Updated: Nov 28
Needing a budget friendly adventure? Something different to do? This is the spot.
There is only one place in all of Florida where you can explore a cave on dry land. This is your Marianna Caverns Guide and Itinerary! Costs, links, and timing suggestions included.
Most of Florida is so low laying that the caves are part of the underwater aquifer system. Some of these can be snorkeled in the Springs. In Marianna, where the land sits at 180 feet, Florida Caverns State Park has the only cave open to the public cave exploration. Complete with stalactites, stalagmites, columns and soda straw style formations, this unique underground marvel is still alive today, and worth the drive to get there. We have recently made a few trips there and I wanted to share our experience to help for your planning purposes.
This amazing place of nature stayed on my bucket list for years. Hurricane Michael heavily damaged the grounds in 2018, and the park had limited access for quite a while. The remote location was definitely an obstacle, and I was reluctant to make the drive without some well laid plans. My college roommate Loren came to visit and we just decided to go for it! The road trip from my house is 400 miles, and almost 6 hours, 7 if you factor in potty stops, gas, and a nursing baby. All in all, we decided the best way to do this was to drive straight up to the Marianna area and go directly to the Caverns first. Then, if we could get tickets for the caves we'd proceed, if not, we would do all the other park activities/ hikes and return first thing the next morning to catch the tour. And don't worry because there are other things to do close by that make this journey even better.
Marianna is NOT centrally located. Much of Florida is clumped in the middle of the State, while places like Saint Augustine and the Keys have such a wealth of activities they attract their own following each year. Caverns Park is about an hour West of Tallahassee and two hours East of Pensacola, making it a real out of the way destination.
I will give you a two day itinerary that will make your trip here flow well and help navigate the remoteness.
The first mission is getting here.
GPS your directions, pack your cooler, pick your road trip music, throw your loved ones in the car and start driving!
Next Mission: Reserving your ticket for the Caverns Tour.
You must have tickets, these are not included with State Park entry at the front gate. When you arrive you will pay $5.00/ car at the front gate. The sign as you drive in will tell you if there are any available tours left for the day or not. Tours are sold separately on a first come first serve basis, there are no reservations. They do sell out some days, and I was told during Spring Break they were selling out by 12 noon. On most days if you can get there before noon it's safe to say your tour will be the same day. If not, spend the night in the area and make the most of the excuse to see more of this unique place. More on that below.
In March, we arrived late in the day, spent the night and toured the caverns first thing the following morning. During a trip there in November, we arrived at 1:30 and were able to get into the 3:00 tour. During more touristy times there is a less likely chance to get tickets if you arrive later in the day.
Did I mention Marianna is in the Central time zone?
Luckily, on our first trip we arrived at 4 pm, and since the park was open til 7 on this day (closes at sunset) we had enough time to take advantage of the awesome hikes, and the Blue Hole. Tours were booked, and we were told by the ranger to arrive back at 8 am when the park opens, then wait in the back for the gift shop to open and we'd be able to get an early tour, This is what we did.
First we checked out the museum and visitor center.
Some nice hands on exhibits, a few movies, great history and geology information.
Next, we wandered back to the trails where the Bluff Trail (3/4 mile) and Beech Magnolia Trail (1/4 mile) connect and loop around the parking lot area. These trails were scenic and we saw many birds, frogs, and monarch caterpillars. These are not paved, they are dirt worn paths through the wooded area and you will be stepping over tree roots while you make the journey. Woodpeckers, barred owls, beavers, alligators, rare turtles, and snapping turtles can be seen. American beech, southern magnolia, white oak, and dogwood trees are prominent throughout the park.
Do not miss the Bluff trail which can be found in the parking lot or in the Beech Magnolia Trail. This short hike allows you to go right through a cave! Tunnel Cave was particularly awesome for our guys, who were equipped with flashlights and felt like they stepped into an Indiana Jones movie. Taller people crouch through most of this, the end is narrower and can be climbed out of or crawled through. This tiny space at the end was fine for me, and I can be claustrophobic.
