What’s the Difference Between a Cavern vs Cave? A Complete Guide

Caverns and caves – at first glance they may seem like the same thing. But while related, these underground spaces have some distinct differences.

So what exactly sets a cavern apart from a cave? Read on for a comprehensive overview.

A Quick Summary of the Main Differences

Before diving into the details, here is a high-level overview of the key differences between caverns and caves:

  • Formation: Caverns form from cracks/fissures in rock, often due to shifting geological processes. Caves form through the erosion of rock, usually by water.
  • Size: Caverns are typically much larger and more expansive than caves.
  • Accessibility: Caverns are often more accessible and navigable for humans than caves.
  • Lighting: Caverns tend to have more natural light sources than caves, which can be completely dark.
  • Contents: Caverns generally contain more minerals and formations like stalactites and stalagmites, compared to caves.

Now let’s explore each of these differences in more depth.

How Caverns and Caves Are Formed

The different formation processes of caverns versus caves lead to key distinctions between the two.

Cavern Formation

Caverns are formed from cracks or fissures created in large rock structures. This usually occurs due to shifting of the earth’s crust and geological processes over time.

Some of the key formation factors for caverns include:

  • Tectonic plate movement – The shifting of tectonic plates in the earth’s crust puts pressure on rock layers, causing cracks and faults. This creates empty spaces that can form caverns.
  • Volcanic activity – Eruptions and lava flows can fracture rock as magma moves through fissures. As the magma recedes, caverns are left behind.
  • Erosion – Water, ice, and other erosional processes wear away at rock over time. This causes weaknesses and openings where caverns develop.
  • Salt deposits – Salt deposits underneath rock layers can shift and dissolve, causing the rock above to crack and create cavernous spaces.

Cave Formation

In contrast to caverns, caves form primarily through the erosion of rock, usually limestone. The most common cave forming process is the erosion of rock by water.

  • Rainwater – As rainwater acidified by carbon dioxide seeps into cracks and pores in limestone, it slowly dissolves the rock. Over time this creates caves.
  • Groundwater – Groundwater can also erode limestone and other soluble rock as it flows through spaces underground, carving out cave systems.
  • Coastal erosion – Ocean waves crashing against rocky cliffs erodes the rock at their base over centuries and millennia, leading to sea caves.
  • Glacial meltwater – Meltwater from glaciers is also high in carbon dioxide, allowing it to erode and hollow out caves as it flows through rock.

So in summary, caverns originate from cracks and fractures in rock, while caves are carved out by the long-term erosional processes of water.

Size and Scale Differences

Due to their differing formation methods, caverns and caves also diverge when it comes to size.

Caverns Are Much Larger

Caverns are typically massive, expansive spaces stretching deep into the earth. Some caverns are so big they could easily accommodate large buildings or full neighborhoods within them.

For example, the Sarawak Chamber found in Gunung Mulu National Park, Malaysia is the largest known cavern in the world. It has a volume of 10.3 million cubic meters – enough to fit about 40 Boeing 747 airplanes!

Other famously massive caverns include:

  • Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico) – chambers up to 600ft high
  • Eisriesenwelt (Austria) – largest ice cave in world at over 40 miles long
  • Fingal’s Cave (Scotland) – towering 227ft tall arched ceiling

Caves Are Much Smaller

In comparison, caves are typically smaller, narrower spaces confined underground. While some caves can reach impressive lengths when passageways connect, individual cave chambers are usually much more limited in scale than caverns.

Caves generally have a height and width of only a few meters to tens of meters. Even very large cave rooms pale in comparison to cavern sizes.

However, cave systems made up of many interconnected chambers and tunnels can achieve very long total lengths. For example, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky has passages stretching over 400 miles long!

Accessibility and Navigation

The immense sizes and open spaces of caverns also lend themselves to being more accessible and easily navigable by humans.

Caverns Are Easier to Access

The large cracks, fissures, and sinkholes that form caverns create openings for people to enter from the surface. Some caverns feature huge entrance rooms making them easy for large groups to access.

Caverns often have built-in walkways, stairs, and lighting installed. Handrails, paved floors, and other modifications accommodate human visitors underground.

