Beneath the Sunshine State

Unearthing the Hidden Wonders of the Withlacoochee Cave System

Deep within the heart of Florida’s natural wonderland, a subterranean realm of breathtaking beauty and mystery lies concealed beneath the surface. The Withlacoochee State Forest, known for its pristine landscapes and diverse ecosystems, harbors a hidden gem that has captured the imaginations of adventurers and explorers for generations: the Withlacoochee State Forest cave system.

While the panhandle of Florida is known for its caverns, and the state is riddled with underwater cave systems throughout the springs, many (even including nearby residents) don’t realize what could be lying right beneath their feet in the area just north of Tampa.

With the absolutely glorious weather we’ve gotten a taste of, and are soon in store for, it’s the perfect
time of year for Floridians to get out and explore. What better way to try something new, and take on spelunking?

Spelunking is just a fancy term for cave exploration, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s fun to say, too! Our family has “spelunked” in the panhandle, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, so when we heard about a system we weren’t yet privy to, we piled in the car.

Withlacoochee State Forest is Florida’s third largest state forest and covers areas of five surrounding counties with several distinct tracks of land offering endless areas to explore. It was named “One of the 10 Coolest Places You’ve Never Been in North America,” by the World Wildlife Fund, so you know this little known attraction is definitely off the beaten path.

What sets the Withlacoochee caves apart is that spelunkers of all levels are free to explore on their own, with no guided tours required, or offered. That being said, you should never explore a cave alone and only proceed to the level of your comfort and ability. Check the week’s weather before heading out, as the conditions will greatly depend on the climate. We visited after a good period of rain, which made for quite a bit of mud. Scott and Avery were slipping and sliding all over Dames Cave, the largest and most easily accessible entrance, and hilariously ended up with brown tushes after they fell flat attempting to enter further into the cave through a doghouse-sized crevice.

Withlacoochee State Forest is a massive 157,479-acre state park with multiple entrances and a total of 37 caves (although not all are accessible), so it pays to plan ahead and know where you’re going. Many are animal habitats, such as Bat Cave near the Tillis Hill Recreation Area, and are protected from visitors to prevent disturbance or vandalism. You can still view the entrance from the park however, with entrances to the Bat Cave blocked off by steel cages that allow the resident bats to traverse, while tourists may not. The grand exit in the evenings can be quite a sight as thousands take flight.

While the area is mostly shaded and the sun won’t be too much of a concern, be sure to pack plenty of bug spray as this is natural Florida at its finest. Don’t forget about plenty of water, and wear sturdy, non-slip comfortable shoes as the rocks you’ll need to climb down and back up at the entrances will be slick.

For the best beginner spelunker experience and most access, visit the southwestern portion of the Citrus Cave Tract, just a short distance from Citrus County Highway 49. You’ll find a parking area at the trailhead along highway 491 (it’s essentially just a pull-off dirt lot, so keep your eyes peeled as it is easy to miss!). From here, you can take an easy half-mile hike along a sandy trail to the first cave, Dames Cave. Further down, you’ll find Sick Bat Cave, Peace Cave and Danger Cave. As with Dames Cave, some of the main chamber ceilings have collapsed, so if you’re an especially claustrophobic explorer, these are a good starting point for you. The caves can be taken at your own pace and skill level. Some, like Peace Cave, have much tighter entrances that should only be taken by more skilled explorers with proper equipment, such as lighting and helmets.

As with any outdoor activity, and especially one in unfamiliar territory, always proceed with caution and let someone outside the caves know that you are entering. Avery was thrilled to be able to climb, crawl and explore on her own, even if it resulted in a muddy behind. Our family loved exploring and had a great time checking another “spelunking destination” off our bucket list. Happy spelunking!

Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Pasco, Sumter counties
Florida Trail – roadside parking area: County Rd 480,
Lecanto, FL 34461
Day use from sunrise to sunset

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