When people think of Indiana, they usually think of flat, rural farmland. While they’d be correct regarding most of the state, the very southern section is anything but flat. It’s pretty hilly, covered in dense woods, with numerous, extremely large caves and passages located all throughout. Four of the larger, more well-known cave systems in Indiana are: Indiana Caverns, Bluespring Caverns, Marengo Cave, and Squire Boone Caverns. Together, they make up the Indiana Cave Trail. One could technically tour all four in one day; however, it’d be ridiculously difficult. We toured just two – Marengo and Indiana Caverns- and it took us multiple hours.
We first went to Marengo Cave, which is a U.S. National Natural Landmark (try saying that 3 times quickly), and is in a town of the same name. It was discovered in 1883; however, how it was discovered is disputed by the state of Indiana vs. the county of Crawford, although both versions are about a group of young boys and a rabbit. Either way, the cave was discovered and the rest is history.
The cave is open year-round because no matter what the weather is like, the cave stays a constant 52 degrees Fahrenheit all year. Located at 400 East State Rd 64, Marengo, IN 47140, the hours are daily from 9am to 5 pm. You can take two different tours of Marengo, the Dripstone Trail ($20 per adult, $12 per child) and Crystal Palace tour ($17 per adult, $10 per child), which cover two completely different areas of the cave.
The Dripstone Trail is around 1 mile (takes 60 to 70 minutes), and the Crystal Palace tour is only about 1/3 of a mile (takes 30 to 40 minutes). One downside; sometimes you must do some waiting, especially if you get there right after a tour has left. They can’t push tours through at a fast pace for multiple reasons: 1) it’s dark and people walk slowly in the dark (not pitch black by any means, but it is a cave, after all), 2) the groups are large, around 30 or so people, and large groups always move at a snail’s pace, 3) the trail is man-made out of stone and is very easy to walk on; however the elderly and small children still have some difficulty, so it can slow down the pace, and 4) the guide literally stops every 15 feet to explain some type of weird cave stuff to the group (like different kinds of stalagmites and stalactites, and other strange things that grow in caves). It’s educational, sure, but it can become a bit annoying, especially when it’s difficult to hear because you’re in the back.
We were only able to do the Dripstone Trail, because the Crystal Palace Trail had flooded due to hard rain and was closed until that issue was resolved. Like I said above, it’s a very easy walk, and you don’t have to crouch down, crawl, or do any spelunking, and at one point, the cave opens into a huge “room”, called the Music Hall. The guide told us that back in the day, they used to hold concerts in this part of the cave (hence the name) because the acoustics were so good, as well as hold weddings. The first wedding here was documented in 1909, and various weddings have since been conducted. Starting in the 1920’s, preachers would use this cave for sermons (I don’t what it is with early preachers and caves; they also used Cave-in-Rock in Illinois for this purpose). In the 1970’s, they used the Music Hall to put on the play “Oliver”, and even attempted to turn it into a regularly used theater hall, but it turns out that the excitement of viewing a play in a dark, damp, cold, bat-infested cave wears off extremely quickly. Various movies have also been filmed at this cave, including ‘Abby’ (1974) and ‘Fire From Below’ (2008).
Once we were spit out of that cave, it was still early enough to make it to the Indiana Caverns before it closed at 5 pm. We got there just in time for the last tour of the day, and it was literally just us (my friend, her husband, their two kids, and myself) and 3 other men. Indiana Caverns is billed as “Indiana’s longest cave”, takes an hour and a half to complete, and includes a short boat trip. It costs $21 per adult, and $11.50 per child. I was positive that this cave trail was much shorter than the Marengo trail; however, it’s 1/2 a mile longer. Maybe it felt short because it was just us and those 3 guys, so we got a much more personalized tour and were able to talk to and engage with the guide the entire time. It felt less like a school field trip and more like a private tour. Obviously, this is not the norm, and only occurred because we were the last tour of the day, but bear that in mind while planning your tours of the caverns.
Indiana Caverns differs from Marengo Cave in the sense that there is no trail, but rather you are walking on a constructed metal pathway. The floor of this cave varies between water and extremely pointy and jagged rocks and formations. They would have had to destroy a large portion of the cave to make a path on the ground, and that’s no bueno. The metal walkway is of course easy to walk on; however, it does get wet and metal gets super slippery when wet, so be advised (you should be wearing good shoes regardless – I would NOT advise doing any of these caves in sandals or flip flops). This cave is interesting because the guide tells you all about all the various ice-age bones that have been found inside of it, including: the flat-headed peccary (like a wild hog), bears, fishers (a weasel lookin’ creature), beavers, and bison. Apparently, these animals would venture into the cave via a hole at the very top, and since it was pitch black, they wouldn’t see the step drop-off and would tumble to the bottom. If the fall didn’t kill them, they’d eventually starve to death since they couldn’t find their way out. It’s pretty tragic, but at least they left us with their fossils to study, appreciate, and learn from. The boat ride through the flooded part of the cave is smooth and simple, and they only take you a fraction of the way. They offer tours where you can kayak your way through other various parts of the cave, and if I still lived there, I would definitely do it.
If you live within 3 hours of these cave systems, you should probably go check them out. It’s a great day trip, and there are plenty of little towns and restaurants you can eat at in numerous areas. If you’re in the area visiting and have the time, I would certainly give these bad boys a chance. Lastly, if you’re a cave enthusiast, you cannot miss out. I’m no cave expert by any means, so I’m sure there are bigger, better caves in the world, but these are accessible to Americans and much better than your average cave that only goes back 10 feet. Just bring a sweater!