Throughout history, caves have played (and continue to play) a multitude of roles in both real life and lore — from places of shelter and refuge to sources of wonderment, exploration and danger.

Though dark and damp and often ominous in appearance, caves have been significant players in the fields of science, education and recreation, so plenty of positive things are associated with these underground wonders. None­the­less, being places where potential danger lurks has given caves a reputation that’s hard to shake, whether the information is based on facts or not.

In Iowa, there are more than 1,300 caves that have been explored and mapped. Some are nothing more than small indentations in rock walls, while others — like Coldwater Cave in Winneshiek County, the state’s largest natural cave with nearly 17 miles of passages — are extensive, underground labyrinths open only to the most experienced cavers (also known as spelunkers).  

There are, however, caves suitable for visitors of all ages, abilities and interests scattered around the state. Many of Iowa’s caves are found on private property,...