Caving In Florida
So you’ve been to the typical attractions that Florida presents and thought that you had seen all that Florida had to offer? Wrong. Would you believe it if you were told you could go caving and see some of the most incredible cave formations in the country? Would you be as surprised, as I was, to hear that this could be done just a few hours’ drive from the big park attractions or either coast? Not only is this possible but it can provide for a fantastic trip that people of all ages may enjoy.
Nestled in the panhandle area of Florida, about an hour from the state capital, Tallahassee, lies the Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna. It is home to a spectacular 1,300-acre state park that borders the banks of the Chipola River. The park boasts not only the river with spring-fed water, but also floodplain forest, swamps, hardwood and mixed forests and all varieties of flora and fauna. Despite all these attributes along with kayaking, swimming and if you bring your horse, trail riding, the major draw to this park is its caves. One particular cave system is accessible through guided cave tours given by a knowledgeable team of park rangers.
To access the cave you must walk along a paved path a short distance from where you gather for the tour near the visitor center. Once at the end of the path you then descend a small stairway to a locked door that is inset in the cave entrance. As soon as the ranger opens the door you are met with a cool breeze emanating from the cave. The caves stay at a constant 65 degrees regardless of the temperature outside. Once your eyes adjust to the reduced light of the electric lights inside the cave, the tour then takes you through over 1,600 feet of twisting caverns filled with a spectacular display of cave formations such as stalactites (the formations on the ceiling) and stalagmites (the formations rising from the cave floor), as well as mineral draperies, flowstone, rim stone pools and incredible columns. As you progress you descend 55 feet below the surface and the passageways twist around all varieties of cave structures. One part of the cavern is called the wedding room – not because it is where actual nuptials take place, but rather because formations look like a wedding cake and other formations nearby have the likeness of an organ. Other unique natural creations take on the shape of a duck in the Donald Duck room, or are pools formed in the shape of South America. Some passageways are very narrow and have low ceilings that require you to crouch to walk through them. Although not claustrophobic for most, there are emergency exits available that can be taken along the route if visitors start feeling uncomfortable. Because of these narrow passageways large bags, backpacks and child carriers are not permitted.
Throughout the tour the rangers point out stunning formations, describing how they were formed and how they continue to grow and change. Although visitors are not allowed to touch any of the growths so as not to damage them, there is one exception – a column near the midway point of the tour that the public is permitted to touch and allows the experience of the cool, damp feel of the ever-changing cave structures.
There are other oddities that can be viewed along the way, such as the occasional small and elusive cave bat. One can even view shells and sand dollars embedded in the cave ceilings and walls. As if those weren’t odd enough at one point an ancient shark’s tooth can be seen protruding from the ceiling. The ranger giving the tour explains these ocean relics are present as a result of the whole area being part of the ocean floor prior to the sea level dropping, exposing the Florida we know today. He further explains that water flowing through the limestone bedrock eventually created cavities and caverns, resulting in the ever-changing caves of today. Stamping his foot on the ground indicating how hollow it is, he demonstrates that in fact there are even more caverns below the passageway.
The caves are full of history, including having been a refuge for Native Americans from the oppressive heat of the summers and a refuge for the Seminole Indians during the Seminole Wars. Another part of the history of the caves is evident while wandering the passageways. There are porcelain bowls cemented to the ceiling throughout the tour. These were placed there by workers of the Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps when they worked to widen and raise the passages, making the caves more accessible to the public. They would turn their lights up to the cemented bowls to create a wider, more even light while they worked. Other evidence of their hard labor includes the unique all stone two-story visitors center with its gift shop below and its displays and exhibits above.
Once the 45 minute to hour-long tour has ended you can hike trails of varying lengths and difficulty. One trail leads you to a cave that you can explore without a guide. It’s a tunnel cave that extends for about 100 yards. Daylight is visible from either end and makes for a fun passage for kids of all ages. A bypass is available for the less adventurous. While on the trails pay attention to cool drafts, as they will indicate nearby openings to the cave system and can be fun to discover.
Once done with all the cave and trail exploring you can enjoy a cooling dip in the spring- fed swimming hole and a picnic by the river. It is the perfect ending to a perfect day of caving in Florida.
Florida Caverns State Park Tour Information:
Guided Cave tours are offered Thursday through Monday (excluding Thanksgiving and Christmas Day).
Tours can be purchased at the visitors center that opens at 9:00 a.m. (remember this area is in Central time, unlike Tallahassee) and tours are limited to 25 people. Availability is on a first-come, first-served basis with reservations only available for groups of 25 or more.
0-2 years free
3-12 $5 plus tax each
13 and up $8 plus tax each
Directions to the park from Tallahassee are as follows:
Take I-10 west approximately 63 miles and take exit 142. Go 5.2 miles and turn right on SR-166 (Jefferson St., which becomes Caverns Road). Follow the road in and get information from the gatehouse.
The Address is:
Florida Caverns State Park
3345 Caverns Road
Marianna, FL 32466