They say that beauty is only skin deep, but in Alabama – which is known for its natural beauty in its mountains, canyons, gulf coast beaches, and its thousands of miles of lakes and rivers – that beauty goes far below the Earth’s surface.
Just north of Birmingham, the state has a fascinating geologic history that begins over 250 million years ago when an ancient ocean once covered the land. Eventually, the ocean receded, the crustaceans that called the water home were literally high and dry, forming a deep bed of limestone.
As the water flowed away and the land pushed upward, sinkholes and caves were formed including two of the most impressive in the state – Cathedral Caverns and Rickwood.
Both caves are now part of the Alabama State Park system, giving visitors an opportunity to safely view the breathtaking landscape Mother Nature has left behind – spectacular stalagmites, stalactites, underground lakes, and more.
Cathedral Caverns State Park
Located just north of Lake Guntersville in the town of Woodville, Alabama, Cathedral Caverns was originally opened to the public in the 1950s as a privately-owned attraction. The state purchased it in 1987 and opened it as a state park in 2000.
The state renamed the cave “Cathedral Cavern,” a more appropriate name due to the stunning cathedral-like rock formations found inside making this an incredible vacation destination that shouldn’t be missed.
1. Tour The Cavern’s Wonders
The main attraction at Cathedral Caverns is, of course, the cavern itself. The cavern’s entrance will take your breath away. It measures a staggering 126-feet wide, 25-feet tall, and is believed to be the largest such entrance at a commercially operated cave in the world. While impressive, the entrance is nothing compared to what is in store for you as you step inside.
The 90-minute guided tour takes you into the depths of the cavern where decorative lights illuminate the incredible scene below the Earth – a rock formation that looks like a frozen waterfall, a stalagmite forest, a gravity-defying stalagmite that is 27-feet tall but only 3-inches wide, and the big showstopper – Goliath, one of the largest stalagmites in the world, measuring 45-feet tall and 243-feet in circumference.
Best of all, the cavern is a perfect outdoor destination during the sweltering Alabama summers. The cave maintains a constant 60-degree temperature year-round.
2. A Nice Walk In The Woods
Over 5 miles of hiking trails ramble through the 493-acre park, all of which interconnect to make a couple of nice loop hikes through the woods like the moderately difficult 2.5-mile long Yellow and Green Trail Loop that takes you to Pisgah Mountain.
The trails are adequately blazed and are easy enough for the entire family. The trailhead is located only about 500 feet past the turn to the cavern and visitor center on Cathedral Caverns Road.
3. Cathedral Caverns Trail Runs
The hiking trails at Cathedral Caverns offer more than just a walk in the woods. They are also popular trail running routes, especially in November when the park hosts the annual Cathedral Caverns 5K and 15K Run.
The run begins with the beautiful Woodville mountains and pastures as the backdrop for inspiration but then becomes something totally unique. While most of the run is over traditional dirt footpaths, the last 1.2-miles is an out-and-back run into the cave itself. It is a magnificent way to end the race as you run through the tunnel, the decorative lighting illuminating the way.
Details on the run including registration information and maps can be found on the TrailRunner website.
4. Gem Mining
There is something exciting about panning for gemstones. You just never know what you might find. You can become a prospector yourself and discover what treasure is waiting for you at Cathedral Caverns.
You can purchase a bag or bucket of dirt ranging anywhere from $6 to $50. Each bag is tagged with a label telling you what you may find in the dirt. Take your bag and a panning tray to the specially designed water flume where you sift through the dirt. Who knows what you might uncover – maybe fossils, maybe seashells, or maybe rough-cut gemstones.
The Gem Mine is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
5. Cabins, Camping, And Backcountry Camping
If you would like to spend more than a day visiting the cavern, the park offers plenty of lodging options.
The park has 25 full-service campsites complete with 50 amp power, water, and sewer hookups.
