Florida Travel: Welcome to Florida Caverns State Park
By Lauren Tjaden
Florida Caverns State Park promises an expedition into stunning caves that stretch deep beneath a slice of northwest Florida, a journey through time that winds past a rare rimstone pool, graceful soda straws, shimmering calcite and cave bacon; formations that have grown bit by bit over thousands of years. Accompanied by the melody of dripping water, you’ll move through spacious rooms with names like Fat Man's Squeeze, the Wedding Room, and the Cathedral, all hallmarked by endless chisel marks chronicling the efforts of 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps workers.
And that’s just the beginning of the 1,300-acre sanctuary’s allures, a nature lover’s paradise that baptizes the senses with wonder.
A trip to Florida Caverns State Park delivers:
-a excursion into an ancient, underground palace hidden five floors beneath the earth, with a tour guide to reveal its secrets.
-adventures that include cycling, horseback riding and hiking, where you can view natural wonders that include floodplains, sinkholes, rivers and karst topography.
-boating on the gloriously wild Chipola River.
-campsites for RVs, tents and even equestrians.
-an outdoor game called ‘geocaching,’ where you employ hand-held GPS devices in a high-tech treasure hunt.
-paddling and canoe rentals on the Chipola River.
-a gift shop and concessions.
-picnic facilities with tables and grills.
-a Visitor Center and Museum.
While the cavern tour itself takes less than an hour, you should allow at least half a day to enjoy the park’s other activities and exploring the museum and visitors center. You can easily stretch out your visit to fill a day, or if you camp, even make it a multi-day adventure. The park is open 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Distance from Major Cities
Florida Caverns State Park is located 68 miles and about an hour west of Tallahassee in Marianna; 230 miles and about three hours 20 minutes west of Jacksonville; 58 miles and about an hour northeast of Panama City, and 136 miles and about two hours east of Pensacola.
Rules, Physical Demands and What to Expect on a Guided Cavern Tour
Before your tour begins, you’ll be briefed about rules, safety precautions and physical requirements needed to participate. You must be on a tour to enter the caverns.
There aren’t age requirements for the cavern tours, and children ages two and under are free, but be aware of the physical requirements.
Backpacks, walking sticks and infant back carriers aren’t allowed.
There are no handrails in the caverns, and you’ll need to stoop multiple times to pass through areas with a ceiling height of 4.5 feet for distances as far as 15 feet; traverse narrow passages; descend 50 steps (or possibly ascend 50 steps if the tour is modified due to high water conditions); navigate slippery walkways; and respect the importance of not touching anything inside the fragile cave environment.
The tour, approximately 45 minutes long, begins with walking 350 feet to the cave entrance and down 35 steps using a handrail. When you enter the caverns, it will take a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dim lights. And you might want a sweater-- the temperature is 65-degrees year-round.
The tour moves at a leisurely pace through a dozen cave rooms and covers about a quarter mile. You’ll learn about the cave's history, its early uses, and see fascinating geological formations that include stalactites, stalagmites, columns and flowstones-- including those in the Wedding Room, home to formations that look like a giant wedding cake and large pipe organ, and another with a rimstone pool shaped like South America.
Visitors occasionally encounter cave inhabitants such as bats, mice, cave crickets, salamanders, cave spiders and the odd snake or frog. If you decide you’re uncomfortable, there’s an escape route out of the cave about midway through the tour.
As the tour winds up, you’ll ascend a 15-degree walkway, emerging into a hardwood forest and enjoy a self-paced walk back to the visitor center.
The park asks visitors to please remember that flowers are for everyone; insects bite; trails have wet areas; and moving water is dangerous.
If you’d rather experience the cave tour from the comfort of the theater, a video of it and the hiking trails before Hurricane Michael are available in the museum of the Visitors Center.
Tickets for Guided Cavern Tours
Guided cavern tours tickets aren’t included in the price of admission to the park.
In high season, from Memorial Day (the end of May) to Labor Day (in September), they’re offered seven days a week.
