Tradition and holiday go together like cookies and milk. Each year, like many other families in North Alabama, our family indulges in our favorite annual traditions, but every once in a while something new is put in our path to tempt our curious, adventure-craving hearts. This year, Santa’s Underground Workshop: Wonderland Under Warrior at Rickwood Caverns State Park in Warrior, AL proved just the sort of new-to-us merry adventure we love most: a combination of nature’s spectacle and the pageantry of holiday razzle dazzle. We enjoyed our visit to Rickwood Caverns earlier this year and seize this opportunity to go back during Christmas!
Santa’s Underground Workshop: Wonderland Under Warrior
If your family is up for a Christmas light show inside a cave bedecked with beautiful dripstone formations, this excursion about one hour south of Huntsville needs to be on your holiday must-do list.
Unlike traditional outdoor light displays where you must go after dark and consult the weather forecast, Santa’s Underground Workshop runs from 2 to 8 pm and takes place inside Rickwood Caverns, which is a balmy 62°F year round. The only “rain” you have to worry about is the rare cave kiss (a drop of water that lands on a person and is said to bring 7 years good luck) at the very beginning.
NAVIGATION NOTE: While all ages are welcome, this is geared toward families with children who can walk the one mile path in the cave over varying terrain including minor elevations changes, gravel paths, stairs, and lumpy bumpy cave floors. Our 10 year old daughter had no trouble at all.
Full of Holiday Cheer
As we made our way through the cave, what became astoundingly clear is the effort and man-power expended to bring this dazzling and unique display to the public. There are lights and cheerful displays everywhere you look. Even in easily forgotten nooks and crannies, you will find homages to the Grinch and the much wanted Christmas hippopotamus.
The lights and decorations incorporate the dripstone formations, winding between columns and draping down mammoth limestone domes. Staff dressed as characters like Frosty the Snowman, a toy soldier, and elves are stationed throughout the path to offer assistance. One of our favorite displays was the miniature village.
Cheerful holiday music is played at several stops including a dance floor in one of the larger rooms. This is where you can see the colorful transformation of Lover’s Leap into a rainbow cascade.
A Spelunking Santa
If you wish to see Santa Clause, take the marked passage to the left of the dance floor and follow the brightly lit path to the North Pole where Santa and Mrs. Clause wait to greet you. Unlike the dance floor, there is no loud music to talk over, which made conversing with Santa easier.
My daughter was especially thrilled to receive a nugget of pyrite in a velvet bag from Santa after their quick chat. In her words, “So much better than a lump of coal!” For parents contending with food allergies and dietary restrictions, this is an especially wonderful treat.
What to Expect at Santa’s Underground Workshop
When you arrive at Rickwood Caverns State Park, purchase your Golden Tickets at the gift shop for $12 per person, ages 5 and up. Children of all ages are welcome. In addition to holiday ornaments and other souvenirs, you can also purchase hot cocoa, snacks, cold drinks, and hot meals (hot dogs and burgers) at the gift shop. Outside the gift shop, there is a wonderful playground. With the beautiful weather we had today, our daughter spent half an hour or so running around and playing. There are also hiking trails that you can explore as well. Read more about them here.
From the gift shop, take a quick walk uphill to the nature center where your tickets will be punched. There is a single-stall restroom adjacent to the gift shop, and a larger one with multiple stalls at the nature center. Neither restroom has changing tables. With no facilities in the cave itself, it is best if everyone takes a quick bio break before beginning the cave tour. The nature center is your last chance for a restroom until you exit. Continue your experience at the cave entrance, which is just a little further up the gravel path.
How Long Does It Take?
As opposed to year round cave tours, Santa’s Underground Workshop is self-guided, so you can start whenever you’re ready and go at your own pace. We took advantage of the earlier start time and began our tour shortly after 2pm. It took our family two hours to look our fill, but we also lingered in favorite spots.
A self-guided tour in a commercial cave is something we have never encountered before today. We relished the freedom to move as fast or slow as we wanted. The path is lit by the holiday lights and some spot lights, but there are still sporadic spots where lighting is dim. If you have a little one that needs extra reassurance in the dark, a small flashlight might help. This is not stroller or wheelchair accessible.
What You Should Wear
Once you enter the cave, you’ll immediately notice the warmth and humidity. I wore a T-shirt and jeans, and felt very comfortable in the cave. Follow the path and enjoy the show. There are lots of little nooks and turns. You won’t have a long line of visibility and children can quickly disappear around a bend or a new hiding spot. Closed stairways and passages are marked and blocked, but exercise caution and common sense when it comes to keeping your young charge safe.
The path through the cave is roughly shaped like a lasso. You will be retracing your steps and exiting where you entered. You may encounter groups going in the opposite direction as you are. Carefully navigate these exchanges and watch your head, especially in narrow passages, because the cave walls do protrude in some places. Please be aware that you are visiting a natural space that has uneven terrain and veering off marked paths can present trip hazards and bumped heads. Shoes with good grip are best.
There’s More Outside the Cave!
Once you exit the cave, follow the gravel path downhill back to the nature center where you can enjoy holiday crafts and movies. When we were there today, foam ornament kits, scratch art ornaments, and letters to Santa were available at the craft table. There was no staff member or volunteer working the table, so it is very much an independent activity. My daughter enjoyed decorating her ornament and writing a letter to Santa that she deposited into the mailbox. Younger children may need assistance with crafts and writing their Christmas wish list. As our last stop before heading home, we made a few purchases in the gift shop. The selection of Christmas ornaments is plentiful along with rocks and minerals, jewelry, and toys.
Go. We had a fantastic time today and look forward to adding this to our holiday traditions. It’s a bit of a drive from Huntsville, but there is plenty to occupy you for several hours once you get there. This isn’t as slick as the bigger, more commercial operations, but it also doesn’t carry the hefty price tag of one either.
Santa’s Underground Workshop at Rickwood Caverns State Park
Updated for 2023, originally published Dec. 2019
Where: 370 Rickwood Park Road, Warrior, AL 35180
When: November 24 – December 23
2-8 pm for self guided tour. Office opens at noon.
Cost: $12.00 per person ages 5 and up
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Helen Lien, Ph.D. - Biochemist, engineer, educator, and outdoor enthusiast. Loves Huntsville, Madison, and North Alabama. Connecting people, places, and causes to build a better, stronger, and more united community.