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Our Adventure Through Howe Caverns, Cobleskill, NY

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!

39 Howe Caverns Sign

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.

35 Lobby Christmas Tree

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.

2 Howe Caverns Fireplace

5 Memorabilia

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.

3 Lester Howe

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.

4 Howe Caverns Map

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?!

6 Cave Path

1.1 Cave River

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.

7 Cave Path with Flash

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!

9 Cave Path

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.

19 Cathedral Pipe Organ

20 Cathedral Pipe Organ

The cavern is filled with milky-looking formations, all made from calcium carbonite, the by product of the chemical reaction between limestone and water.

21 Stalactites

22 Stalactites

This is an enormous formation, all caused by a little trickle of water!

23 Big Ball o Lime

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.

24 Lake Venus Boat Ride

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.

25 Lake Venus Drop Off

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.

27 Howe Caverns Path

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!!

28 Howe Caverns Heart

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!

30 Winding Way

29 Winding Way

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.

38 Howe Caverns Sign

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!

Howe Caverns
website: HoweCaverns.com
255 Discovery Drive
Howes Cave, NY 12092
Phone: 518-296-8900

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About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jim Muller says:

    I enjoyed your Howe Cavern’s post and I am glad you enjoyed your trip. I grew up on a farm nearly on top of Howe Caverns. My Dad used to cut hay on the Cavern’s property. I and all my siblings worked at the Cavern’s in one capacity or another through High School.

    The story of Lester Howe and the Caverns is intriguing. If you are interested in more in-depth treatment I recommend The Remarkable Howe Caverns Story by Dana Cudmore available in many local NY public libraries or through Amazon.com.

    • Wow, Jim! That must have been terrific! Do you know if there are other caves around? Here in Oneida County, a very old history book (History of the Town of Paris) tells of caves in the hills, but no one has found anything that I am aware of.

  2. Jim Muller says:

    I believe there are 200+ known caves in Schoharie County and a large number in adjoining Albany County. Certainly Howe Caverns is among of the largest but there are several others. Nearby McFail’s Cave, at seven miles is the longest cave system in the northeastern US.

    Your comment about feeling “Maybe someday I will stumble upon a cave like Lester Howe did!” certainly is warranted!