Mother Nature has been working her magic underground for millions of years using water, tectonic movement, and wind to create hidden worlds filled with incredible sculptures, massive flowstones, and delicate crystals. We know these subterranean worlds as caves or caverns, which provide valuable information about how our earth has evolved.
Over the years, caves have served as homes, burial grounds, and sites for religious practices. Because of the near-constant conditions in caverns, sensitive artifacts such as relics of ancient Indian civilizations and prehistoric animals’ remains are preserved within caves.
Most people don’t realize what is under their feet. Much of the drinking water you and I enjoy flows through caves before reaching wells, springs, and aquifers.
This year, caves across the nation, including caves in Pennsylvania, are celebrating the International Year of Caves and Karst, organized by the International Union of Speleology, to draw attention to the promotion and protection of caves and karst.
What is karst? Karst landscapes include underground streams, caves, sinkholes, and other features formed when bedrock is dissolved by water. One-fifth of the land in the United States is considered karst.
Thanks to the region’s thick layers of limestone, Pennsylvania offers a treasure trove of caves to explore. The Keystone State is home to seven beautiful show caves and approximately 1,100 other private mapped caverns across the state.
The caves are listed in a clockwise circle starting in the western part of the state. Each cavern is different and has unique features.
Lincoln Caverns and Whisper Rocks and Penn’s Cave and Wildlife Park provided free admission. All opinions remain my own.
1. Laurel Caverns
Laurel Caverns is situated in the Laurel Highlands atop Chestnut Ridge. The Laurel Caverns has over three miles of passages and is Pennsylvania’s largest cave. You can enjoy a well-lit guided tour or, if you’re more adventurous, try the three-hour spelunking tour.
A natural cave, Laurel Caverns follows the slope of the mountain and maybe strenuous walking for some.
Aside from the cave, the 43-acre park offers a magnificent seven-county view, a visitor center, rappelling, indoor mini-golf, picnicking, and educational programs.
The Laurel Caverns are open daily May through October, and then on weekends in March, April, and November.
2. Lincoln Caverns And Whisper Rocks
Celebrating a big anniversary this year, Lincoln Caverns and Whisper Rocks are enjoying their 90th anniversary of being open to the public. Located along Route 22, three miles west of Huntingdon, Lincoln Caverns provides one-hour interpretive tours of both spectacular caves.
Whisper Rocks contains some of the most spectacular and unique speleothems found in Pennsylvania, and Lincoln Caverns boasts one of the most comprehensive educational programs of all the Pennsylvania show caves.
Aside from their interpretive tours and educational programs, they also offer special events such as Santa in the Cave, Ghosts and Goblins Tours, Batfest, Ultimate Underground Birthdays, and Bunny Underground. During the summer, they host Discovery Days, Kids Cave Kamp, T-Rex Tuesdays, Photography Tours, and weekly Come To The Dark Side Blacklight Adventures.
When I visited, we participated in a blacklight adventure which shows the cavern in a totally different light. Our tour started with a pre-tour program, An Introduction to Speleology: The Study of Caves.
We were each given a handheld blacklight to help guide us through the cavern and view the amazing fluorescent calcite crystals and glowing speleothems’ phosphorescent beauty. We also learned how mother nature created the formations, the caverns’ history, and the need to protect caves and karst areas.
After seeing things via the black light, we were able to view them in regular light. It was great to see them in different ways.
Lincoln Caverns is also spearheading several International Year of Caves and Karst activities throughout the summer.
Amenities include the Raystown Rocks Gift Shop and gem panning. Lincoln Caverns is the closest cave to the beautiful Raystown Lake. It is open year-round, check their website for hours.
3. Penn’s Cave And Wildlife Park
Penn’s Cave and Wildlife Park is America’s only all-water cavern and farm-nature-wildlife park. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Penn’s Cave was discovered in 1885.
Sitting above the cave is a farm. When you take the cave tour, they talk about the different aspects of the farm above ground.
There are two separate tours: the cave tour by boat and the wildlife park tour.
The 45-minute fully-guided cave tour is entirely by flat-bottom motorboat. It is the only way to see the cave. You board the boat near the cave entryway. Each boat holds 20 to 22 people. The guide sits at one end and steers the boat through the winding cavern passageways, stopping to point out the highlights and unique formations often in mysteriously familiar shapes, such as The Garden of the Gods and The Statue of Liberty.
