New York is home to some incredible caves, and Howe Caverns in Schoharie County is among the best.
Located in Central New York, Howe Caverns is actually said to be the second most visited natural attraction in New York after Niagara Falls, drawing more visitors than other incredible spots like High Falls Gorge, Taughannock Falls, and Panama Rocks.
Howe Caverns was discovered in May 1842 by Lester Howe. Howe was a local farmer that noticed that, on hot days, his cows would all congregate near a clump of bushes. After investigating, he found a small cave entrance. He and his friend Henry Wetsel, who owned the property, began exploring the cave.
Howe quickly recognized it’s potential for development, and, in 1843, began operating eight-hour tours of the caverns. It was the country’s third commercial cave operation.
Due to declining interest and financial troubles, Howe Caverns was sold in the late 1860s, and in 1898, tours of the cavern were stopped in favor of industrial limestone mining.
In 1927, the cavern was sold to two New Yorkers who planned to reopen the cave for tours. They created a new entrance to the cave that was accessed by elevators that descended over 150 feet into the ground. They also installed electric lights and even pathways through the cave to make access easier for visitors.
In May 1929, the cave was reopened to the public and has been open for tours ever since.
Today, tours still start from a visitor center 156 feet above the cavern floor atop a hill a short distance from I-88 in Central New York. In fact, if you are driving along the highway, you can see the large sign made of rocks on the hillside advertising the caverns.
Tours last roughly 80-90 minutes and start with a brief introduction to the history of the cave while you are still above ground. This introduction is imaginatively done with audio by a reenacted version of Lester Howe and even some cartoons on a television screen.
There’s also a great map that shows various points of interest along the tour route. I especially enjoyed seeing where we were headed, but I do wish that I’d been able to reexamine the map after returning from the tour.
After this introduction, groups are lead to the elevator for the short ride down into the cave.
Once inside the cave, guides offer a bit more introduction inside a concrete-lined room that was added to the cave when the elevators where constructed.
The route through the cave is roughly a mile long with a 1/4-mile boat ride at the mid-point of the tour. The constructed walkways make the path through the cave flat and easy, though there are a few steps, so it’s not quite handicapped accessible.
As you walk through Howe Caverns, guides offer a ton of great insight into the geology and history of the site, as well as a few of the corny jokes that you’ll find on any cavern tour.
Several interesting formations are pointed out along the tour, my favorites of which were the pipe organ, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Chinese Pagoda.
After walking about half a mile through the cavern, you come to the end of the path at an area known as the Lake of Venus. At this point, you start what is, in my opinion, the highlight of the tour: the underground boat ride.
After everyone carefully climbs in a flatbottom boat, guides use poles to expertly navigate this shallow and slow-moving underground river around the rock walls and formations.
Riding on an underground river is a unique experience and offers the chance to explore the cavern in a unique way that isn’t available at many show caves throughout the country.
After a short distance, the guide turns the boat around and returns to the dock.
Part of the walk back to the entrance is along the same path you came in on, but about halfway back, the route deviates and heads up a series of steps to the wedding chapel where more than 700 weddings have been performed over the years.
Another highlight of the tour was the last passage of the trip known as The Winding Way. This is a narrow crevice through the cavern that winds its way back towards the entrance. Along the way, the walls tower above you and frequent turns can create the illusion that you are alone in the cave.
This area is truly a great end to a really fun tour.
Honestly, I’ve done many cave tours throughout my time as a travel writer and Howe Caverns easily ranks among the best. Not only are there many interesting formations to look at, but the combination of the unique Winding Way and the boat ride really creates a special experience that’s different from the many other show caves in New York.
If you are looking for a fun activity for the whole family in Schoharie County, I highly recommend taking a tour of Howe Caverns.
Note: My tour of Howe Caverns was hosted by the site. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
Hours: Hours vary. See website.
Cost: Adults: $25, Kids: $13
Address: 255 Discovery Dr