Off-season cavern tours, from Labor Day to Memorial Day, are offered five days a week, Thursday through Monday. Off-season tours aren’t available Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
You can purchase guided cave tour tickets in person at the Florida Caverns Gift Shop. Tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 9 a.m. CST. A limited number of online reservations may be made at the Florida Caverns Gift Shop.
Words to the wise:
- Arrive early - cave tickets may sell out in advance, especially on weekends and holiday. The park opens at 8 a.m.
- Parking is limited.
- High water levels in the Chipola River can close some or all of the caves. Be sure to call in advance.
The park has men’s and ladies’ accessible restrooms, with ramps for wheelchairs as needed as well as accessible stalls, in the following locations:
- The visitors’ center
- Blue Hole
- Hickory Pavilion
- Sweet Gum Pavilion
This unique limestone structure was constructed from locally sourced materials and was completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1942 as a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal project.
A museum is located upstairs in the visitor center, featuring exhibits showcasing historical, cultural and natural resources. Visitors can watch an entire guided cave tour on a video screen inside the museum.
The Sinkhole and Bumpnose multiuse trails, 1.1 miles and 6.8 miles accordingly, are accessible to cyclists, equestrians and hikers, winding past geological marvels that include floodplains, sinkholes, rivers and karst topography.
Trail maps are available at the ranger station upon request.
Helmets are recommended for all cyclists and horseback riders, and Florida law requires helmet use for anyone age 16 and under.
The park closes at sunset and visitors must exit the park by that time, so plan accordingly. The park recommends that you bring water, snacks, insect repellent, a trail map, whistle and cellphone on the trails.
Boaters can kick back with a leisurely trip along the river, and anglers can fish for bass, catfish, sunfish, and mullet. The park’s boat ramp is sited between the park entrance station and the family camping area. Because of water levels and possible underwater hazards along the Chipola River, it’s recommended that only small boats launch from this area. Traveling south under the bridge from the boat ramp isn’t recommended, nor are large boats.
Rent a canoe to explore the scenic Chipola River, lazily curving past trees, limestone caves, and an abundance of wildlife such as herons, alligators and turtles. Half or full-day canoe rentals are available at the Florida Caverns Gift Shop, 850-526-2650. Traveling south under the bridge at the boat ramp isn’t recommended.
Blue Hole Spring rises to create the Blue Hole swimming area, a deliciously chilly way to cool down during the hot summer months. The spring water is usually clear during periods of low rainfall. A floating dock extends over the spring vent, providing access to the swimming area, while two bridges on the north and south reaches of the swimming area provide opportunities to try and spot wildlife and soak up the soul-soothing scenery. The swimming hole is about 35 feet deep, and no lifeguards are on duty, so swim at your own risk. Because it’s close to the Chipola River, the swimming area occasionally has dark water or may close due to river flooding.
In this outdoor game, you use a hand-held global positioning system (GPS) device to find caches, some simple to locate and some more difficult. This inexpensive, interactive, high-tech treasure hunt provides a thrilling search and teaches geography. Geocaching should have minimal impact to the environment and conscientious land-use ethics should be followed. Check out the Operation Recreation GeoTour.
The Hickory day-use area is home to a small playground, complete with a slide, swings and pull-up bars. It’s ideally situated close to the Hickory Pavilion and its restroom facility.
This 1,500-acre park boasts 38 campsites for both RVs and tents. All sites are within a short walk or bike ride to the Blue Hole day-use area.
The 32 campsites in the Blue Hole camping area are equipped with 30/50-amp electricity, water, sewer hookups, a picnic table, an in-ground grill and a fire ring.
The three RV/trailer campsites and three primitive tent campsites in the equestrian camping area have all amenities mentioned above, but don’t include sewer hookups. The maximum RV length in the equestrian camping area is 40 feet. Use of a communal dump station, sited at the entrance to the youth camp, is free for park campers. Stables are available for equestrian campers.
Equestrians need to bring proof of a negative Coggins for each horse, and horses are restricted to trails.
- Restrooms with showers are available in both camping areas.
- Pets are permitted in accordance with the park’s Pet Policy.
