When I was between the ages of 9 and 11, I was fascinated by all things rocks, caves, and fossils. I had always wanted to explore caves, but the only things closest to anything resembling a cave were animal dens in the woods (A, not much to see; B, not a wise idea).
Howe Caverns’ Adventure Tour is a two-to-three hour excursion below ground, with guests suiting up in full gear and exploring parts of the cave that hadn’t been seen in 125 years—many of them narrow and requiring crawling. I first heard about it back in 2010, when I decided to take Nathan up there for the weekend and show him a place that was special to my past (I had always, as a kid, wanted to stay in the Howe Caverns Motel, so it was doubly exciting). They had an Adventure Tour package—and I knew Nathan had done much cave exploring when he was a kid—but I figured for a first-time outing something taming would be a better idea. Obviously, there was going to be too much going on the weekend of our wedding to check it out, so we held off.
We were given the amazing gift of being able to do it this weekend in honor of our first wedding anniversary! If you’ve always wanted to explore caves and feel adventurous safely, the Howe Caverns Adventure Tour is the way to go (visit www.howecaverns.com for all the details and to book). If you simply can’t do it because you’re claustrophobic, afraid of the dark, or whatever, then you can take this virtual “tour” below, as well as some video. Enjoy!
Editor’s Note: The “tour” below won’t spoil the adventure for those planning to go…there’s lots more to see than depicted here, number 1, and number 2? There’s just nothing like having the full-on tactile experience.
Click on the photos if you’d like to see larger and more detailed images.
Our “Official Tour Photo” taken after we’d emerged from the caves.
Our tour guide, Laura, is in her 6th Season of escorting guests through the mysterious passages of Howe Caverns. She has a true passion for geology and is fun to listen to and talk with!
Underneath this metal plate is the original test hole for locating a cave entrance. It was drilled in 1927.
The underground vestibule, where all cave tours begin. I have tons of photos of this because it always reminds me of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction (really, it should be the other way around since this was here first…it’s more likely Disney was inspired by cave entrances like this one).
Remember the metal plate I showed you earlier? This is the original test hole in the ceiling of the vestibule.
Laura pointed out these metal tools; they were for drilling a well. Someone likely tried to find the underground water source to tap into and, when they didn’t find it, left the equipment behind.
Nathan touches a DEAD calcite formation. ACTIVE calcite formations should NEVER be touched, because the oils in human fingers will damage the mineral and it will stop forming. This is one of the only ones in Howe Caverns that is permissible to touch.
Laura took the opportunity to show us some neat things she’s found over the years in the main cave—things that usually aren’t mentioned on the regular tour. This is what she calls “The Bacon Strip,” and we can see it because she is shining her flashlight behind the formation (calcite is translucent). Basically, the white part is pure calcite, and the colored stripe is a mineral impurity. What’s cool about this is at one time the calcite dripped pure, then it went through a period in which it dripped through with impurities—and then it was pure again. That’s how this “bacon strip” came to form. Kinda cool!
Another of Laura’s favorite formations in the cave that isn’t featured on the regular tour (there are a few she has; I won’t spoil them all!) This one she calls “Cinderella’s Castle” because it looks like the steps the soon-to-be princess uses to flee when the clock strikes midnight.
And here we are at the point at which the Adventure Tour begins.
This is a tiny brachiopod fossil that has been exposed over the years (it’s the black thing with a light-shine in the middle of it). There are impressions of other brachiopods to the right.
Laura gets the tub that contains our gear.
Nathan and Laura suiting up.
My kneepads. They go on under the suits.
Me and Nathan, suited up and ready to go!
Climbing down these steps to get into the hole at the bottom was actually the scariest part of the tour for me. Back in 1999 I got lost hiking, and ended up having to climb down a sheer cliff. I’m not afraid to go up, and never have been, but ever since that October day I have been terrified of climbing down anything steep.
You would not believe how small the entrance hole is. Here’s me clowning around with Laura before we go in – yes, it really did make me nervous; I also hope it gives you some perspective on the steep stairs we had to descend.
Okay, yeah, muddy handprints on the chest. Couldn’t resist.
Here’s me entering the part of the cave they call “Fat Man’s Misery.” See how tight it is?
You can crouch going through some of this part of the passage, but there’s water and it’s narrow going. The biggest danger here is twisting the ankle.
