Howe Caverns: The Catskills Cave Tour Every Kid Needs to Take
Howe Caverns, part natural wonder and part tourist attraction, has been one of my favorite spots in the Catskills since I was a little kid. Going back as a grown-up, the dark, chilly, yet very family-friendly cave tour was just as fascinating and delightfully cheesy as I remembered.
In the summer months, you can spend a whole day at Howe Caverns, pairing a cave tour with a ride on a zip line and/or a roll down a hill in a human-sized hamster ball, but for me, the caverns are the real draw here. The basic tour involves a 90-minute walk and a short boat ride in the cave's own River Styx. The temperature hovers around 52 degrees Fahrenheit (so bring a sweatshirt in the summer months) and there are lots of staircases, so it's not stroller-friendly. If you're traveling with a toddler, be prepared to carry them, and fill them up with snacks before your head down into the depths, as food is not allowed in the caverns. You can read all the rules below:
Despite its off-the-beaten-path location, Howe Caverns can get really busy! It's second most-visited natural attraction in New York State, topped only by Niagara Falls. And, yes, the start of the cave tour definitely has the gimmicky sheen of an amusement park, complete with a slightly creepy talking statue of Lester Howe, who discovered the cave in 1842. The caverns have the trappings of a tourist trap, but they're so much more than that.
Pro tip: If you're visiting on a summer morning, you'll want to get to Howe Caverns around opening time to beat the summer camp kids, but if there's a huge group heading in for the first tour of the day, find out when the next group is leaving and consider waiting. We noticed that following groups were much smaller.
Once you take the giant industrial elevator 156 feet underground, the caverns themselves are truly astounding in their dark, eerie, otherworldly beauty.
Our friendly tour guide (see below) recited a script of fun facts and cave jokes with a contagious level of glee. We found ourselves taking lots of blurry, dark photos of the cave's natural structures, such as the "Chinese Pagoda," below right, and of each other as we wove through narrow tunnels and stepped upon the calcite heart where hundreds of couples allegedly have wed. (A cold, dank cave with a gift shop on top doesn't sound like a particularly romantic spot to me, but to each her own!)
Now, 90 minutes is a long time for a small child to go without daylight or snacks, and our 3-year-old didn't really appreciate the majestic beauty of Howe Caverns. However, our 6-year-old nature buff was ecstatic, and I'm sure he'll carry a magical memory of the caves with him, just like I have since my first visit many years ago.
Side note: As you drive up to Howe Caverns, you'll pass a slew of wild, hand-made signs advertising Secret Caverns, which is an entirely different (and seemingly more trippy) establishment. We haven't visited yet, but next time we're in the neighborhood, we're definitely going to check it out.