SPRING VALLEY, WI
A road trip to Wisconsin to tour an old cave for an hour and pan for gems for 15 minutes may not be for everyone, but my husband and I both fondly remembered field tripping to Crystal Cave as kids, so it holds memories for us, plus it IS pretty cool. Assuming you’re into that stuff. I’ve never really been one for geology or speleology (don’t worry..I had to Google that too), but even I find this adventure to be quite interesting and definitely unique. And now, as a mom, I’m incredibly impressed with the amount of education they can pack into a one hour underground cave tour. While it is a decent distance from the metro (took us almost 90 minutes from St. Louis Park), where else can your kids walk seven stories underground among iron ore and limestone, dripping calcite crystals, and bats. Yes. Bats. Still want to read on?
What is it?
Crystal Cave is Wisconsin’s longest cave, discovered on accident when a couple of farmboys fell down the cave hole and took it upon themselves to explore it. Now 150 years later, the cave is run by an active couple of cavers who purchased it and continue to expand the exploration inside. It is a popular midwest tourist spot located “in the middle of nowhere” (for lack of a better expression), and has not only continued cave tours and gem panning, but has developed summer camps, birthday parties, field trips and many more group activities.
Crystal Cave is 50 degrees year-round (although it is only open to the public April – October) and is really quite astonishing to look at. The tour takes you through multiple “rooms” (including a wish room, ghost room and fossil room) and there’s been no alterations to the cave to accommodate people other than some wooden steps and a handrail. You will still need to duck to avoid rock headaches and drops of acidic water will drip onto your forehead, and should a bat decide to wake up and fly around you, so be it. It’s their home. You’re just walking through it. Gem panning was a huge hit with my kids and can be done after the tour outside in the field. The staff is excited to teach and discover right along with the kids and you can tell how passionate they are about the subject matter. (If you can, grab a tour with Zeik. He was a self-proclaimed nerd who was super knowledgable and very patient with my kids.)
Fit for what ages?
While Crystal Cave tours are open to all ages, consider the subject and location and know your child’s level for listening to directions and listening in general. A big rule is no touching the cave walls, so that right there probably eliminates bringing toddlers, am I right? 🙂 If I had to put an age on it, I’d say a minimum of six seems fitting for what it is. An hour is a long time for little legs to stand and listen, even though it’s very informational and they do some cool stuff like light up various minerals with a black light and point out rocks with face shapes while telling fables about how they got there. Kids who are easily frightened, scared of the dark or claustrophobic would not be a good fit for this cave. Kids that are intrigued by stories, bats and pitch black will really get in to it. In fact, in one room they turn off the lights and you can literally see nothing…not even your hand in front of your face. And your eyes never adjust. And it’s scary. And awesome. It’s scary awesome! Per usual, just know your kids and their limits and base your judgment on that.
Oh, babies – yes, babies can come. We brought our six month old in a front carrier. No strollers or backpacks are allowed in the cave, but soft front carriers are. Once you’re down there, you’re down there so bring a full bottle, pacifier or whatever else baby will need to survive an hour underground without screaming.
As a field-tripping elementary schooler, I remember Crystal Cave vividly (and that’s coming from a girl who can’t remember what I ate for breakfast this morning). It makes an impression on little minds. There’s no doubt about that.
How much are we talkin?
This was our only knock – it’s not cheap. It’s definitely something to budget in to your summer vacation, but I wouldn’t go repeatedly. You can pay to do the cave tour only, or you can pay a little more for the Prospector’s Package where you add on the gem panning. One child under three is free with each paying adult.
Cave Tour Only:
Youth (4 – 12) 9.98
One child 3 and under is free with each paying adult
Cave Tour and Gem Panning:
Youth (4 – 12) $16.96
Children 3 and under are $6.98
So if you do the math, our family of five (one being a baby who did nothing) cost us more than $60. Not cheap, see? But – and I know I’ve stressed this a lot – it’s SUCH a unique experience!
Admission and gem panning aside, there is also a gift shop where you can pick up a funky souvenir (from t-shirts to bookends to an animal-shaped stone the size of your pinky finger) or grab a small drink or snack. There is also the opportunity to crack your own geode for around $10. Some hold an amazing amount of crystal and would make for a fun take-home memory. Save money by packing a lunch and eating it in their large field or on the nature trail. It really is a beautiful landscape that should be enjoyed by nature-lovers everywhere.
Want some tips?
Bathrooms are located outside the gift shop around the corner or in the basement by the lockers before the cave entrance. And for the love of God, please make your kids do their business before descending into the cave. We got lucky with no emergency potty needs while down there because frankly, I’m not sure what the solution would be in such a scenario.
No reservations are needed. There are many tours going out every hour and, while summers and weekends are quite busy, you can almost always grab a spot in an upcoming tour with little wait time. If it makes you feel better to call ahead, do so before leaving home. We went in May which seemed ideal because it’s not peak “road trip” season yet. I imagine September and October are equally as slow.
Remember that part about it being 50 degrees down there all year long? So dress for it! They’re not joking – it’s cold enough where you’ll regret a stand-alone tanktop, but comfortable enough where a light sweater or jacket will solve the problem. And shoes – wear good, solid shoes. I wouldn’t suggest flip flops or slippery-bottomed soles. You are walking on an actual rock cave floor with water drippings, mud puddles and gravel piles so, yeah, common sense, people. As Daniel Day-Lewis would say, “There Will be Mud.” (Raise your hand if you get that joke…)
If you’re bring a small child, note that no backpacks, carriers that go on your back or strollers are allowed in the cave. There are free lockers to store your goods (I left my purse, our water bottles and car keys behind and felt very safe about it) but you are allowed to bring in bottles if you’re bottle feeding and a camera and/or cell phone. No food or drink are allowed in the cave either so feed kids before entering to prevent the hangry whine we’ve all heard a million times before (and it’ll echo down there, which makes it worse).
Heads up for field trips and bus tours. If crowds aren’t your jam and you plan on going during peak season, consider calling beforehand to avoid them.
On the fence about paying for the gem panning? Do it. It was the highlight of my kids’ time there and they talked about their “crystals” for weeks afterwards. Zeik taught them the names of each gem and got excited right alongside them about rare finds and colorful discoveries. The gem panning takes place outside in Prospector’s Creek and it’s at a height that worked well for even my four-year old. You can also pan for fossils if that’s more their thing.
Crystal Cave Park is built on a very lovely plot of land in Spring Valley that boasts Sinkhole Nature Trail and some great picnic spots to enjoy a sunny day. Forgot to pack a lunch? Have no fear – there’s no shortage of fun food stops in the area.
Couple final notes: Birthday parties are available for as low as $180. A flashlight tour is an option for people age 14+ – you couldn’t pay me enough money to do this tour, but if tight spaces and pitch black are of interest to you, this would be amazing!
Hours and Location
W965 State Road 29 | Spring Valley, WI 54767
Crystal Cave hours are seasonal. Here’s a quick glance at 2016:
- April and May: 10:00am – Last tour departs 4:00pm
- Memorial Day through Labor Day: 9:30am – Last tour departs 5:00pm
- September through October: 10:00am – Last tour departs 4:00pm
- November through March: Closed for the winter
Follow Crystal Cave on their Facebook page to see cool cave stories, photos of funky geodes, hours and visiting ideas, nature photos of the surrounding land, and so much more. It’s actually a really cool page to follow, whether you’re a rock-head or not.