After exploring the hikes around the Visitor Center, drive back out toward the exit, turning left toward the camping area, Blue Hole and Sinkhole. This is a bit of a drive and takes you across the park. At the Blue Hole a spring feeds underneath from the Chipola River. The grasses and plants surrounding the hole create a filtration system to clean the water. On the day we were there it was a bit cloudy, and greener then blue. This was following a cool and rainy week, during hotter times it is bluer we were told. The rangers also joked they call it the “blue hole” because the water’s so cold you’ll turn blue in it. We did see another visitor jump in for a swim. Brrrrr, she was chilly! There is a floating dock and a little bridge way to cross over to enjoy the Spring’s beauty. Fishing is available here, as is paddle boarding. We did not go in the water. We did enjoy the walk around the hole and beautiful reflections of the trees. The deep breaths of fresh clean cool air felt great. The Chipola River flows underground in the park at a river sink. It reappears several hundred feet downstream, forming a natural bridge.
**Our Blue Hole Walk was peaceful and greatly enjoyed **
We still had time to drive back to the Sinkhole Trail we had passed. This 1.1 mile trail has a few view point look overs of the sinkhole running along the front side of the hike. This was less impressive as my kids hoped for more places to look over. There are a few in the first side of the route the rest is a hike around the wooded area. We were the only ones out there. We followed the red arrows and made the loop, I was happy to be out in the fresh air in nature. The weather was getting cool and we were beginning to think about what we wanted to eat for dinner and where we were spending the night.
From the parking lot of the Sinkhole Trail I reserved our Hotel for the night, the Residence Hub In & Suites. I wanted something centrally located with 2 Queen beds, a fridge, microwave, and free breakfast. I was able to book this room for under $90.00! Feeling skeptical due to the excellent price, we drove over and checked in. The front desk clerk was efficient and we brought some things up to our room, and freshened up for dinner. I asked on our way out what she recommended for good food. After naming Zaxby's and some other chain restaurants, she said, "if you want good southern food locally owned you've got to go to The Oaks! They close at 8:00, you can make it!" We drove about a mile down the road and got in quickly ready to eat. Sadly, this locally owned gem is now closed.
We ate an AMAZING meal at The Oaks. (This is no longer here) Our waitress was very in tuned to our needs. She brought over a highchair base to put our baby in that who asleep in her car seat. Our server answered menu questions and checked on things for us. She suggested what we needed, and that's just the beginning. The food itself was sooooo good. I ordered the beef tips, with mashed potatoes and cole slaw. They were the absolute best I've ever had. Delicious. My daughter had a fish filet sandwich she enjoyed. My son had a burger and fries which were good. My friend ordered shrimp and loved them. And they brought over some grits for the baby when she woke up. Delicious food, kind people and a great experience. We all had left overs, and they showered us with dessert as it was the end of the day and they said if we didn't want it they were throwing it out. We ate banana pudding and cheese cake. When we left we were all full and happy, and agreed we felt like we had left our grandmother's house who loved feeding us. They also have an amazing buffet lunch I heard, we didn't get to try that but next time! Did I mention this dinner was very affordable? Like 60$ to feed a family?
Where can we stay? Camping is definitely an option for those who want to go that route!
We returned to the hotel ready to call it a night. We Showered, relaxed, and made plans for the next day. Before going to bed I like to ensure all of us know the morning routine, what time are we getting up and leaving. Work out the kinks so we can all have a smooth morning.
Clean and comfortable we all had hot showers and slept comfortably. Free breakfast was basic consisting of cereals, toast, and some store bought pastries. Coffee was available but no hot water for tea. When i inquired, they were happy to give me some water to make my own tea. The best part was this little cat who followed me around. She looked cared for, but she was happy to roll around and make friends then followed me up to our room where she waited for me to come back out!
We arrived back at the Cavern's State Park at 8:15, paying our $5.00 and parking in the back by the gift shop. As told, the Gift Shop opened a few minutes before 9, so we waited in the growing line. We purchased our tickets for the tour. $10.75/ adults, $5.00/ children – Free 2 and under. We managed to get into the 2nd tour time, at 9:15. While waiting in line we turned through the gift shop and each of us found a souvenir. They have a great selection of shirts, gifts, books, and candy all reasonably priced. We had enough time to leave our goodies in the car before the tour departed.
