, as the average stalactite grows only one cubic centimeter every 100 years.

What Makes It Stand Out

  • In addition to its resident bioluminescent glowworms, this cave is home to giant cave crickets, albino ants, and other specialized arthropods whose physiology varies dramatically from their above-ground counterparts.
  • Because it formed in an ancient ocean, fossilized fish skeletons, corals, shells, and other marine remains can be seen embedded in the limestone of Glowworm Cave and the rest of the Waitomo system.
The long, steep descent into the entrance of the Hang Sơn Đoòng cave system prevented locals from exploring the system after its 1991 discovery.

The long, steep descent into the entrance of the Hang Sơn Đoòng cave system prevented locals from exploring the system after its 1991 discovery.

2. Hang Sơn Đoòng (Vietnam)

Also known as Mountain River Cave, Hang Sơn Đoòng is located in Phong Nha-ke Bang National Park. Reportedly discovered in 1991 by locals who were allegedly afraid to enter the cave due to a whistling sound at the cave’s entrance, it gained international attention in 2009 when a group of British scientists explored its depths.

It was revealed that Hang Sơn Đoòng boasts the world’s largest known fast-flowing underground river and contains the largest (by volume) subterranean cavern ever discovered. Its largest chamber is about 660 feet high, 490 feet wide, and over 3 miles long—large enough to hold a city block of New York skyscrapers!

What Makes It Stand Out

  • Like Slovenia's Škocjan Caves, Hang Sơn Đoòng is so large that it has developed an interior microclimate that boasts a contained ecosystem unlike any other on earth.
  • In addition to harboring a 262-foot stalagmite, the sheer vastness of Hang Sơn Đoòng's largest chamber endows it with a spaciousness unparalleled by the world's other great caves.
Deposits of silver, zinc, and lead have all been discovered in the mines surrounding Cave of the Crystals.

Deposits of silver, zinc, and lead have all been discovered in the mines surrounding Cave of the Crystals.

1. Cave of the Crystals (Chihuahua, Mexico)

One of most recently discovered caves on this list, Cave of the Crystals was located in 2000 by brothers Juan and Pedro Sanchez while they were drilling at the Naica Mine. Originally filled with water, the cave was drained to reveal an array of gargantuan selenite crystals growing across its chamber. The largest of these tree-sized crystals is 39 feet long and has a diameter of 13 feet.

The cave's interior, which has since been allowed to re-flood to promote continued crystal growth, was so hot and humid when drained that the mineralogists and other researchers allowed to enter it had to wear refrigerated suits and cold-breathing systems while working in relatively short spurts to avoid passing out.

What Makes It Stand Out

  • Ancient bacteria recovered from inclusions in the cave's crystals have been reanimated for scientific study and do not resemble any other known organisms recorded in the genetic database.
  • While many limestone caves contain calcite stalactites and other subterranean-specific mineral formations, the enormous gypsum crystals that crosshatch this cave's interior are unlike any in the world.

Comments

Julie Maruszewski from Arlington, Virginia on September 22, 2014:

Matthew, I love the vertical shot of the people descending down into Mammoth Cave. Do you mind sharing where you found this image/ photo credit?

mommyneal6 from Illinois on April 27, 2011:

I have some very fond memories of mammoth cave! Nice hub!