What is the Largest Known Cave in the World?
Caves have fascinated humans since the dawn of time. Early humans used caves for shelter and ancient peoples left behind cave paintings and artifacts that give us a window into prehistoric life. Even today, caves capture our imagination as sites of adventure, mystery and scientific discovery. But what is the largest known cave in the world? Let’s explore some of the top contenders for this title.
Son Doong Cave – Vietnam
Currently ranked as the largest known cave passage in the world, Son Doong Cave is located in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh Province, Vietnam.
History and Discovery
Son Doong Cave was first discovered in 1991 by a local man named Ho Khanh. He ventured into the cave entrance but did not fully explore it at the time. In 2009, members of the British Cave Research Association conducted a survey of the region and explored portions of the cave. It was not until their return expedition in 2010 that the team fully explored the mancavia and realized its record-breaking size.
Son Doong Cave is enormous by any measure. The main passage stretches for nearly 4 miles (6.5 km) and reaches heights of 650 feet (200 m). The largest chamber has a floor area of over 1.5 million square feet (140,000 sq m) and ceilings that tower up to 500 feet (150 m) high. In total volume, Son Doong is estimated to be 38.5 million cubic meters – large enough to accommodate a Boeing 747 with room to spare!
In addition to its immense size, Son Doong contains remarkable geological features. Massive cave pearls up to 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter dot the floor. Giant cave formations including stalagmites and stalactites abound. Curtains of calcite hang from the ceilings. Sections of the cave roof have collapsed, creating sky light openings that allow vegetation to grow inside the cave. Truly a wonder of nature.
Mammoth Cave – Kentucky, USA
With over 400 miles (650 km) of surveyed passages, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, USA holds the record as the longest known cave system in the world.
Use of Mammoth Cave traces back some 5,000 years to prehistoric native peoples. In more modern times, saltpeter was mined from the cave in the 1800s for gunpowder production. Tourism started in the early 1800s and guided tours have been offered since 1816, making it one of the oldest tourist attractions in North America.
The longest single cave passage within Mammoth Cave is called Mammoth Passage and stretches for over 35 miles (56 km). The tallest chamber is Mammoth Dome rising to a height of 196 feet (60 m). With multiple levels, Mammoth Cave has a vertical range of 379 feet (116 m) from its highest to lowest points. New discoveries and connections continue to be made, revealing ever more extensions of this vast subterranean realm.
Calcite crystal formations such as stalactites and stalagmites decorate much of Mammoth Cave. Rare gypsum flowers and angel hair also exist in remote parts. So too do cave bacon, cave popcorn, and flowstone deposits formed by mineral-rich waters. While not as large as Son Doong, Mammoth Cave contains a greater diversity of cave formations within its vast network of passages.
Carlsbad Caverns – New Mexico, USA
Famous for its stunning underground chambers, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, USA is another contender for largest cave based on some measurements.
Early Native American peoples knew of the caves, followed by guano miners in the 1800s and early American explorers. Carlsbad Cavern became a national monument in 1923 after publicity over its large chambers. National park status came in 1930 along with increased tourism.
The largest single chamber is called the Big Room, with a floor space of 14 acres (5.7 hectares) and a volume of 37.2 million cubic feet (1.1 million cubic meters). The chamber’s ceiling towers 255 feet (78 m) overhead. The overall cave has a depth of 1,027 feet (313 m) and a length of 30 miles (48 km) when all its branches are included.
Carlsbad Cavern contains over 119 caves formed by sulfuric acid dissolution of the surrounding limestone rock. The caves are home to spectacular draperies, soda straws, stalactites, stalagmites and columns. The abundance of cave formations here rivals those found in renowned caves around the world.
From the vast caverns of Son Doong in Vietnam to the intricate tunnels of Mammoth Cave and the grand chambers of Carlsbad Caverns, these cave systems demonstrate nature’s underground wonder on a massive scale. Yet with new discoveries happening all the time, the next record holder may still be out there waiting to be found. Cave exploration continues, and these natural marvels never cease to amaze us.