The Tour –
The Caverns are made of bedrock and limestone that were created when all of Florida was underwater. During the tour you are 45- 60 feet underground in 65-degree cool stillness. Because of the humidity in the cave which is 100% you may not feel as cool as you'd think!
Water drips down through the cave, you may feel some droplets on your head, and there are some puddles from water that rise as well. You can see some of the shell and fish fossils in the ceiling embedded into the rock. These include shark teeth and even sea biscuits. So cool to observe, no touching allowed. There is electricity running through the caves with colorful lighting showcasing different shapes and designs made by the natural process of a living cave still growing today. At one point the ranger does turn off the lights, providing complete darkness. Several rooms connect with unique features, dramatic stalagmites and stalactites rising and dripping from its ceiling, it is fun to explore the labyrinth underground.
There are 12 rooms that wind together for the tour. Our ranger guides have been very informative. They helped us to understand the history and discovery of the caverns as well as the significance to the aquifer and the water system. Each guide follows a script but adds some different elements to the tour. The guide's we've had are well suited for this.
There are colors in the rock itself signifying what material it’s made of. Orange is clay, white is limestone, and the brown is a decayed humus. The tour itself is interesting and exciting. We learned a lot while being amazed at nature and how it continues to adapt and expand. Bats can fly in and out, as 5 different species of bat live in the park and eat half their weight in bugs every night! We saw one little bat hanging upside down. We also saw a huge spider, and the resident frog who seemed to be chilling in his usual spot. Our tours lasted about 90 minutes; I think we are typically a slow-moving group as the groups behind us was catch up to us near the end. The rangers are kind and went adjust the pace appropriately. The first ranger offered to take photos for the groups of families. They keep group sizes to 25 people. there are 10 acres of caves.
During the Seminole Wars many Native Americans hid in the caves. It’s an intricate system and the end ascends not far from where you originally descended. I love the lighting, history, dramatic colors, and the shapes and shadows. Some of the areas are narrow or low hanging and some bending is required. You do have to watch where you are going.
** Pictures don't do this place justice. You have to see it to believe it!
Yes - but these are helpful little bats. They eat half their weight in bugs every night and are good for the environment. 5 types of bats inhabit the park including the endangered gray bat. If you are lucky you might see one.
We loved every minute of the tour.
You cannot bring in backpacks, food, or water.
Just go in and be ready to experience this mystical place unlike any other place we've been.
Once we completed the tour we decided to see some other things in the area as we had a few hours before needing to head back home. If you made the trip to this area, it's worth a look around!
Is this a good place for kids?
YES! Science and nature blend together here like peanut butter n jelly, unless you have peanut allergies that is! I saw many children exploring the Florida Caverns and seeing them just full of wonder is always inspiring. Lots of great conversations and questions come out when you visit places where children can discover new features about the world we live in. This is a great opportunity for new vocabulary, and the gift shop has some really cool books. The museum will also help explain some of those curious questions!
What else can we do around here? Did you road trip? Might as well enjoy the area!
There are two activities close by that are worth seeing while you're all the way out here...
1. Blue Spring Recreation Area - a first Magnitude Spring, which supplies water to a 202-acre reservoir known as Merritt’s Millpond, a nationally known fishing site. Completely revamped, this beautiful recreation site is stunning. Crystal clear water with the cool temperature is just perfect for swimming on a hot day. This is the place to go for family relaxation or activity. It has volleyball courts, a new children’s playground, park benches, a beach to lay out on, new boating docks, and much more.
$4.00 per person admission fee, rentals available.
2. Falling Waters State Park - we discovered while we were in the Visitor Center at the Caverns. This is the longest waterfall in Florida falling 83 feet into a sinkhole. We drove 25 minutes down I-10 and found this place easily. There are a few trails in the park, but the waterfall is less than 5 minutes from the parking lot with two viewpoints, an upper viewpoint and a lower viewpoint. You cannot actually go in the waterfall. This is a beautiful place to walk around. An awesome playground and pavilions are easily accessible where you can have a picnic lunch. There is a butterfly garden right by the parking lot as well. There is a longer hike down to a lake, with a beach area.
$5.00 per vehicle!
