About an hour west of Albany, NY, off State Route 7 in the Schoharie Valley, just north of Cobleskill Creek. The Caverns are the second most popular natural attraction of New York State, after Niagara Falls. I toured the caverns (and the nearby Secret Caverns) on September 30, 2000; here's what I gleaned from the lovely and professional tour guide, and the literature. (There's also a web site at www.howecaverns.com)

Before white settlers arrived, the Iroquois natives knew it as Otsgaragee, "Cave of Great Galleries". They associated caves with the underworld and death, and no American Indian artifacts have been discovered in Howe or Secret Caverns. White settlers knew it as "Blowing Rock", where cool breezes wafted from a rocky ledge, even on the hottest, stillest summer days.

The caverns were (re-)discovered on May 22, 1842 by Lester Howe, a newly-settled farmer. Howe noticed his cows would gather on the hillside, in the sun, rather than keeping cool in the shade. Curious, he checked out the cows' gathering spot, and uncovered the brush-hidden cave entrance.

Howe quickly developed a business of giving tours of the caverns: 50 cents (about a week's wages) for an 8-10 hour tortuous cavern crawl, much of it through icy water, by the light of oil lamps. He built the Cave House Hotel (dining room "air-conditioned" by cave breezes), and his daughter, Harriet Elgiva Howe, was wedded to Hiram Shipman Dewey in the caves on September 27, 1854 as a publicity stunt. A slab of translucent calcite, cut in the shape of a heart and lit from beneath, has since been laid into the brick floor of The Bridal Chamber. Tradition holds that if you stand on the heart, you will be married within the year.

The modern tour starts at the back of the explored caverns, 1.5 miles from the original entrance. Ownership of the caverns exchanged to a quarrying concern in 1900, and they still retain the natural entrance property. If the caverns are not flooded (as happens seasonally), the tour includes a boat ride on the imaginatively named River Styx, propelled by the the tour guide with pole and by strategic handholds. My guide claimed that tour guides take an accidental tumble into the stream about once a month. Many features of the tour are named from classical mythology: Naiads' Grottoes, Titan's Temple, Lake of Venus, Cove of Alcestis, etc. The boat ride doubles back at the cement company's property line (demarked by a chain, and passage discouraged by a waterfall). There are several unexplored branches, one beyond the Bridal Chamber and at least three back of the elevator entrance. The comfort and safety of the tour has improved considerably since Howe's time. At the expense of (gasp!) half a million (1927) dollars, the walkways were paved with brick, elevators installed at the modern entry point, electric lighting strung throughout, and boats docked on the River Styx.

The tour takes about 1.5 hours, at an adult admission price of $12.50. Tour groups enter the caves every 15 minutes via the elevators, 9AM-5PM (as many as 12,000 a day in summer). I recommend visiting in the off-season (autumn and winter), as tour groups will be smaller and more leisurely. Since the temperature of the caves is a year-round 52 degrees F., the visiting spelunker is advised to bring an appropriate jacket. (I was comfortable in a sweatjacket layered under a quilted flannel shirt, and walking boots are advisable on the somewhat-slick brick walkways.) The limited lighting recommends long film exposures. The tour guides are very knowledgeable about the history and formations of the caverns, although the comparisons of various formations to animals, faces, and buildings are often stretched. Fossils are not highlighted in the tour (although my guide said her boss had once pointed one out to her). In October, there are "Haunted Caverns" tours: children are encouraged to costume, and costumed employees hide throughout the caverns to startle and amuse. The gift shop is pretty useless (unless you want a souvenir coffee mug or keyring); it's mostly overpriced and unrelated crafts, knick-knacks, and non-native pebbles for those who can't enjoy a natural wonder without buying something.

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