Every year well intentioned people do untold damage to our caves in the National Park system. Part of our human nature is the need to touch something to make it real. The oils on your skin will bond to the delicate formations if you touch one. These oils prevent the mineral rich water that drips through the active parts of these caves from bonding to the formation, which can kill a formation. No matter how tempting, you should never touch any of the formations in a cave.
Caves are a wonderful environment for algae, molds and, mildews which also can cause tremendous damage to a cave and their formations when exposed to light. Never take any kind of food, candy or gum into a cave. If you leave these behind in a cave environment they can serve as a bed for damaging plant life to form. Further, caves are the homes to hundreds of unique species of amphibians, insects, and mammals. Our foreign food products are a tasty but forbidden treat for these dwellers after the tours have gone through and the lights have gone out.
You should never smoke when you are in a cave. The atmosphere is very delicate and the hundreds of toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke can cause tremendous damage. You also should not use dip or snuff when in a cave. Finally, you should never explore any cave untrained and unescorted. Caves in the wilderness are very tempting to explore. Very specific training and tools are required to enter and explore a cave safely, and every year very skilled cavers are killed in accidents exploring the deep recesses of these underground marvels. If you lose your source of light when your in a cave ill-equipped, the hypothermia that sets in from the cold damp conditions can kill.
There are some things you can do to improve the quality of your cave tours whether you are at a national, state, local or private run facility. Most caves will take advanced reservations. Caves like Jewel and Wind in South Dakota can have three hour waits. Caves like Timpanogos in Utah can sell out for the day by 10:00 AM. Call your destination in advance and make reservations if they accept them (Jewel & Wind don't).
If the cave you are planning on touring does not take reservations, try to arrive on the first tour of the morning. The 7:00 AM tour at Timpanogos can be a private event, while the 10:00 AM tour may comprise of more than 20 people. Make sure you are well fed, hydrated, and go to the bathroom, even if you don't have to, before the tour starts, there are no soda machines or privies underground!
Some caves offer programs for handicapped people. Special trails that will accommodate wheelchairs, escorted tours, scripts or sign language for the deaf, even descriptive tours for the blind are available at some facilities. You can call ahead to the cave you are planning to visit to get more specific information.
If you have young children you should also call ahead. Some tours will allow strollers, while others due to steep trails, steps, or narrow/low passageways will not. In rare cases, some caves will not allow children under five to even participate in the tour. Parental discretion is always advised and you should try and gauge what your child can, and can not do.
Going caving can be an excellent alternative if the weather conditions don't allow outdoor plans. The weather is always the same underground. Dark, damp and cool await you, and a cave tour can be an excellent escape from the summer heat. Caves are not just holes underground, but a complex ecosystem with incredible formations that defy gravity begging to be explored. The United States Park Service is fortunate to have some of the longest cave complexes in the world, and with a little preparation, you can explore them safely, and comfortably, and be left with the desire to explore more of their murky depths.