It is not always easy to go exploring in the underworld with the youngest members of the family. It's dark, cold and damp and there are guaranteed to be spiders and, in the worst case scenario, even one or two big and nasty trolls! However, we have found some delightfully dark adventures deep in caves and lava tunnels that the whole family loved – places guaranteed to be safe from goblins (but not spiders)!
To bear in mind when it comes to all visits to the underground, is that the temperature is between 5-13 degrees all year round and that the paths are often steep. So a fleece jacket and good hiking shoes are a must.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park - New Mexico, USA
Deep beneath the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico lies the world's best family-friendly caving adventure – the GIGANTIC cave system of Carlsbad caverns. Hike 250 meters underground on the steep 2km Natural Entrance trail, then take the 2km underground tour through the 'Big Room' and admire the illuminated stalagmites and stalagtites before taking the lift back up to the surface.
Strollers and walking sticks are prohibited, so only family members who can walk on their own and have strong knees should enter the cave. It is possible to hike out of the cave as well and skip the elevator, but for the younger family members, it is often quite enough to hike in one direction only.
After you are done hiking, the evening's adventure awaits you. In the evening sun, the park's visitors gather in a large amphitheater at the entrance of the cave to wait for the sunset. It's barely dusk before the first bat quickly flies out of the cave to head out for the night's hunt for insects. After the first ventures out, the show begins. Thousands upon thousands of bats swirl up in the evening sky like a great black cloud. Up to a million bats can live in the cave, so it can take a few hours before the last bat ventures out. Even Broadway can't put on a better show than this.
(See also large image above – can you see the people?)
The salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria
The world's oldest salt mine is located in the mountains at beautiful Hallstatt, just south of Saltzburg. The only way to visit the mine is via a popular 1,5-hour guided tour, which through interactive exhibits takes you back 7000 years in time and learns about how salt began to be extracted from the rock.
Hike right into the mountain, ride 60-meter long wooden slides between the various mine shafts, visit an underground lake, then speed out of the mine on the old mining train. 1,5 hours of action simply. There isn't a kid who won't love this adventure! The fact that you also learn something about geology and archeology at the coup is a bonus.
During the summer, it is absolutely necessary to book the tour in advance. It is suitable for all children over 4 years old with sturdy shoes and enough courage to dare to ride the slide at 30km/h.
Grottes de Vallorbe, Switzerland
Sometimes you stumble upon real nuggets just by luck. Grottes de Vallorbe in the Jura Mountains is one of our lucky banana peels. We had no idea about this place, but how can you resist a sign about a cave? And what a cave it turned out to be!
The cave's hiking trail is excellent and you get to experience the limestone cave both through beautiful lighting and music. No guided tour is needed, you can walk the cave yourself in about an hour. The cave is suitable for everyone in the family who can walk alone, but you have to cope with a large amount of stairs. Strollers are not allowed.
The highlight of the hike is the underground river at the bottom of the cave and the interactive sound/light show that you will be happy to see several times. Once back at the surface of the earth, there is an interesting exhibition about minerals and precious stones that most children who like glitter will appreciate.
Mount St. Helen's Ape Cave Lava Tube, Washington state, USA
About 2000 years ago, lava flowed from Mount St Helens. As the surface of the lava slowly began to cool, a tunnel was formed where the lava continued to flow inside. When the volcanic eruption finally subsided, the tunnel walls remained. In total, more than 4 kilometers of lava tunnels remain here today Ape Cave.
During the summer months, there are guided tours in the lower tunnels. Although you can venture out on your own, the caves are not lit and you need to bring at least three light sources to go down into the cave. Given that "Ape caves" are said to have been named after Bigfoot, which is said to have been seen several times in the area, it is probably best to bring enough light sources and good running shoes down the tunnel...
The lower lava tunnels are not too strenuous and therefore suitable for the whole family, but prams are not allowed. The upper lava tunnels are much more hilly and you need to climb over large rocks to get there, so save that trip for the teenagers. Lanterns can be rented during the summer months. The tunnels are not suitable for children who are afraid of the dark, because it is VERY black down in the tunnels.
Chillagoe caves, Queensland, Australia
The cave in Chillagoe could have been the model for the Phantom's Skull Cave. Here in the limestone cave in the Australian outback, you will not only find stalagmites and stalactites, but also lots of exciting animals. Bats, pythons and large spiders appear wherever you shine. Given that Australia is jokingly referred to as "the only country in the world where all animals want to kill you", the heart rate increases a little extra when you almost accidentally poke a large spider.
There are several different walking tours for those who want to explore the caves on their own, but we recommend that you book a tour with a park ranger. However, the tours are not for the very little ones, as they contain over 400 steps and several ladders. Also, it is not good to be claustrophobic, as some passages of the tours involve crawling/crouching through narrow gaps.
Also take the opportunity to look at the historic Aboriginal rock paintings and the "balancing stone" before you leave here.