Editor’s Note: New York by Rail updated this September 2018 blog experience to include current information.
On Friday, June 26, Howe Caverns reopened after being temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team at Howe Caverns is taking precautionary measures and monitoring the situation closely in order to keep its guests and employees safe. Tours are by prepaid reservations only and with limited tour capacities. This is an inside look at the Adventure Tours at Howe Caverns.
After getting a first taste of the jagged rock formations and glimmering waters that lurk below the surface of Howe Caverns, 40 miles west of Albany, New York, you can journey deeper into the mysterious caves. The Howe Caverns Adventure Tour goes beyond that of the traditional tours, giving amateur spelunkers a bolder subterranean experience.
Going Deeper, Seeing More
After Lester Howe discovered the caverns in the early 1800’s, teams of explorers had to crawl through narrow alleys and shimmy across scant pathways. The damp caverns were treacherous and uninviting. It took courage to delve deeper and deeper into the abyss. Their brave work studying the natural labyrinth paved the way for the public to enjoy the splendid underground formations.
By the early 1900’s, visitors had the ease of an elevator rather than the intense feat of squirming through tight crevices. For years, the experiences of Howe and his original team of adventurers were forgotten. There were parts of the cave not seen in over a hundred years, until now. On Howe Cavern’s Adventure Tour, you can step into the boots of those early spelunkers and learn about aspects of the caverns long shrouded in mystery.
Howe Caverns’ professional guides provide new “cavers” with the training required to venture through tight passageways and deep trenches. These speleological experts have intimate knowledge of the caverns. They adapt the tour to the ever-changing underground landscape as they lead your expedition through rarely seen stone corridors illuminated by only the light on your helmet.
One of the highlights of the tour is called the Mystery Passage, a majestic earthen alley carved over the eons by flowing water. Submerged up to your ankles in a shimmering streambed, you’ll witness firsthand what it takes for water to erode mighty sections of rock and pave the passageways within the cave.
From the Mystery Passage, you’ll head to one of Howe Cavern’s colossal wonders, the Great Rotunda. This enormous underground cathedral is an oasis of space after slithering through mud-covered crannies. Marble streaks run up its towering walls to the ceiling, a lofty 107 feet above you. As a Howe Cavern “potholer”, seeing this naturally-formed silo-shaped dome is a treat seldom experienced by others. To protect its intriguing mineral formations, the Great Rotunda has been closed to the public for 125 years, except for the few who take the Adventure Tour.
Signature Rock Tours
Due to COVID-19, the Signature Rock tours are only offered at 12 p.m. once a day. Reservations are required to take part in this tour.
Looking for an even more exclusive experience? The Signature Rock Discovery Tour ventures into parts of Howe Caverns shut off from the world for over a century. This is the longest cave-exploration experience available at Howe Caverns. Visiting spelunkers spend hours getting to know the caverns the way Howe’s crew did, seeing evidence of their explorations and reaching parts of the caves reopened only since 2015.
Grab your helmet and headlamp for the 3-hour Signature Rock Tour 156 feet below the Earth’s Surface. | Photo Courtesy of Howe Caverns
The Signature Rock Tour begins with a question, “What is behind those “dam” doors?”, which really are a dam. The mammoth walls were installed in the early 1900s by the Helderberg Cement Company. Constructing the dam was necessary to preserve the caverns after nearly a thousand feet of them were destroyed in an attempt to mine limestone.
The doors are a portal into another world. Artifacts dating back to the time of Lester Howe litter the stream that runs along the base of the cave, allowing visitors to peek into the past. One of the first things you’ll see is the tattered hull of a wooden boat. Its ghostly wreckage implies danger, but on the contrary, it was once a symbol of safety. Lester Howe himself piloted the boat, transporting guests across Lake Venus, the underground lake within the caverns.
At the next stop along the tour, you’ll visit the “Music Hall”, where you’ll hear each other much more clearly. Mother Nature formed this space with perfect acoustics. Echoes reverberate off the slick walls more intensely here than in any other section of the cave system.
Next, you’ll see a huge, primitive fan lying along the route. One of Howe’s clever ideas, the purpose of this giant fan was three-fold: to prevent noxious gasses and fumes caused by quarry-blasts from entering the cave; to provide “air conditioning” to the lodge, and to circulate air within the caves.
The remains of a massive pipeline reveal more of the history of Howe Caverns. Also designed by Howe, the pipeline was part of an effort to improve conditions and rejuvenate business in the wake of the Civil War, when the North’s economic prosperity meant a potential increase in tourism. The pipeline’s purpose was to provide gas for lighting dimmer parts of the cave. Other pipeline systems installed by Howe created running water for drinking and above-ground landscaping.
The next stop, the voluminous Congress Hall, shares a few of the resonating characteristics of the Music Hall, with one added bonus, a deposit of gypsum from which emanates a dazzling light display. Gypsum is formed when limestone absorbs an excessive amount of water. During the 19th century, gypsum was used in the production of gunpowder. Today it is used in fertilizer, plaster, blackboard chalk and wallboard. It has a bountiful presence within Howe Caverns.
From Congress Hall, the tour heads down “Franklin Avenue”, which is known for its immense, high ceiling and gaping pit. The pit is really a treacherous gorge that fills the room with the loud sound of rushing water. It’s a memorable audio-visual experience.
At the end of the tour, spelunkers finally learn how the tour got its name. The “Signature Rock” is a behemoth flowstone formation. Flowstone is formed in much the same way as stalactites and stalagmites, except the water flows down the cavern walls creating what looks like rippling, colorful ice. Scrawled on Signature Rock are hundreds of initials and cursive letterings, some dating back to 1843. It’s a wall of history that only a select few get to see.
Take Amtrak to Howe Caverns
From SDY: Enterprise picks you up at the station and takes you to your reserved #NYTRAIN Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Click here to reserve your car, or call Enterprise’s Schenectady office, Tel. 518-374-7890.
Howe Caverns provides ground transportation from ALB or SDY if you stay at the Howe Caverns Motel.
Other Packages from Howe Caverns
Tour & Stay Package
One night’s stay at the Howe Caverns Motel, two adult tickets for the Traditional Howe Caverns Tour, ½ pound of Howe Caverns’ homemade fudge and one large bag of gem mining rough.
Lantern Tour Package
Friday and Saturday evenings, year-round. The tour lasts approximately two hours. Limited to 12 guests. Advance reservations are required.
Sweetheart Tour Package
Champagne for two and special chocolate treats upon arrival in your room.
Ultimate Couples Package
A most special, adventurous date night! Tours of the caverns and the Signature Rock Discovery Tour, plus upscale dining for two at the American Hotel Restaurant, complimentary wine and fudge upon arrival to the room and gem mining with a special keepsake of your own creation.
Culinary Delight Package
After your tour of the caverns, enjoy a five-course dinner at the American Hotel in Sharon Springs, NY.
Sunday Family Flashlight Tour Package
A fun, educational adventure for families! A variation of the Lantern Tour with flashlights and headlamps.
Adventure Park Package
After your tour of the caverns, challenge yourself on Howe High Adventure’s zip line, ropes course, rock wall and in the H2OGO ball.
Howe Caverns Adventure Tour
True spelunking, including wading through water and crawling through skinny passageways with helmet lights and other gear provided by Howe Caverns.