How To Go Caving at Illinois Caverns

Are you planning to go caving at Illinois Caverns this year?

Illinois Caverns recently opened back up to the public a few years ago after being closed to help protect the native bat population from White Nose Syndrome, a disease that’s killing bats.

The Illinois Caverns are unlike cave systems that you’d go to at a National Park or guided spelunking trip. Visitors of Illinois Caverns must know what they’re getting into before they go.

I’ve been to Illinois Caverns, and it was an amazing trip. But I do want to make sure that you know everything that you need to know before you go caving at Illinois Caverns State Natural Area.

For directions, dates of operation, and important information – see the official Illinois Caverns website.


Before You Go Caving at Illinois Caverns

Before you go caving at Illinois Caverns, it’s important to understand a few things.

First, this is a self-guided adventure meaning no one can show you around the cave system. You need to know what you’re doing before entering the caverns. You should always go with someone who has been there and knows what they’re doing the first few times you visit.

Illinois Caverns is a wild cave. This means that very few artificial engineering controls are meant to make your adventure easy. There are no lights. There are no tour guides. There are no ranger stations within the cave. If you get lost – you’ll remain lost until you find your way out, someone else finds you, or you must be rescued by emergency personnel.

Before you go caving at Illinois Caverns, you must understand that you’re doing it at your own risk. It’s free to do it, but you must sign a required waiver, or you don’t get to enter. You must follow the rules of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), or you don’t get to enter. It doesn’t matter how far you drove, either. These rules are there to protect your life.


What to Bring with You for an Illinois Caverns Trip

There are some things you have to bring with you when you go caving at Illinois Caverns.

You must bring three sources of light per person. You should also bring extra batteries for each source. The last thing you want to do is be stranded in the caverns without a light. You’d never make it out with being rescued.

You must bring a hard hat. This is required to enter the cave. You can wear a bicycle helmet if you want to. You must wear closed-toed shoes or boots. You can’t enter the cave with flip-flops or sandals. It would be hazardous to do so.

Bring a waterproof phone case because the cave will be very wet. There is no phone reception in the cave.

Bring plenty of water and some snacks. Bring enough to last you for a while, just in case you did get lost.

When I went, we were having a historical drought in southern Illinois. However, the cave was wet and had no drought conditions whatsoever. The water was cold, and it stayed cold all year long. It’s in the 50 degrees area. It’s a good idea to wear layers or water-resistant clothing.

I wore a pair of running tights under my hiking pants, an insulated running shirt, and a rain jacket. I saw other cavers wearing wet suits. Wear slip-resistant footwear because you’ll often get on a wet rock when you go caving at Illinois Caverns.

Bring a change of clothes (they provide changing rooms at the site) because every part of your body will get wet.


Whom to Bring with You to Illinois Caverns

You must bring three other people with you. A group must have four or more people with them.

There must be at least one adult for every five minors.

You cannot go caving at Illinois Caverns if you don’t meet this requirement.

You should bring something who has been there before and knows what they’re doing, or you can face getting lost or hurt.

If you can hire a cave guide, that might be a good idea. I do not provide guided caving services at this time. Guides must have permits from IDNR and insurance, or I wouldn’t go with them.

Always tell someone at home where you’re going before you go and when they can expect you to return home.


How to Explore Illinois Caverns

Starting at the main entrance (at the base of the stairs), follow the route that takes you down into the cavern system. You’ll go down a few sets of stairs, a ladder, and across a creek.

Follow the main cave system to avoid getting turned around. If you get turned around, look at the direction of how the water is flowing. The direction the water is flowing (not to) is the direction back towards the start of the cave.

If you explore the side passageways, they will eventually stop, and you’ll simply turn around and return to the main cave system.

We walked about 1.5 miles before turning around. We had got to a point where everything was underwater, and it appeared to be deep.

The cave is said to be six miles in length. Just make sure you note the time because there is a closing time. There are no camping or overnight activities allowed in the cave.


Illinois Caverns Safety Information

As I mentioned before, Illinois Caverns is a wild cave meaning there is nothing in place to give you an easy guided experience like you would see at a National Park-managed cave experience.

Understanding some safety tips is important before you go caving at Illinois Caverns.

Your personal protective equipment is critical to your safety and well-being.

The cave is the darkest thing you’ll ever experience if you shut off all your lights. There are no sources of light throughout the cave at all. There are no artificial lights installed either, not even for emergency situations. If your lights fail to work, you’ll be stuck until someone finds you.

The passageways are extremely rugged and completely uneven. Deep pockets of water, drop-offs, holes, hazardous rocks, and very uneven pathways exist. Trying to navigate this in the dark would be impossible.

Some areas where water is within your passageway may be deep. There were a few times I got into water that was over my waist. I’m 6’5″ tall. People who are shorter in height may experience the water at a much deeper rate.

Some portions of the cave will require you to army crawl through tight squeezes, but for the most part, I could walk standing back without having to duck. The hard hat is important because there are some areas where you will hit your head if you’re not thoroughly watching.

Watch where you step. There are many tripping hazards, slick spots, and some areas with deep water.

If you get lost, stay where you are and wait for someone to find you. You might have to be rescued. If so, stay put, and people will notice that you haven’t returned. Make sure you sign in and sign out before you leave.

If you encounter wildlife such as a bat, don’t attempt to handle or harass it. Bats are protected species in Illinois. Harassing them can result in a fine and even jail time.

Stay hydrated and stop and eat your snack.


I hope this guide has helped you better understand what you need to know before you go caving at Illinois Caverns. If you did and you want to support me in writing it, consider making a small donation or supporting me monthly if you desire to. Subscribe to my free email newsletter for more guides, tips, and hiking resources.

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Shawn Gossman

Shawn Gossman

Founder, Hiking with Shawn

Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman

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