CALIFORNIA, Sequoia National Park’s Crystal Cave – If you’ve never explored a marble cave that was carved and polished by underground streams, has been draped with ribbons of stalactites, and padded with sparkling puffs of stalagmites, you won’t want to miss spectacular Crystal Cave on your visit to Sequoia National Park.
However, you should be forewarned: Unlike many popular sites in National Parks today, Crystal Cave is not a “drive-in” attraction. It is not wheelchair- or stroller-accessible. And just getting to it in time for your tour can be surprisingly complicated. So before you, or any friend of mine, sets out to explore this geologic treasure, please be sure to read these important tips so you can be as prepared for your visit as possible.
1. You cannot buy tickets to enter Crystal Cave at the cave itself.
Tickets for the cave tours must be purchased at Recreation.gov (click here for the Crystal Cave booking page), and you must commit to a tour time in advance. Late arrivals for tours will not be accommodated, and refunds or rescheduled tours are not an option. With that in mind, be sure to read the next point about timing.
2. You MUST plan 1 hour 15 minutes (minimum) to get from Lodgepole Visitor Center to the entrance to the cave.
This includes about 45 minutes’ drive that will take you well off the General’s Highway down numerous narrow hairpin curves on which I ultimately found best results using low gear.
Once parked at the trail head, you must check in and “sanitize” your shoes (and any camera that has been used in other caves over the past 5 years) at the top of the trail. Then, you can begin the approximately 15-minute steep decent down the trail to the cave’s entrance, where your guide awaits.
Note: As mentioned above… there are NO refunds for missed tours. Check at the visitors center for road construction issues!
3. Don’t wear any clothing or shoes that you’ve worn in a bat-inhabitated cave in the past 5 years.
Seriously, it’s a rule here in order to protect the bats from a disease that can be carried into the cave even on clothing you’ve laundered several times. (Previously-caved camera’s they’ll allow after a sanitizing wipe-down.) Click here to learn more about the White-Nose Syndrome affecting bats.
4. The hike back up after your tour is steep and HARD for many, many people.
In addition to an approximate 400 ft climb, this is at over 6,000 feet elevation and the air is thinner than most of us are accustomed to. Still skeptical? I can tell you that, for us, hiking up Moro Rock the following day was actually much easier than hiking out of Crystal Cave.
Those in poor health should really think twice before attempting the tour because of this, but those who are up to a good uphill hike, and accommodating their weary tots along the way as needed will no doubt enjoy the walk and views of waterfalls along the lower portions of the trail (yes, I got to hoist an extra 32 lbs. of toddler much of the way, myself! And I won’t tell you what the camera weighs…).
5. You MUST bring your own drinking water to Crystal Cave.
There is no potable water available in the parking area or anywhere near the entrance, except for what bottled water might be available for purchase at the tiny portable gift shop (yes, it’s on wheels). Even sinks for hand-washing have been removed from the restroom area here to eliminate confusion among tourists about whether or not it was drinkable.
Bring plain, unflavored water with you on the cave trail. Any flavored water, sports drinks, or other beverages will not be allowed in the cave.
6. A few bear-proof storage boxes are located at the edge of the parking lot.
You may (and should!) use a locker to store any food and beverage items, or scented toiletries you may have with you during your tour rather than keeping them in your car.
7. Baby backpacks are not allowed on the tour through the caves.
Because anyone over 5 feet 5 inches tall runs the risk of bumping their heads on the tour in certain areas, and some “key hole” passageways require even children to turn sideways and squeeze through while ducking, they just wouldn’t work here.
Guides did share with me that those parents using soft front-pack carriers or slings for babies should be accepted, as long as they allow you to lift and shift your small load as needed.
8. Bulky regular-size backpacks (daypacks) may be rejected for the tour for the same reason.
Mine was. Fortunately, I was able to use the waist-pack I had stuffed inside instead.
9. Photography is allowed in Crystal Cave, though tripods are NOT.
And neither are walking sticks, so you’ll have to be extra clever in getting your low-lighting shots. 😉
In spite of all the hoops to jump through to gain entrance into Crystal Cave, and the tough walk back up after our tour, we were all very, very glad we made the effort. The resting area at the bottom of the waterfalls was especially nice, and we were delighted to find our own waterfall waiting for us there!
Other helpful information about visiting Crystal Cave with kids:
The basic Crystal Cave tour is 45 minutes, and tours run mid-May through Mid-November, weather permitting. Current prices for the Family Tour are: Adults $16, kids 5 to 12 $8, kids under 5 years $5.
Four additional tours are available for visitors 13 years and older, including a 1.5-hour Discover Tour and a 4- to 6-hour Wild Cave Tour for ages 16 and older (expect to get dirty–and an even better workout than the standard tour!).
For more information, visit the NPS Crystal Cave page or go to www.visitsequoia.com. For information about what to do on your family’s visit including information on Sequoia National Park’s nearby Wuksachi Lodge, see my Sequoia National Park with Kids Family Vacation Guide.
You might also like:
Sequoia National Park with Kids – Family Vacation Guide (at FamilyTravel411.com)
Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning Travels with Baby guidebooks
Visit FamilyTravel411.com for vacation inspiration!
An earlier version of this article first appeared August 30, 2012.