The boat exits the end of the cave and then includes a ride on Lake Nitanee. From the lake, you can see the barn and other buildings that sit above the cave. You then reenter the cavern via the river flowing through it and go back through the cave. I found it to be a fun experience to enjoy the cave by boat.
The cave tour is not handicapped accessible. A 300-foot paved inclined path leads to 48 steep concrete steps with handrails down to the entrance where the tour boats are boarded.
The 90-minute wildlife park tour is also fully guided. You ride a bus through the various portions of the park, where 1,600 acres have been carefully preserved for birds and animals. Some of the animals you see on this tour are Texas longhorn cattle, foxes, wolves, bears, bison, bighorn sheep, whitetail deer, elk, mustangs, and a mountain lion.
You might also enjoy Prospector Pete’s Miners Maze, shopping the vast gift shop, grabbing a snack at the Cave Cafe, or eating in the picnic area. There is also gemstone panning.
4. Woodward Cave
The Hall of Statues in Woodward Cave is over 200 feet long. It is nicknamed The Big One. This is one cave that is easily walked and has large, well-lit passageways.
The guided cave tour is a half-mile in length and goes through five different rooms within the cave. You will see one of the largest stalagmites in the U.S., called the Tower of Babel.
One of the rooms in Woodward Cave was used by the Seneca Indians for their religious ceremonies. Early settlers named the room the Red Panther Cave. The cave also was reported to have sheltered a band of robbers more than 100 years ago.
Woodward cave is adjacent to an RV campground with all kinds of summer activities and a gift shop, a recreation hall, a picnic pavilion, cabin rentals, and a lunch stand.
5. Lost River Caverns
Guided walking tours through the five cave chambers with crystal formations and an underground river are the Lost River Caverns’ highlights. The tour takes you along 1,200 feet of paved walkways that are well lighted. There are several ramps and eight steps.
An interesting fact about this cavern: During the late 1800s, a wooden ballroom dance floor was installed in what is now called the Crystal Chapel, and dances were held in the cave’s natural air conditioning. After it was purchased for a show cave, and up till 2009, over 100 ceremonies were held in the Crystal Chapel. I bet they were memorable celebrations.
Located south of Bethlehem, other amenities on Lost River Canyon’s grounds include an indoor tropical garden, a nature trail, souvenirs, gem panning, a picnic grove, a rock and mineral museum, and more.
Lost River Caverns is open year-round except for holidays.
6. Echo Dell, Home Of Indian Echo Caverns
Visitors of Indian Echo Caverns tread on the same paths the Susquehannock Indians and early explorers walked. The caves are rich in history and local legends.
Minutes from Harrisburg, Hershey, and Lancaster, Indian Echo Caverns provides a 45-minute guided tour of breathtaking natural beauty underground. Featuring fantastic geological formations and crystal clear sparkling lakes, you will visit various stunning rooms, including the Wedding Chapel.
Other amenities include a petting barnyard, panning for gemstones, a 4,000-square-foot gift shop, covered picnic areas, and a playground. Indian Echo Caverns is open year-round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
7. Crystal Cave
Pennsylvania’s very first show cave, located near Kutztown, off Rt. 222, Crystal Cave is famous for its varied formations. It is the most heavily visited cavern in the state, sitting on 15 scenic acres, and has thrilled millions of visitors since it opened in 1871. One of the oldest continuously operating show caves in the United States, Crystal Cave is also considered one of the most beautiful.
When visiting, you will be amazed when you step inside to view the dazzling display of crystal magnificence created by nature. Calcite and aragonite crystals sparkle in various colors everywhere you look. This geologic wonderland contains delicate flutings, drapery, flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, and more.
They provide a one-hour walking tour of the cavern along safe concrete walkways with steel railings. Also on premises is a gift shop, fast food, mini-golf, museum, gemstone panning, and a nature trail.
- Take a sweater or light jacket. Caverns are usually between 48 and 52 degrees year-round.
- Mother Nature did not make most caves handicapped accessible. Please check their websites to verify accessibility information.
- While caves have lighting inside, there are places where it is dim. If vision is a problem, you might want to reconsider.
- Wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes for walking around the caves. Some caves are damp and wet.
- Some caves do not permit backpacks, oversized bags, strollers, walking sticks, umbrellas, tripods, monopods, selfie sticks, pets, video cameras, food, or beverages. Check their websites for details.
- Don’t touch: The formations underground are often delicate, and just touching the walls with the oil from your skin can cause damage. A careless touch can ruin what took centuries to form.