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If Wisconsin's unusually balmy winter was any indication, this summer could be one sizzler of a season. Should that prove true, it's wise to have a reliable backup for the central air-conditioning. You could lay in plenty of straw for the icehouse and a goodly stash of beer and lemonade. But for the ultimate in cool – for rock-solid, steady, stable temperatures guaranteed to relieve the heat – TRAVELER recommends a trip down under...ground.
Though not as famous as Spain's Altamira or Kentucky's Mammoth, Wisconsin's caves offer ample spelunking adventures for wannabe troglodytes and experienced cavers alike. The vast damp caverns and unusual mineral formations created by the dissolution of limestone over time have thrilled visitors for generations, and in some caves new chambers and passageways continue to be discovered.
Spelunking requires a minimum of equipment: A simple flashlight, gloves and a pair of knee pads for those moments when you'll be slithering from point A to point B. Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt or sweatshirt for warmth and to protect your skin from scrapes. In the larger, more established caverns equipped with lights and walkways, you need dress only for the cool temperatures.
A good place to start is Ledge View Nature Center in Chilton. The center offers two guided cave tours: A two-hour, narrated walk-in tour, and an "adventure tour" that will have you crawling on all fours and wishing you hadn't left those knee pads in the trunk. Walk-ins climb down ladders to reach two cave rooms. The adventure group shimmies down a 7-foot rock shaft, then crawls through "The Squeeze" – the entrance to Mother's Cave. You'll crawl and crab-walk more than 300 feet en route to two different caves. Ledge View offers cave tours Memorial Day through Labor Day on weekends only, at 1 p.m. For a schedule, or to make reservations, call (920) 849-7094 or visit Ledge View Nature Center.
Crystal Cave in Spring Valley first came to light in 1881, when local boy William R. Vanasse poked a stick through a leaf-filled hole and saw it disappear into the ground. More than 100 years later, spelunkers found a new section of the cave. Today the three-level Crystal is recognized as Wisconsin's longest cave. Stairs and ramps lead to lighted passageways and chambers. One-hour guided summer tours leave approximately every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Labor Day. (715) 778-4414. See Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions for a fall schedule.
The Cave of the Mounds takes its name from Blue Mounds – two blue hills that have long been landmarks in southwest Wisconsin. Blue Mound State Park covers the West Mound; the cave is located at the base of the East Mound's southern slope. Although the area around the cave was settled in the late 1820s, the cave itself wasn't discovered until 1939, when a dynamite blast from a nearby quarry revealed a limestone cavern more than twenty feet high. Dramatic lighting brings out the splendor and eerie beauty of the cave's ribbon stalactites, "lily pads," helectites and cave pearls. In 1988, Cave of the Mounds was designated a National Natural Landmark by the US Department of the Interior. In summer, hour-long tours leave every 15 minutes from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through Labor Day. See Cave of the Mounds for additional dates, or call (608) 437-3038.
Other underground destinations to add to your spelunking itinerary include Eagle Cave near Blue River (608/537-2988) and Kickapoo Indian Caverns in Wauzeka, (608) 875-7723. If you like the idea of being more than six feet under, you're not alone: the Wisconsin Speleological Society invites you to learn more about caves at Wisconsin Speleological Society or by writing Bob Bultman, P.O. Box 151, Baileys Harbor, WI 54202.