- Maximum RV length for the Blue Hole Campground is 32 feet.
- You can make reservations up to 11 months in advance. For reservations, visit the Florida State Parks reservations website or call 800-326-3521 or TDD 888-433-0287.
Guided cavern tours are offered seven days a week from Memorial Day (the end of May) to Labor Day (in September). Off-season cavern tours, from Labor Day to Memorial Day, are offered five days a week, Thursday through Monday. Off-season tours aren’t available Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
December and January are the coldest months in Marianna, with highs in the low 60s; while May through September are the warmest months, with highs in the upper 80s and low 90s. April, May, September and October are the months with the least rainfall. Here are more weather details from U.S. Climate Data.
Accessibility for Disabled Travelers
Florida Caverns State Park is committed to providing a variety of amenities accessible to all of its visitors. These amenities include:
- Visitor center and museum with a full audiovisual guided cave tour video.
- Concession and gift shop.
- Picnic facilities with tables and grills.
- Service animals are welcome in all areas of Florida State Parks.
- All restrooms have ramps where needed for wheelchairs as well as accessible stalls.
Florida Caverns opened to the public in 1942, five years after being discovered by Oliver Chalifoux, a National Park Services geologist who crawled through a sinkhole beneath a fallen tree to discover this fantastical underworld.
Beginning in 1938, for four years a team of Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Projects Administration workers – both born from President Roosevelt's New Deal, established to provide jobs to men during the Great Depression-- toiled for $1 a day to expand a crawl area into space ample enough for visitors to transcend.
The so-called ‘Gopher Gang’ was assigned to crawl underground to map the cave, design walkways, and string electrical lights.
The cavern floor is etched with evidence of the young men's work – ridges that make trekking less treacherous. Overhead, several of the workmen's white dinner plates remain cemented to the cavern's ceiling, where they were placed to enhance the light from bare bulbs.
With chisels and picks, they labored through the limestone, creating passageways-- some narrow, some low, but sufficient to allow visitors into a space that would become Florida's only underground caverns open for tours.
Florida Caverns State Park was officially opened to the public in 1942. You’ll find the men’s work throughout the park: products of their labor include the Visitor Center that houses the gift shop and museum, a 9-hole golf course, and the remnants of a fish hatchery.
Food and Drink
The park's concession is located below the historic visitor center in the Florida Caverns Gift Shop. Refreshments are available for purchase, but there’s no restaurant in the park.
You can pack a picnic, and you’ll find five picnic areas are located throughout the park. Tables and grills are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For pavilion reservations, please call the ranger station at 850-482-1228.
Just outside the park, Mashawy promises to satisfy, serving up Mediterranean-Greek-American fusion cuisine and garnering top reviews. In Marianna, a whopping six minutes away, eateries include Wharf Casual Seafood, delivering dishes like fried green tomatoes and blackened snapper tacos; and San Marcos Mexican Grill, offering favorites like fajitas, burritos, rice, and beans; as well as chain restaurants like Beef O Brady’s and Ruby Tuesday.
Places to Stay
Jackson County accommodations are mostly centered at the interchange of Interstate 10 and Highway 71 in Marianna, with multiple choices. For a stay steeped in southern hospitality, stay at The Hinson House Bed and Breakfast in Marianna’s Historic District, or bring the whole family for a getaway at Millstone on the Millpond. Both RV and tent camping is popular and abundant, with sites in state parks, centered around the caverns, and geared towards anglers.
After the Adventure
Other things to do in Jackson County include:
- Cultural and historic attractions, like a self-guided walking tour of the Marianna Battlefield, an infamous clash that resulted in more than 25% of the male population of Marianna being killed, wounded or captured.
- Jackson County’s AgriTourism Trail, offering u-picks; farmers’ markets; farm-to-table goodies; produce stands; and two creameries, Southern Craft and Ocheesee, both serving up made-from-scratch ice cream. Maps are available at the Visitor’s Center in Marianna.
- Outdoor recreation, from blockbuster fishing to horseback riding, birding and sports.