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Have you heard of spelunking? I hadn’t until a few weeks ago, but now that I’ve taken a deep dive into everything underground, I’m fascinated. Here’s a look at this adrenaline rush of a hobby and some of Alabama’s most awe-inspiring caves.
What is spelunking?
If you’re like me, I had no idea spelunking was a thing. Little did I know that it’s a huge community of folks who like to explore the unexplored.
In a nutshell, spelunking is a recreational exploration of caves. Unlike caving, though, spelunking is a hobby, not a recreational sport.
Before you get too excited, it’s important to do your research before you take part in spelunking. While there are family-friendly, easily accessible caves, there are also caves that require professional equipment and rappelling down hundreds of feet. It gets pretty intense and is not for those who are claustrophobic. Not to be dramatic, but inexperienced spelunking can lead to major injuries, getting trapped underground or killed. Yikes!
Alabama caves—there’s a ton!
When it comes to caves, Alabama is a hotspot with over 4,200 caves according to the Alabama Cave Survey in 2007. And that’s only counting those that have already been discovered.
Due to Alabama’s geology and the fact that most of the state was once under water during prehistoric times, there’s an entire network of unexplored underground spaces right beneath our feet.
Before we get into where to go spelunking around Birmingham, let’s take a look at one of Alabama’s coolest caves with an even cooler background.
What at first looks like your typical cave was actually one of Alabama’s hippest places—albeit illegal. Intrigued? I thought you might be.
Located in Blount County, Bangor Cave was the site of an underground (literally!) speakeasy club and casino during prohibition until Alabama governor Bibb Graves ended the party.
Although the nightclub was only open for a year and a half, it was easily one of the coolest spots in the area. With a bar carved straight from the stone and the adrenaline from partaking in something forbidden, who wouldn’t give it a go.
The bar officially closed in 1939, and since then, it has unfortunately fell victim to vandalism and littering. Bangor Cave was recently purchased by someone who wishes to restore it to its natural beauty. It’s currently not open to the public since it’s private property. However, we hope that it’ll eventually be open to explorers.
Where to go spelunking around Birmingham
Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge
Fern Cave is the ideal spot for experienced spelunkers. Located in Decatur, Fern Cave has various entrances. One is naturally submerged while another is an ongoing roosting site for vultures. This being said, you’ll want to choose your entrance wisely.
Before you go, make sure to get your permit. We don’t want anyone unknowingly disturbing the cave’s endangered species.
This one is not for spelunkers who are afraid of heights.
Located in Fackler, AL, Neversink begins with a journey into a sixteen-story sinkhole lined with rare plant species and mini waterfalls. It’s supposedly one of the most photographed sinkholes in the US, and after one look at it, it’s pretty obvious as to why.
The Southeastern Cave Conservancy owns the cave and makes sure those who make the trip down follow their guidelines. Before you head down, make sure you’re experienced, have a permit and respect the vulnerable bat population as well as plant species.
Tumbling Rock Cave
Say hello to one of Alabama’s biggest caves that stretches over six miles long. With a 400-foot tall shaft called the Topless Dome, it’s hard to miss. Not only that, but with an impressive amount of stalactite and stalagmite formations, you’ll almost feel as though you’ve landed on a different planet for a moment or two.
Tumbling Rock Cave is a popular spot considering its ease to navigate. It’s a constant 58 degrees so it’s the perfect adventure year-round. The next time that you’re in Jackson County, give it a try.
This one is for the adrenaline junkie. A two-mile trail through a forest will lead you to an enormous cave with stunning views. The cave opens to a 143-foot pit with one of the most Instagram-worthy views in Alabama. You may even catch a waterfall if you go at the right time of year.
Stephens Gap is protected and preserved by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, so it’s extremely important to note that you need a permit to visit this preserve. Apply here for free.
Looking to go down the road MORE traveled?
If you still want the thrill of exploring the amazing caves Alabama offers, but don’t have the experience, equipment and willingness to take the risks, these caves are probably more your speed.
Cathedral Caverns State Park
Cathedral Caverns, originally dubbed “Bat Cave,” has a massive entrance that’s over 126 feet wide and 25 feet high. It’s home to one of the largest stalagmites in the world called “Goliath.”
Cave tours are available and the cave is wheelchair accessible. Book your tour here.
In September, some of the team, including myself, headed underground to explore Desoto Caverns. It’s just a short drive from Birmingham and has a guided tour complete with a light show.
Located in Warrior, AL, Rickwood Caverns is a trip through millions of years and was carved from an ocean bed well before our existence. It maintains a temperature around 60 degrees so it’s the ideal family adventure all year-round. The state park is complete with camping, playground, gemstone mining and more.
I saved this one for last for obvious reasons. Where else are you going to find a restaurant built into a cave? Located in Tuscumbia, the Rattlesnake Saloon serves appetizers, burgers, sandwiches and more, all while guests can relax in an atmosphere like no other.