Here we are a-crawling!
This hole was formed by a glacier. There are several of these in the ceiling along the passageway.
The June floods left more than just mud behind. Laura, who has been through this passage many times, noted that ever since the June floods, one of the glacier holes keeps dropping “stuff” on the ground—perhaps fossils, perhaps seeds, perhaps snails; she said when she first found the pile of stuff she was creeped out, until she figured out what it was that was falling and where it was coming from: it’s likely the rushing waters simply deposited a lot of crap that got stuck, or wore away some of the rock to let loose its embedded treasures. Here is the shell of a tiny snail. I’m not exactly sure if it’s a fossil or if it’s from a modern-day creature.
Look closely at the end of Laura’s glove—that’s right, it’s a tiny plant! Aside from moss, which grows in the main cave ONLY near the man-made light sources, no plant life exists this far down, largely because of the lack of light. Laura thinks a seed may have been washed in from the June floods (this was only a foot or so from the pile of “stuff” mentioned in the previous photo’s caption), and that just enough head-lamped people come through here on the Adventure Tours it serves as an adequate light source.
Here’s us in a narrow passageway. I think the “head and shoulder”-shape of the tunnel is interesting.
Here’s us in a narrow passageway. I think the “head and shoulder”-shape of the tunnel is interesting.
This is a giant dome of mud.
Another glacier hole; this is above the pile of mud.
Nathan scales the mud dome to peer into the glacier hole above it.
The hole in the center of the picture is the exit of the narrow head-and-shoulder tunnel. This is looking back toward it from the other side of the dome of mud.
Taking a break on the mud dome.
The mud only gets stickier from here: Laura shows us how thick and sticky the mud is in this area so we can compare it with mud deposits further in.
I don’t know what the hell I was doing here. Clowning around about something.
Here, Laura shows us an interesting formation (look above her head).
“Oh look! How cute! Mud men!” A previous tour left these behind. This is an area a few feet before what’s called the Junior Rotunda. The mud here is very sticky.
A “mud man” up close!
Apparently, everyone likes to play with the mud. Here, someone’s made an egg in a nest.
Nathan adds to the collection by leaving an “S” for our last name…
…and here’s a goofy face another previous traveler left behind…
In one of the few areas in this tour that allows a person to stand up at full height, Laura points out the different strata above us.
Me, I think. I thought it looked like an artsy picture, so I just threw it in here.
Examining a wall.
Yet another glacier hole. Notice the spots—water droplets. In fact, when you breathe down there in the light, you can see the water droplets in your own breath; your breath seems to come out like a solid rush of particles. It’s kinda weird!
The entrance to the Great Rotunda, which is the final stop on the tour.
Just beyond the Great Rotunda exists the Lake of Mystery; it’s the furthest our tour can go, as water levels beyond this point get so high the only way to go through it is floating on your back and breathing with about an inch between the end of your nose and the ceiling. Thanks to an intrepid bunch of explorers in 1955, we know that once the Lake of Mystery has been conquered, there are two similar lakes beyond. The explorers were forced to stop beyond the second lake, as a rock fall prevents any further forward movement.//Notice the measuring stick–used to monitor the lake’s level, which rises and falls with spring rains. The white is the current level—which is also what’s considered the “normal” level. During the June floods, it had reached the 22” mark (indicated in yellow).
Taking a seat in the Great Rotunda.
Laura, our tour guide. Not many people bring cameras down, so I thought we’d take this opportunity to get a shot of her “at work.” Might make a nice framed photo! I’m planning on sending it to her.
Me and Nathan chillin’ in the Great Rotunda.
A view of the “head and shoulders” tunnel on the return journey.
Me, emerging from “Fat Man’s Misery” on the return journey.
Earlier in this post, I talked about why you should never touch an active calcite formation. Here, we get a unique perspective on that fact. Using a flashlight, we can see just what kind of damage the human touch can cause. Check it out!
This will give you a sense of what voices sound like in the great cave. This area is where Lester Howe, back in the 1800s, shot bottle rockets in order to illuminate the 107-foot-high ceiling for his intrepid guests.
Although I keep interrupting because I’m so amazed, here’s an opportunity to experience total silence. It’s weird; you can’t even hear your own body. Laura also describes the intense darkness in the cave; it’s theorized that being in such darkness for two weeks would result in temporary blindness.