Caves Can Be Hard to Enter and Navigate

The small, confined spaces of caves make entering them a challenge. Spelunkers may have to squeeze and crawl through narrow openings.

Once inside, caves can form complex mazes of tight tunnels and passages. Lack of lighting makes navigating difficult and easy to get lost without guidance.

Special caving gear like helmets, headlamps, ropes, and climbing equipment is often needed to fully explore caves. Only experienced spelunkers attempt the most difficult caves.

So while caverns welcome tourists, only skilled cavers can safely navigate caves – especially undeveloped ones with no installed lighting or modifications.

Lighting Conditions

Another key difference comes down to lighting. Due to their large openings, caverns tend to have more natural ambient light. Caves are defined by their dark, gloomy interiors.

Caverns Are Brighter

Large cracks, skylights, and sinkhole entrances allow sunlight and daylight to filter into caverns. This creates dim but visible ambient lighting, especially near cavern openings.

Deeper interiors can still be dark and require artificial lighting. But proximity to the surface and airflow allows more light into caverns than caves.

Caves Are Darker

Since caves form from underground erosion, they do not have direct openings to the surface. This results in pitch black conditions inside caves, far from any entrance or external light source.

Without installed lighting, caves are completely dark. Headlamps or flashlights become essential to see once natural light fades away inside deep cave systems.

The pervasive darkness led to caves often being associated with the underworld and supernatural in ancient myths. Their mysterious black voids inspired fear and unease.

Unique Formations and Features

Caverns and caves also harbor different geological structures and formations within them due to their contrasting designs.

Caverns Contain More Formations

The more open, humid, and mineral-rich environment of caverns allows for a variety of secondary mineral deposits and formations.

These include stunning features like:

  • Stalactites – tapering mineral deposits hanging from cavern ceilings
  • Stalagmites – mounds growing up from cavern floors
  • Flowstones – sheet like floor deposits built up by dripping water
  • Pillar formations – columns created when stalactites meet stalagmites

Other cavern formations include soda straws, helictites, cave pearls, crystal formations, rimstone dams, cave popcorn, and cave flowers.

Caves Are More Barren

Since caves are formed purely by the erosion of rock, they generally do not contain extensive secondary mineral deposits and features.

While caves can contain stalactites, stalagmites, and pillars, these tend to be smaller and less abundant than in caverns. Other formations are also less common in caves.

However, some caves contain interesting smooth, eroded rock shapes and textures on their walls and floors from the flowing water that formed them.

And lava tubes – caves formed by flowing lava – have unique features like ribbed floors and ceilings.

Cavern vs Cave: FAQs

How are caverns and caves similar then?

Caverns and caves share some common traits since they are both natural underground spaces:

  • Both feature mostly constant cool temperatures unaffected by surface weather.
  • They offer habitat to similar specialized cave-dwelling organisms.
  • Both can contain beautiful formations and mineral deposits in the right conditions.
  • They have served roles in history as sites of shelter, storage, worship, and mining.

Can caverns become caves over time?

In some cases, the cracks and fissures that open into caverns can be expanded into caves through subsequent erosion by water and other processes, given enough time.

So large cave entrances and passages sometimes formed from what were initially smaller caverns.

Are show caves caverns or caves?

Show caves that are open to the public for tours are typically caves that have been modified with added lighting, walkways, and other features to accommodate visitors safely.

However, some show caves are caverns made accessible in a similar manner. Show cave is a general term that applies to either type of space.

Is it safe to explore caverns and caves yourself?

It is extremely dangerous to enter and explore any cavern or cave without proper experience, equipment, and safety precautions in place.

Never enter an undeveloped cavern or cave alone. Only spelunk with an experienced guide or group to ensure safety. Follow all posted signs and warnings.


While caverns and caves share some traits, there are important differences that set these geological structures apart in their formation, size, accessibility, lighting, and features.

Caverns originate from cracks in rock while caves are carved by erosion. Caverns are much larger and easier to enter than generally tighter caves. Caverns also receive a bit more natural light compared to the pitch black interiors of caves. And caverns contain more abundant secondary mineral deposits and formations.

Hopefully this guide gave you a helpful overview of the key distinctions between caverns and caves. Understanding their origins and unique characteristics allows you to better appreciate these natural underground wonders.

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