When you think about national monuments, you probably think Grand Canyon or Niagra Falls and an airplane trip. But a great monument awaits two hours north of Chicago in Blue Mounds, Wis. Cave of the Mounds welcomes visitors to tour its wondrous depths 365 days a year, without any hard-core spelunking.
The hour-long Family Walking Tour follows paved and lighted pathways, making this an easy exploration. A tour guide points out spectacular rock formations, natural pools and even embedded fossils. Kids love the discovery of "cave bacon" and a "witch's finger," while being hit with lucky "cave kisses."
The cave is almost all "no touch" to preserve its natural wonder, but photos are encouraged. Guides provide information and anecdotes and will answer any questions you have. The colors and textures in the cave are so amazing it almost feels like a film set instead of a natural wonder, eliciting very real "oohs and aahs" from everyone.
At ground level you can explore prairie rocks and flowers in the park's gardens and trails. Picnic grounds provide a beautiful resting spot. Food and drink are available from the snack bar. At the Gemstone Mine and Fossil Dig, you buy what looks like a bag of sand, only to discover precious gems and authentic fossils you can identify and keep. (If you don't feel like sluicing your own, the museum shop stocks thousands of rock, mineral, gem and fossil specimens.)
Cave of the Mounds is open weekdays 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Within minutes of Cave of the Mounds, you can visit the town of Mount Horeb (Troll Capital of the World) and Little Norway, a 19th-century pioneer homestead, which is home to the Norway Building, exhibited at the Chicago Columbian Exhibition World Fair in 1893. Little Norway is open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mount Horeb hosts a Fall Heritage Festival, Oct. 3-4, complete with live entertainment, horse and buggy rides and Pumpkins on Parade.