I've recently learned that Crystal Onyx Cave is under new ownership and they are redoing all of the stairs, rails, lights, etc, so the cave is currently closed. They are working hard to bring it back to beautiful (and safer!) condition in the next 3-5 years. They have a lot to do, but are determined to bring this jewel back to the public. For the latest info, you can find them on facebook. We look forward to going back as soon as it's open!
Central Kentucky, also known as "Cave Country," is home to Mammoth Cave National Park, which is an awesome place. The whole area is dotted with other caves you can visit.
One of the less well-known caves is called Crystal Onyx, and it is quite possibly the prettiest in the region. It is privately owned and operated by a local family, so they keep it more low-key, but that makes it a friendly, homey place to visit. Also it is the state's most important archaeological site- prehistoric human remains were found at the bottom of one of the cave's vertical shafts. According to the story told by tour guides, the owner of the land scouted the hill for caves, and in 1960, he found an entrance. After tying himself to a rope and lowering himself down over 80 feet, he found himself in a cavern rich with formations of crystal onyx, which is called so for its alabaster appearance. The explorer knew he'd hit paydirt and waded in knee deep water for 50 yards before he realized the sticks he kept bumping into were human bones. Then he was up the rope faster than he came down.
Originally scientists thought the bones belonged to a Native American culture about a thousand years ago, but in the last decade, they determined they are over 3000 years old! Archaeologists have very few clues about life in North America in those times, so Crystal Onyx Cave provided a wealth of information. After being studied, the remains were returned to a deep, remote part of the cave that is not accessible on the tour. Your tour guide can fill you in on the details.
Tours are roughly an hour long, and I say roughly because they can last longer if you ask your guide lots of questions. Our guide was very knowledgeable about how the cave was formed and what all the formations were made of and how they formed. As a family run facility, they are more flexible on the hours- if a decent sized group arrives after the last round is done, you can probably sweet talk them into another tour.
Locating Crystal Onyx Cave is theoretically easy- it's on most state maps. Just exit at Cave City at the big dinosaur land attraction, and head east away from it. Keep your eyes peeled for signs and don't be afraid when you turn up a steep hill on a narrow gravel road and end up here:
This is where you want to be. You can register and pay for your tours (about $13 per adult, $7 per child) and shop in the gift shop and use the restrooms. Also if you arrive and the place looks closed when it should be open (8am-6pm June 1 to August 1; 9am-5pm August-May), just wait around a bit, the employees are probably all down in the cave or the campground. I've seen that the camping here is rated highly for the area, but I get the feeling it's more for the "roughing it" types. You can hike all over the hills, too.
We didn't bring Miriam down (she stayed topside with Gramma), it would have been a little rough on her, but other people brought little ones and had no problems. There are some tight squeezes and low ceilings, but nothing major. Actually it would have been rougher on us with having to watch her plus Nicholas and Natalie. Temperatures below the ground are a constant 59 deg, so dress a little warmly. You'll probably get dirty, so don't wear your best shoes or jeans. Spring is also the wettest time, and some of the formations are less impressive at that time of year.
Looking back at the main stair ending
Natalie at the rimstone dams
One thing you'll get at Crystal Onyx that you won't at a major place like Mammoth Cave is opportunities to cram into tiny side caves. One in particular is really only accessible to kids by the tour guide handing them a flashlight and lifting them up into the ceiling. They can go in their own little room that fits maybe 5-6 at a time (I remember this as a kid). Nothing scary up there, but not for kids afraid of the dark or closed spaces.
Sam looking out of the roof room.
Almost the entire cave is packed with formations that are few and far between in other local caves.
Random kid and the "Melting Wedding Cake" Formation
Looking back up the main vertical shaft.
The "Waterfall" Formation
Can you see the cave's "Guardian Angel"?
Tell 'em we sent ya!