Caves in New York: Go Underground to Explore the Depths of These Caverns
October 23, 2020
The hills of Upstate New York are filled with elaborate underground cave systems. And some of them are open to the public! See an underground waterfall, go on an underground boat ride, learn about the stalagmites and stalactites, and more at the caves in New York. So grab your coat and put on your boots. These caverns are waiting for you!
Why are there so many caves in New York?
Like many of the natural features around New York State, the glaciers played a big role in forming the landscape during the ice age. While the glaciers slowly made their way across the earth, cracks formed in the layers of limestone. Over time, the cracks filled with water which expanded and shaped the crevices, which continue to change to this day.
As you descend into the different caves, you’ll notice the different layers of stone present, and get a feel for just how old the cave systems are. Keep in mind how slowly they change – many of these caverns are millions of years old! Naturally formed over so many years, calcite deposits continue to form, stalactites drip and take shape along the cave ceilings, and stalagmites build up from the cave floors.
The caves mentioned here are located in Cobleskill in Schoharie County of Upstate New York, but there are caves all over – and not just in New York! I’ve been lucky enough to visit caves in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and even Australia!
Before You Go Spelunking
Be prepared! Caves can be cold, and often wet. Most caves in New York have a steady temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit year round, so they recommend that you wear a light jacket to stay warm underground. And since you’ll be exploring natural rocks in the caverns, the ground can be uneven and/or wet. Good sneakers or hiking boots are a must!
Lastly, be prepared to walk! And if small spaces and lots of stairs make you uneasy, caves are not for you. To get into the caverns, and to explore the different sections, you’ll need to go down – and back up – lots and lots of stairs. Then while you’re exploring the caves, you’ll be meandering through tight crevices, in both width and height!
Don’t worry, the sections that are open to the public have been deemed safe for visitors. There are several more miles of cave that aren’t fully explored or open to the public.
Howe Caverns is the second largest natural tourist attraction in New York State, yet its discovery is a bit unclear. Historians are unsure whether Native Americans extensively explored the cave systems, or if they were fearful of what lied underground. The first reported visit by a European settler happened in 1770 by Jonathan Schmul – before he disappeared from the history books.
The caves sat vacant for several years, as people lost track of where the entrance was. That is, until the 1840s when the Howe family noticed that their cows always hung out in one area in the pasture. On May 22nd, 1842, Lester Howe discovered a cold air coming from the ground – and rediscovered the cave below!
Howe Caverns Tour
The original tours of Howe Caverns in the 1800s lasted 8 to 10 hours and only cost fifty cents! Today tours cost a bit more and don’t last nearly as long. The standard tour is now 90 minutes long at a price of $25 for adults and $15 for children (5-12).
If the main tour isn’t enough to satisfy your spelunking desires, there are several more tours available, offering a variety of options at different prices. Lantern tours are offered on Friday and Saturday evenings with a family flashlight tour option on Sundays. The most expensive options are the adventure tours, which take you to places in the caverns that aren’t typically seen by visitors.
This October, Howe Caverns is home to The Underworld, a haunted adventure through the caves. This unique haunted house takes visitors over 150 feet underground to enjoy the beauty of the caves – just watch out for the monsters!
Colorful lights, fog, and actors transform the caves into an attraction perfect for the Halloween season. Guests can take the elevator down to the caves and walk the pathways through the caves. Unlike a typical haunted house, the places with the biggest scares are a bit roomy – so no need to worry about hitting your head on the rocks!
At the end of the path you’ll enter a boat to travel the remainder of the way, with a guide to lead you. Halfway through the haunt, you’ll turn around and retrace some of your steps – which means you’ll know where some of the scares are coming! It’s always fun to watch others who aren’t expecting it! Don’t worry though, the path veers off a different tunnel so it isn’t all the same. But there are some tight turns that will add another level of fear for the claustrophobic.
Well… they aren’t a secret anymore! Located just around the corner from Howe Caverns, Secret Caverns are the lesser known, but just as awesome, neighboring caves.
Secret Caverns were discovered in 1928 when two cows fell into a hole in the ground! Crazy, right?! Unfortunately, Lucky and Floyd did not survive their ‘exploration’. But upon finding the whole in the ground, local engineer, Roger Mallery, got together a crew to find out what was down there.
Mallery, an employee at nearby Howe Caverns, named the new cave system ‘Secret’ as he tried to separate it from the other. While the caverns are so close together, they do not connect as they run parallel to each other.
Secret Caverns Tour
While driving through Schoharie County and the town of Cobleskill, you can’t help but learn about Secret Caverns. There are colorful, quirky billboards everywhere! Again, not so secret.
Visitors can only explore the caves on a guided tour, which depart every hour from the visitor center. You’ll descend 103 stairs to go about 149 feet underground to start the tour. The tours are fairly laidback as the guide takes you a quarter mile through the cave, providing information about its formation and answering questions along the way. And surprisingly, unlike other caverns, visitors are allowed to touch the rock and mineral formations.
The end of the public access brings you to a 100-foot underground waterfall. SO COOL! Of course, this is the spot where everyone on the tour will want to take photos, so it’s a great chance to ask the tour guide more questions. Which is what we did, of course! We had to know if the caves were haunted, and our guide said he believed they were. A little girl went missing in the area in the 1930s, never to be found. Local rumors say that she might be down there somewhere…
Once you’re done taking photos, make your way back to the cave entrance at your own pace. The whole tour takes about 45 minutes to an hour.
When visiting Secret Caverns, you’ll also see signs for Ice Caves. While the entrance has been closed off, you can still walk over to see where it’s been sealed. Just a few yards from the entrance to Secret, Ice Caves used to be open – until farm animals kept falling in! Our guide told us about goats and even a blind raccoon that they had to rescue from the depths of the caves.