Being in a cave “is like nowhere else on earth,” said Valent. “Well, you are not on earth, you are on earth.”

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In 1904, tourists flocked to the cave during the St. Louis World’s Fair when it was still on private farmland. The state of Illinois bought the cave in 1985, and by the 2000s the site averaged about 750 monthly visitors, according to Middleton, who has been overseeing the cave for 16 years.

In July, 10-year-old Heidi McArthur and 8-year-old Kamden McArthur visited the Illinois Caverns with their father David and his aunt Lynne Gonzalez.

The trip marked the children first in a cave. “It was really cool. I thought it was great how the rocks were shaped in different sizes,” said Heidi.

The cave is located in a 120 hectare nature reserve and has approximately 10 km of mapped passages. It features stalagmites, stalactites, and other lesser-known cave formations such as flowstone – plate-shaped calcite deposits formed by flowing water, and soda straw – essentially hollow stalactites.

Gonzalez said she was disappointed that the family did not see bats, even though they did find a frog.

Neither Heidi nor Kamden were born when scientists in New York State made worrying discoveries during routine cave bat counts in the winter of 2006: heaps of dead bats, sometimes hundreds.