At first glance, cave tours don’t appear to be the best choice for wheelchair-users and slow walkers. After all, caving usually involves climbing down stairs, navigating steep pathways or even scurrying up and down ladders. That said, where there’s a will there’s a way as far as access adaptations are concerned. So if you’ve always wanted to explore the wonders down under, but thought that caving was impossible, then check out one of these wheelchair-accessible caves.
With over 5,600 caves, it’s no wonder Missouri is nicknamed The Cave State. And Fantastic Caverns, which is located north of Springfield, tops the list for wheelchair-accessible caves. Accessible parking is located near the visitor center, with barrier-free access to the gift shop, tour desk and accessible restrooms. And after you buy your ticket, you can just sit back and relax on a barrier-free tour of America’s only ride-through cave.
Fantastic Cavern tours are conducted in wheelchair-accessible jeep drawn trams. There is ramp access to the trams, and wheelers can stay in their own wheelchair, or transfer to a seat for the 55-minute narrated tour. The tram follows an ancient riverbed and gives visitors a great look at some of the magnificent stalactite and stalagmite formations in the cave.
Geologically the cave is quite diverse, as it’s also filled with tufa, soda straws and a variety of fossils (including a shark tooth); but by far the highlight of the tour is the historical interpretation. Discovered by John Knox and his hunting dog in 1862, the cave housed a speakeasy during Prohibition and served as a concert venue in the 1950s and 1960s. And with a plethora of owners over the years, there have been a variety of cave tour promotions — some of which were more successful than others.
Fantastic Caverns is also a great place to cool off on a hot summer day, as it has an average temperature of 60 degrees. And since it’s open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas, there are plenty of opportunities to explore this underground wonderland.
Wind Cave National Park
Located about 55 miles southwest of Rapid City, this South Dakota cave makes a great Mount Rushmore side trip. Although the cave is a gem it itself, the scenic drive along Highway 385, which is flanked by open range, is an added bonus. Keep your eyes peeled, as it’s not unusual to spot bison alongside — or even in — the road.
Accessible parking is located near the visitor center, with ramp access to the front door. Inside there’s barrier-free access to the ranger information desk, ticket counter, interpretive exhibits and gift shop. Accessible restrooms are located near the information desk, and there’s also elevator access to the lower level, where additional exhibits are located.
The standard tours are not wheelchair-accessible due to stairs and narrow passageways; however a modified accessible tour is available. This private tour begins in back of the visitor center and travels along a level pathway past the natural entrance to the elevator building. From there the elevator takes visitors over 3,000 feet down to the cavern, where the Lakota Indians believe the entrance to the spirit world is located. Named for the barometric system which pushes air out of the natural entrance, Wind Cave is different from other caves in that it lacks the traditional stalagmite formations. Instead it boasts box work and cave popcorn, which the ranger points out along the tour.
All in all it’s an interesting and educational tour, and since it’s a private tour it can be tailored to specific interests. And although the wheelchair-accessible cave tour is usually available on a walk-up basis, it’s best to make a reservation at (605) 745-4600 to avoid disappointment.
Last but not least, be sure to check out Kartchner Caverns if your travels take you through Southern Arizona. Not only is this recently discovered underground cavern filled with pristine formations, but the pathways were designed to be wheelchair-accessible.
There’s plenty of accessible parking outside the discovery center — where you get your tour tickets — with barrier-free access to the building. Inside, there’s a small gift shop, a snack bar and a number of interpretive exhibits.
The Big Room Tour and the Rotunda Tour are good choices for wheelchair-users; however wheelchairs and scooters must be less than 30-inches wide, and under 40-inches long. If your mobility device exceeds those dimensions, loaner wheelchairs are available. Walkers, strollers and crutches are not permitted in the cave, but canes with a rubber tip are allowed.
The tours begin with a tram ride up to the cavern entrance, in a wheelchair-accessible open-air tram. From the tram stop, there’s level access to the cave entrance. Inside, the cave has paved pathways with railings, and plenty of benches to sit and rest along the way. Although there are a few steep sections along the tour routes, alternative accessible viewing points are available. Additionally, the tours are pretty slow paced, with many opportunities to stop and rest.
Kartchner Caverns is a popular attraction, and although same-day cave tours are sometimes available, it’s not uncommon for them to sell out. Best bet is to make advance reservations at (877) 697-2757. Additionally, plan to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to your tour to check-in and stow your valuables in a locker.