If you like to tent camp, there are 11 improved sites with power, water, a fire ring, and a picnic table. All sites have plenty of distance between them to give you some privacy.
For those of you who like something more rugged, Cathedral Caverns has five primitive campsites with no power or water and two backcountry sites where you pack in what you need for the night. It’s about three-quarters of a mile hike to the sites.
And if you would rather stay in something with solid walls, there are four very nice cabins, one of which is ADA accessible. The non-ADA cabins have two bedrooms, a kitchen with fridge, stove, and microwave, TV, A/C and heating, and more.
The ADA cabin is packed with amenities including a queen size bed that is easily accessible by wheelchair. The same goes for the kitchen with wheelchair-accessible counters.
Cathedral Caverns State Park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. There is no park admission fee to hike the trails, but there is for gem mining and the cave tour.
Cave tour times vary, so visit the park’s website for the latest schedule and prices.
Reservations for the guided cavern tour are not required but recommended. You can make a reservation up to two days before your visit by phoning the park at (256) 728-8193. Your reservation is non-refundable, but the good news is that rain never cancels the tour. Be sure to check in 15 minutes before the tour.
Rickwood Caverns State Park
The cave at Rickwood Caverns State Park isn’t called the “Miracle Mile” for nothing. This incredible underground world was formed over 260 million years ago when an ancient ocean began to recede, cutting into the limestone and leaving behind this amazing mile-long natural wonder for us to enjoy and one that makes a memorable vacation destination.
Geologists call Rickwood a “living cave.” That’s because the cave is still a work in process as water continues to seep down the walls and from the ceiling, continuing the process of stalagmite and stalagmite building. It is also the home of the blind cave fish and a variety of frogs and salamanders.
6. Tour The Cavern
Guided tours of Rickwood Caverns begin inside a stone building and head steadily down under the Earth’s surface for a mile to a depth of 175 feet.
The lit walkway winds through the cavern taking you past tranquil underground lakes, nature’s natural artistry in the many flows and rock formations you will pass, and the most dramatic formations in the cave – the gigantic floor-to-ceiling stone columns called the Frozen Castle and Bridal Column.
It is a rather long walk, so for those of you who have mobility issues, Rickwood Caverns has set up a virtual reality cave tour that is led by one of the Boy Scouts who helped develop the cave as a tourist destination. The VR tour is free.
7. Wonderland Under The Warrior
Beginning the weekend before Thanksgiving, Rickwood Caverns is transformed into a magical holiday spectacle with the rock formations lit with over 100,000 lights and Christmas characters.
The Wonderland Under the Warrior tour of the lights is a self-guided tour but has been cut down in length making it easy for people with mobility issues to marvel at the beautiful scene.
At the park’s nature center and gift shop, you can sip on hot cocoa, purchase unique holiday gifts, and visit and have your picture taken with Santa Claus.
Wonderland tours run from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. with a $12 admission fee.
8. Swim In The Spring Water Pool
Just like Cathedral Cavern, Rickwood maintains a constant temperature of around 60 degrees year-round. But once you leave the cave in the heat of summer, you may want to take a dip in the park’s Olympic size swimming pool that is filled with cool spring water from the cave.
The pool has a low and a 12-foot-tall diving board and an 8-foot-tall vortex slide for a little excitement.
Pool admission is $7 for ages 5 and up and is open throughout the summer until Labor Day.
9. Hiking The Fossil Trail
Rickwood has four short (but fun) trails that are easy walking and suitable for the entire family. Be sure to check out the Fossil Trail, a fascinating 1.25-mile-long hike through a rocky landscape. Keep your eyes peeled for ancient fossils embedded in the boulders.
There is a small entrance fee of $3 for adults and $2 for children 5 to 11. While the park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., guided cave tours are scheduled throughout the day. Visit the Rickwood Caverns website for times and the current price schedule.
Reservations for the Wonderland Under the Warrior event are suggested. Admission always sells out.