Tours inside of caves: beauty below ground

Take out a ruler, draw a rectangle that’s 12 by 18 inches and imagine crawling through it. That’s the wiggle room you’ll have when touring a part of Mother’s Cave, which is in Ledge View Nature Center, near Chilton (Calumet County).

Wisconsin has about 250 caves, but only five sites are open for public tours – or, in Ledge View’s case, crawls. They are considered small, by generic cave tour standards, because glacier movement and melting long ago collapsed, filled or eroded the ones that were bigger.

Cave of the Mounds, Blue Mounds (Dane County) is the state’s best known; it is a National Natural Landmark.

Tourists are much more likely to walk on the ground and stairs instead of crawl through these spaces, with electrical lights as a guide instead of flashlights. Regardless of which cave is visited, the temperature is around 50 degrees during any time of year.

The underground rock and cavern formations are glistening wonders, worthy of gawking and even a bit of claustrophobia, but serious exploration is pursued, too. The Wisconsin Speleological Society (people who explore and study caves) has two chapters, in Madison and Green Bay.

Society members have discovered new cave passages and sometimes work to link one to another. They and a similar group from Minnesota show up almost weekly at Crystal Cave, which has been open for tours since 1942. It is near Spring Valley (Pierce County).

In 1991, Crystal became the longest cave in Wisconsin. That’s thanks to the discovery and work of the speleological groups and the cave’s owners, Blaze and Jean Cunningham, who are geologists.

They bought the cave 18 years ago – “you buy a cave just like anything else,” Jean says – but her sentimental attachment dates back 35 years, when she was a teenager who worked there.

Jean says the cave would be open for business all year, were it not for the 450 to 600 bats that winter there. Two types – the eastern pipestrelle and the northern myotis – are species of concern, a category that is two steps away from being endangered.

Two other species, the little and big brown bats, also make their homes in the cave – or its gift shop.

One-hour tours of Crystal Cave are offered daily, through October. It is designed for kids to senior citizens; visitors walk on well-lit paths as they descend 70 feet. There also is a picnic area, gift shop and a place to pan for gemstones. For more, go to www.cavern.com/crystalcave or call (800) 236-CAVE.

For more about Ledge View Nature Center, call (920) 849-7094. There are three caves, and visitors are advised that they’re likely to get dirty. Mother’s Cave is the only one that requires crawling throughout the tour. Carolyn’s Caverns and Montgomery Cave also can be toured; steps and ladders, flashlights and lanterns will make this a rustic experience but less challenging physically.

Tours take two to three hours; they are offered on most weekends from April to November. Group reservations can be made for other days. Also on the grounds is a tower to climb, hiking trails, nature activities and exhibits about bats and sturgeon.

Cave of the Mounds, at www.caveofthemounds.com and (608) 437-3038, is open almost all year, but the operation is abbreviated in winter. The attraction was discovered by accident in 1939, when quarry workers used dynamite to blow apart limestone. The blast uncovered an underground tunnel that led to caverns and mineral formations.

Today the site is easy for the public to view. There also is a picnic area, walking trails, snack bar, gift shop and visitor center.

Kickapoo Indian Caverns and Native American Museum, Wauzeka (Crawford County), is described as an old Indian shelter that is a showcase for onyx, plus unusual rock/mineral formations with great names: Majestic Cathedral Room, Frozen Waterfall, Mysterious Catacombs.

It is an attraction designed for multiple generations to enjoy, and open from mid May to mid October. For more, go to www.kickapooindiancaverns.com, (608) 875-7723.

Eagle Cave Natural Park, Blue River (Grant County), is the state’s largest known onyx cave and open for tours from Memorial Day to Labor Day. After that, it’s open for in-cave camping, particularly by youth groups. There also are hiking trails and fishing nearby. For more, go to www.eaglecave.net or (608) 537-2988.

For more about speleological societies and caves that are open for tours, go to www.caves.org.

The longest cave in the world is Mammoth Cave, which has about 360 miles of known passages and is part of a national park in south central Kentucky. To learn more, go to www.mammoth.cave.national-park.com or (270) 758-2328.

Caves are measured and hyped in all kinds of ways. To see how complicated it can get, go to www.showcaves.com.