Subterranean Adventure at Cathedral Caverns State Park

Stalagmite formations are ever-present in Cathedral Caverns.
Stalagmite formations are ever-present in Cathedral Caverns. faungg
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The wonder and serenity of Cathedral Caverns State Park has inspired generations of curious explorers. Since the 1950s, the cave system in Marshall County has been a popular tourist destination and quickly established itself as one of the premier cave locations in the United States; by 1972 it was declared a National Natural Landmark. And in 1995, it was chosen as the location to film the cave scenes in _Tom and Huck, _an on-screen adaptation of the famous Mark Twain novel.

Today, Cathedral Caverns State Park makes for a fascinating subterranean adventure for eager spelunkers, families, and anyone who appreciates seeing what's below the ground we tread upon. One of the largest commercial cave entrances in the world—25 feet tall by 128 feet wide—offers an intriguing taste of what lurks inside this sprawling cave system: a behemoth stalagmite, massive stalagmite forest, and river, just to name a few. Add in year-round 60-degree temperatures (a bonus during stifling Alabama summers), echo-chamber soundscapes, and the absolute darkness that occurs when the underground lights go out, and you have the recipe for an adventure you won't soon forget.

Ready to experience Cathedral Caverns State Park for yourself? Here, a guide to exploring this fascinating subterranean landscape.

What You'll See

Visitors gather at a scenic viewpoint on the Cathedral Caverns tour.
Visitors gather at a scenic viewpoint on the Cathedral Caverns tour. faungg

The caverns are only allowed to be explored via a guided tour (more info below). Tours start outside the caverns, and it's a remarkable first impression: Cathedral Caverns has what is thought to be the single largest commercial cave entrance in the United States. The staggering largess of the cave opening (25 feet by 128 feet) sets a tone of wonder for what's to come, and the otherworldly features and formations within.

Stalagmites are present throughout. These long, mineral-rich formations are created by groundwater dripping on the ceilings and floors of caves over geological periods of time. Not to be confused with stalactites (which form from the top down), these formations rise up from the floors of caves. Since the two are often confused, tour guides often refer to a helpful mnemonic system for distinguishing them: the “c” in “stalactite” corresponds with “ceiling”, while the “g” in “stalagmite” corresponds with “ground.” If a stalactite and stalagmite meet, they form what is known as a column.

The caverns contain a large grouping (some three acres) of these mineral formations, known as a stalagmite forest. In addition, two prominent stalagmites have garnered names of their own: “Goliath,” which is one of the largest recorded formations of its kind in the world, measuring 45 feet tall and 243 feet in girth; and the “Improbable Stalagmite,” which is only three inches in diameter but rises up from the floor 25 feet.

A Mysterious River

Cathedral Caverns is also home to underground bodies of water that add another layer of wonder to the experience. As with any cave system, water plays a major role in carving and sculpting these rock formations over time. It is one of the three necessary ingredients in the formation of a cave.

While walking along the well-lit pathways on the cave tour, take note of Mystery River, which helped form the cave system. The river is prone to flooding during periods of heavy rainfall due to limited outflow, but at its calmest, it gives the illusion that the cave ceiling is doubled in the reflection. The echoes of slowly dripping water provide a singular, almost eerie soundscape.

Another notable water feature found within the Cathedral Cave system is what's known as the “frozen” waterfall. It's not an actual frozen body of water (the cave temperature stays approximately 60 degrees year-round); instead, the rock formation has captured the image of flowing water over many, many years. The optical illusion gives viewers the impression of flowing water frozen in time.

Activities and Accommodations

Cathedral Caverns features fascinating geological formations.
Cathedral Caverns features fascinating geological formations. Marshall County CVB

The cave system, while impressive in its own right, is not the only landmark worth visiting on a trip to Cathedral Cave State Park. The state park is housed on 493 acres, with campsites and hiking trails, plus primitive, developed, and backcountry camping as well.

Tours at Cathedral Caverns are offered daily year-round; admission is $18 for adults. Each tour is approximately 90 minutes; prepare to walk for 1.5 miles. A tour guide is required to access this cave, although there are significant sections that extend beyond the reach of the commercially accessible pathways.

If You Go

  • The park is also within driving distance to other area attractions such as DeSoto State Park, Marshall Space Flight Center, and Lake Guntersville.

  • Cathedral Caverns is a two-hour drive from Birmingham and a 30-minute drive from Huntsville.

  • Walkways are well-lit within the cave, but it's recommended to wear sturdy shoes with some grip.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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