I firmly believe that every New Yorker should see Howe Caverns. I think the place is part of our identity as New Yorkers, on par with Niagara Falls and the Statue of Liberty. Howe Caverns is simply stunning. It has amazed visitors for over 169 years and despite our modern technological marvels, the trip will leave you starstruck. I’ll do my best to relate our adventure, but believe me when I say that my stories are mere slivers of the wonders and beauties we beheld. GO TO HOWE CAVERNS. Wow!
Howe Caverns is located on a large hill in Schoharie County, just outside Cobleskill in Howes Cave, NY. It is open year round, and the best time to see the caves is (in my opinion) in the hottest part of the year (July and August) or between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, when the place is decked in holiday splendor. We visited a few days after Thanksgiving Day, and were delighted with the cheerful, cozy atmosphere of the visitor’s center.
Christmas music from the 1950s and 60s brought back fond childhood memories of a simpler, happier time. The visitors center is packed with things to see and do while you wait for the next tour of the caverns to begin. There’s a little cafe and a coffeeshop with Starbucks coffee and treats. There are display cases filled with old Howe Caverns paraphernalia and nostalgia. There’s a huge gift shop filled with geode jewelry and Howe Cavern diamond conversation pieces and t-shirts and flashlights! And there are cozy chairs in which to rest.
We didn’t have to wait long for the tour. Our group consisted of approximately 20 to 25 people. Tours were moving at a rather regular pace– one large group had just ended and another was preparing to go after us. The tour guide, a “Mr. T” led us into the education room, where we watched a Disney-esque robot styled like Lester Howe tell us his story. Lester Howe, for whom the caverns is named, discovered the hole leading to the underground caves in 1842. I’ve written about the history before (see my post Great Places: Howe Caverns), so check that post for the story. It includes a good National Geographic video about the caverns, too. You can also read a rousing rendition at HoweCaverns.com.
To this day, Howe Caverns deeply draws it identity from Lester Howe’s discovery. I don’t know if it was a purposeful marketing strategy or if the story has always been part of the Caverns’ identity, but I think it’s brilliant. Not only does the story lend a “human interest” touch to the caverns, but it also gives rise to the thought “Maybe someday I will stumble upon a cave like Lester Howe did!”
As the robot gives his story, a large map of the caverns shows how extensive our subterranean journey will be. At its lowest point, the caverns sit 200 feet below ground and extend for nearly two miles. Much of the caverns are still unexplored, and the Howe Caverns company hopes to expand tours in the future.
Our group loads up into two elevators, and we drop down approximately 16 stories into the concrete-lined vestibule. This room is the only area in the caverns that has been reinforced by man. I noticed a large, round hunk of cheese hanging on the wall with a sign saying it was cave-aged. I didn’t get a photo quick enough before the tour began. I looked it up later and apparently the company sells cave-aged cheese! The cheese is apparently made by an Upstate company, Yancey’s Fancy artisan cheese. We saw their booth and tasted their delicious cheese at the Pride of New York Harvest Festival last month.
Our tour began noisily, with the loud sounds of rushing water in our ears. What great water works was creating such cacophony?!
The River Styx. A little thing. Like the ghoulish ferryman Charon of Greek mythology, the river sounds scarier than it is. It is a mere trickle of a stream, although it does rise up and rage from time to time. The tour guide informed us that the latest hurricane to chug up the eastern seaboard– Irene — caused the river to rise up near the ceiling of the caverns. It took the company about five days to clean the place up. I thought that was impressive– it took me over a week to clean up my flooded basement and yard!
Yet this tiny rivulet is responsible for carving much of the caverns. As we walk along, the river’s rushing noises die down and the stream settles down into a quiet stillness.
The caverns are lit with colored lights that provide a surreal atmosphere. I disabled my camera’s flash feature most of the time. When lit in regular light, the cave has a cold, ugly look to it.
The tour guide led us on, relating various Lester Howe stories and injecting information about the mineral content of the formations. Some of the formations are stunning, and all are caused by dripping water!
This is the Roman Cathedral Pipe Organ, so called because when you stand on one side of the pathway and hum into the stalactites, the sounds resonate through the “pipe organ” in a delightfully chilling melody.
The cavern is filled with milky-looking formations, all made from calcium carbonite, the by product of the chemical reaction between limestone and water.
This is an enormous formation, all caused by a little trickle of water!
As we delved deeper and deeper into the caverns, we neared the illustrious Lake Venus. It’s more like a pond, two to six feet deep. But it is dark and mysterious and I do wonder where Lester Howe got the courage to paddle across it the first time, not knowing where he was going and carrying only a small whale oil lamp to light the way.
The boat ride was lovely, one of the best moments of the tour. Unfortunately, it ended far too soon. The tour guide relayed to us how the rest of the cavern is undeveloped for visitors. The water from Lake Venus fall down a small waterfall beyond that chain.
We head back through the same way we came. The pathways are very comfortable to walk upon. When Lester Howe first gave his tours, visitors had to clamber over rocks, climb through muddy holes, and slog through the river. Quite a difference today.
The tour was not over yet. Mr. T led us to the caverns’ “Bridal Chamber,” a small cave with a heart on the floor. The heart is made of 6-inch thick calcium carbonate, remarkable translucent. It is here that Lester Howe’s daughter was married as a publicity stunt for the tourist operation. Since then, hundreds of couples have tied the knot in the cave. There’s a little legend that goes along with the heart– they all say that if you step on the heart, you’ll be married within a year. I can testify to this. I never made the connection until this week– but when I visited the caverns as a young lady 20+ years ago, the tour guide had told us of the legend. In a whimsical moment, my girlfriends and I giggled and raced over to step on the heart. I was married later that year. 😐 Haha!!
After the Bridal Chamber, we were led to The Winding Way, one of the finest examples of water erosion. I loved this part. What great fun it was, speeding left and right, dodging the sides of the cave! When we were done, I wanted to do it again!
See what I mean? Howe Caverns is simply spectacular, a must-see destination. And my paltry photos cannot even begin to tell the story. You must see it for yourself. The company does a remarkable job of blending history and nostalgia and geology. See HoweCaverns.com for much more.
I’d like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the Howe Caverns group and the Schoharie County Tourism Department for hosting our trip. This was the first time my kids have seen Howe Caverns, and it was a very special occasion. This is my honest and genuine opinion in exchange for our admission to Howe Caverns. I highly recommend Howe Caverns- it’s a terrific experience!
255 Discovery Drive
Howes Cave, NY 12092