Going underground -- literally

capital region cave trips composite

By Julie Madsen

Caves are dark, damp, and dangerous -- yet they have always been an alluring mystery for people, filled with their otherworldly formations and maze-like passages.

Whether you are a novice to caving or more seasoned spelunker, here are a a few caverns within day trip distance to the Capital Region to discover.

Safety in caves

Cave systems are an unforgiving landscape where accidents can result in death. Being prepared and knowing your limitations are important for exploring the unique terrain in a safe manner.

Always carry multiple sources of light, preferably one mounted on your head. Helpful gear includes a helmet for low ceilings, gloves to avoid scraping your hands when crab walking, and warm clothing because it is generally colder inside a cave. Check the weather forecast and do not enter a cave during rain. Tell someone on the surface where you plan on going.

In short, if you don't have experience or knowledge to explore a cave without a guide or someone who is an experienced spelunker, you should not do it.

Here's guide to responsible caving from the Speleological Society.

Preserving the environment
+ Do not disturb the bats!
+ Also: White Nose Syndrome was discovered in Upstate New York in 2006 - it is a fungal disease which has caused the death of millions of bats. Humans can spread the disease accidentally by carrying the fungus on their gear. It is important not to wear shoes or clothing previously worn in any caves that could be WNS affected. (Here's info on how to decontaminate.)
+ And as with any kind of hiking, you should practice leave no trace principles.

Commercial caves

Howe Caverns shadows credit Akum Norder
photo: Akum Norder

Howe Caverns
A household name and one of the biggest attractions in the Capital Region, everyone should take a tour of Howe Caverns at least once. Buy your ticket and head down the elevator for a boat ride on an underground river and a hike. It is fun, and filled with the gorgeous formations you'd expect in a cave -- all while in a completely safe and family oriented setting.

Secret Caverns waterfall credit Julie Madsen

Secret Caverns
If you're driving through Schoharie it's hard to miss the folk art signs for the slightly-lesser-known Secret Caverns, which quite close to Howe. It is a bit rougher around the edges than its refined neighbor -- there are no elevators and you have to walk down the 103 stairs to get into the cave. Bonus points: It is more affordable, you can touch the formations, and there is a 100-foot underground waterfall which is the finale of the tour. When you are back outside make sure to visit the ice cave.

Caves in parks and preserves

Indian Ladder Trail cave credit Kathie Dello
photo: Kathie Dello

John Boyd Thacher State Park
The Indian Ladder Trail at Thacher State Park is likely the most visited hiking trail in the entire region, and the narrow cave along it. The limestone landscape of the park created many sinkholes, cliffs, crevices, and caves. Signs along the path mention that Tory Cave sheltered a British loyalist during the Revolutionary War. A picnic shelter is named for Hailes Cave, which is the largest in the park.

Unfortunately many of the caves are off limits (you should follow all posted signs and restrictions), but with all of the work being done in the park maybe we can hope for some of the caves to open soon with guided tours.

Clarksville Cave
The Clarksville Cave in Clarksville hamlet of New Scotland is a true spelunking experience for advanced cavers. The wild horizontal cave has 4,800 feet of passage and three entrances. You will get wet and dirty, so dress appropriately. There is more info about hours and access at the Northeast Cave Conservancy website. (The link just above.)

For this adventure you must have the following equipment: a helmet with a chin strap, three sources of light including one that is helmet mounted, and knee pads. Please refer to the safety protocols of caving and only attempt this if you are an accomplished spelunker.

Dover Stone Church credit Julie Madsen

Dover Stone Church
Not a place of worship, but a shockingly beautiful geological formation. The Dover Stone Church is in a hiking preserve (open dawn to dusk) in the town of Dover in Dutchess County. A short hike of just over a mile round trip leads to the metamorphic cave entrance. The formation acquired the name from its shape which looks like a church's cathedral window. It is a shallow cave and the entrance is illuminated, so it is possible to enter when carefully maneuvering the slippery rocks without any gear.

+ There is no parking in front of the trailhead (3128 NY-22, Dover Plains, NY 12522). When school is not in session, park at Dover Elementary (9 School St, Dover Plains, NY 12522). When school is in session park at the Freshco 22 Plaza (3156 NY-22, Dover Plains, NY 12522).

Widow Jane Cave credit Julie Madsen

Widow Jane Mine
The Widow Jane Mine is at the Century House on the private Snyder Estate in Rosendale and is open the public (seven days a week sunrise to 6 pm). From the depths of the cave natural cement was pulled to build the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, and Grand Central Terminal. Today the base is flooded with ground water creating a mirror-like reflection which seems to go infinitely. The walk is no longer than a quarter of a mile to the cave entrance. Caves naturally have great acoustics and there are sometimes performances here making for a unique experience.

Sams Point Ice Caves credit Julie Madsen

Sam's Point Ice Caves
The Sam's Point Ice Caves are in the Sam's Point Area of the Minnewaska State Preserve Preserve in Ulster County. A well-maintained path guides hikers through a cool passageway with low ceilings and narrow squeezes, though the trail also includes the use of ladders and there are areas where you need to crouch down. As the name suggests, you may find snow and ice in this cave long into the summer. Roundtrip to the cave and back is 3.5 miles.

+ Parking fees apply unless you have an Empire Pass, which allows entry to New York state parks for free. This is a very popular park, especially in summer and fall, and there is limited parking. Try to arrive early or during a weekday if possible.

coopers cave glens falls

Cooper's Cave
Cooper's Cave is located under the Cooper's Cave Bridge, which connects Glens Falls and South Glens Falls. And it was the inspiration for a scene in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. The cave is now connected to a hydroelectric plant and you cannot it, but there is an overlook (open Memorial Day to the end of October) and the waterfall makes for a pleasant view. (Also: You can frequently see albino squirrels.) where albino squirrels are frequently sighted. Afterwards visit the close by Coopers Cave Ale Company whose entrance resembles the namesake cave.

Julie has got the travel-bug. Whether it's day trips, weekend getaways, or wandering around the world -- she's always up to something. Read more about her adventures at juliejourneys.com.

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