No, this story isn’t about some secretive form of hiking that’s hidden from the public eye. It’s literally about hiking underground, also known as spelunking or caving.
Southern Illinois is full of karst environments, some of which require you to crawl into depressions or put on a harness and repel down inside. Unfortunately, many of them have been closed in order to protect bats, which were contracting White Nose Syndrome.
Illinois Caverns State Natural Area, a 6-mile-long system located near the town of Waterloo, was one such location. However, scientists presented evidence that White Nose wasn’t a threat to the bats there anymore, and the state’s Department of Natural Resources has recently opened the caverns to the public again.
Caves are Unique Ecosystems
I’ve seen some amazing things in nature while hiking through a dense wilderness, but a cave environment really tops everything. The rock formations are truly unique: stalactites that grow down from the cave ceiling and stalagmites that sprout up from the floor.
Have you ever been deep in the backcountry on a cloudy night with no light pollution? Without a flashlight, it can be one of the darkest places you’ll ever experience. But if you venture into a cave and turn off every light, you’ll discover a blackness like no other. It almost makes the hair on your arms stand up.
My initial visit to Illinois Caverns was in 2022. It was my first wild caving experience, and I was terrified. But I faced my fears and went through it — and fell in love with the sport.
That first visit was during such a severe drought that the Mississippi River was experiencing severe consequences. Creeks were dried up. Plants were dying. Animals were probably in bad shape, too. But the underground ecosystem was thriving! There was more water in Illinois Caverns than I knew of anywhere on the surface. (Of course, most caves have natural springs that keep them wet.)
Illinois Caverns also presented my first underground waterfall-chasing experience. There were multiple cascades, including one I had to climb down only to jump into chest-deep water. The second time I went, we decided to turn around at this waterfall to avoid getting into the deeper pockets of water in the cave.
There’s definitely life in Illinois Caverns. We saw tiny shrimp-like critters called Illinois Cave Amphipods. These little things are federally endangered but seem to thrive in the caverns. We also saw a variety of salamanders, worms, and bugs, as well as plants and fungus. We spotted one bat the first time we visited and none the second time.
How to Explore the Illinois Caverns
Illinois Caverns is very much a wild cave. Before visiting it in 2022, the only other cave I’d been in was at Round Spring Cave in Eminence, Missouri, where a National Park Service Ranger led our tour and we didn’t have to bring that much. Illinois Caverns is not guided. You climb up and down ladders, get soaking wet, and even have to squeeze through some tight areas.
It would be hard to get lost in Illinois Caverns, because the main cave goes straight through and doesn’t branch off. However, there are side passages. Most of them stop at some point, and you’ll have to turn around and go back to the main cave. Just follow the water upstream (opposite of the water flow) if you get turned around.
At least three portable lights like flashlights and headlamps and extra batteries are required. You’re also required to be in a group of four or more people. As stated above, it’s fun to turn your lights off and witness the absolute darkness. Then, imagine not having any lights. It puts a primal fear in you.
You’re going to get wet from head to toe, so I recommend getting waterproof bags for your batteries and things you don’t want to get wet. I also recommend a waterproof phone case. Don’t bring an expensive camera. Do bring plenty of water to drink and a snack. Remember to leave no trace.
Take a change of clothes with you. As mentioned, you’re going to get dirty and soaked. Depending on how deep you go into the cave, you may end up in knee- or chest-deep water. And the cave is moist and wet throughout. The caverns have a changing room for men and women (and also a portable restroom).
You’re required to wear a hard hat of some sort. I recommend something that straps on your head, like a bike helmet. Aside from that, wear base layers to keep yourself warm. It’ll be around 58 degrees in the cave, and you’ll be getting wet. Some people wear wetsuits. I wore a pair of running tights under my cargo hiking pants and a compression running shirt under a hoodie. You’ll also want to wear sturdy boots; this is no place for tennis shoes.
Illinois Caverns is free to enter. You must sign a waiver, have the proper equipment, and be a part of at least a four-person group. The cave is currently open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from April through October. Keep track of the time while exploring the cave; it’s your responsibility to be out by closing.
Documenting your experience will be a challenge. Caving is more difficult due to the wet conditions. I used a GoPro in a watertight case for video and put my phone in a waterproof case that had touch-screen capabilities to take photos. The cave is dark, so you’ll want to use a bright flashlight to help with illumination when taking videos and photos.
Many people don’t get to experience the caving scene that southern Illinois has to offer, but Illinois Caverns State Natural Area has something to see around every corner. I’ve turned it into an annual tradition that I look forward to every year.
Illinois Caverns State Natural Area
4369 G Road, Waterloo, IL 62298
Author: Shawn Gossman is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.