On our first trip. in March, we did not make it all the way down to the Lake as bad weather was creeping closer and we didn't want to be stuck driving through the storm. *Remember to be flexible!
On our second trip, which was in November it was a bit of a drizzly day, and we had the place almost to ourselves, but greatly enjoyed the scenery. We took our time and hiked around exploring. Because of the rain, the waterfall was really full. I will say the sign at the entry read low and it was not low! Comparative photos below.
November 2023: Much more water falling.
This park has an excellent boardwalk making walking very easy and the pathway is super easy. Well marked signs identify foliage and give info. We all agreed the sink holes at Falling Water State Park were more exciting than the ones at Caverns, and we had a way better understanding of the water system after seeing both parks back-to-back. This is a popular area to paddle board, or kayak. Exploring by water is a great way to appreciate an area and see all of the natural beauty.
How cool to be able to see two incredible Florida destinations back-to-back. We felt proud of our accomplishments. We all agreed it was well worth the long drive, as we piled back in the car to return home. As typical with Florida weather, we drove through a monsoon to get home.
All in all, if you are able to get your Cavern tour on the same day you arrive, you will want to see Falling Water and if possible Blue Spring Recreation Park the following day. By planning 2 days you ensure the tour, and some time to see the surrounding sites. Make sure to enjoy the trails at Caverns before heading out. There are lots of local grocery stores and gas stations if you need to stock up on road trip snacks or drinks. Don't miss eating at the Oaks!
- Come prepared for weather changes. If it is rainy, it's a perfect day for a cave tour!
- Wear layers, it's cool down in the cave, and if it's a hot sunny day you will not want to be stuck in your warmer attire.
- Bring your bathing suit! You never know, you may decide to take advantage of some of the springs!
- Check your tires and all that before starting out on the drive.
- A sunhat and sunglasses are always a good idea. An umbrella is as well. It can be bright and sunny on the same day it could be overcast and rainy!
Affordability meter: 9/10
On a scale of 1-10 how affordable is this trip?
With 1 being utterly unaffordable and 10 being basically free, I rate this adventure a 9.
When considering the value and quality of this trip vs the cost, I find it to be above average.
We could not have done this without the points that allowed our rooms to be covered!
State Parks are as economical as is gets. You can pack light or bring it all with you, for the cost of parking, gas, and the time it takes to get there you can't ask for a cheaper trip! When you get there let nature do the work for you. Go enjoy her diversity.
The cost of the cave tour was almost a steal.
I don't appreciate paying for entry when the only thing entry permits is to "see" a place. This really was a full experience with great science and history.
For this rating I took into account the inexpensive Hotel Room. This was not a luxury place by any means, but it is so hard for a family to find a decent place for under a hundred dollars that has free breakfast, a fridge, and a microwave! I also considered our dinner cost which was very inexpensive and completely delicious. I feel the quality of experience on this trip far outweighed the cost.
Get there - Marianna Florida is a cool place! Very remote.
**See all of Caverns State Park - Get tickets for your cave tour and then do the surrounding scenic hikes while waiting. Bluff trail (includes Tunnel Cave), Beech Magnolia Trail, Blue Hole, Sinkhole Trail.
**Lunch - Plan a picnic in the park! Lot's of benches and scenic spots.
**Dinner - Local restaurant options like Zaxby's are available to choose from.
*Sleep at Resident Hub Inn & Suites
**Cave Tour (if you weren't able to get in on your first day)
*Back to hotel
*Heat up leftovers, pack picnic lunch for later, change and check out
**Falling Waters State Park - Waterfall upper and lower view points, sink hole, Lake Trail, this ends at the camp site which is a good spot to turn around and return.
*Eat lunch in pavilion
*Road trip home - or drive to Panama City Beach for more Florida fun!!
**All of this can be flexibly moved as needed**
Wherever your travels take you, be sure to keep your presence in the moment.
Enjoy where you are at. Be a little flexible with people and their navigation of time.
Let go of things you can't control.
Remember to put your people above things, and cherish the memories.
Thank you for sharing the journey, I welcome your thoughts and hope to hear from you!
A note from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.
Thank you for stopping by today! Please share your thoughts and experiences, we are all on this journey to live and love together. I welcome your travel tips & tricks :-)
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