Day Trip: To Caves and Caverns

By Joanne Colella

A13ALL(2)As the dog days of summer approach, area residents generally seek out a variety of ways for keeping cool. The most obvious choices are a dip in the pool, a ride to the beach, perhaps a run through the sprinkler, and certainly a taste of one’s favorite ice cream. But for those who may want a uniquely cool – both literally and figuratively – option, here’s another day trip to try: caves and caverns.

Pennsylvania boasts a number of destinations that are popular with fans of stalagmites and stalactites. If you haven’t brushed up on your grammar school science lately, those are the formations created inside caves by deposits of minerals; stalactites hang from the ceiling and stalagmites emerge from the ground. Along with flowstone – another formation from mineral deposits that usually takes on the appearance of draperies, curtains, or waterfalls frozen in time – they create eerily beautiful settings deep within the earth that have fascinated scientists and tourists alike. And while many sites are open and equally enjoyable year-round, the caves’ constant interior temperature, which tends to hover around 52 degrees, provides natural air conditioning for overheated summertime explorers. Light sweaters or jackets and comfortable walking shoes are always recommended.

With the variety of tours, facilities, scenery, and programs that have been developed over the years, caves and caverns offer something for everyone, depending on what interests they may pursue: exploration, relaxation, exercise, science, history, photography, and plain, old-fashioned fun.

Indian Echo Caverns, located in Hummelstown, PA, not far from Hershey, is made of limestone that dates back over 440 million years. The first visitors there were most likely the Susquehannock Indians, who lived along the Swatara Creek, upon which the mouth of the cavern sits. The Susquehannock vanished from the area in the 1670s, and the area remained unoccupied until the arrival of French fur trappers in the late 17th and early 18th century. Their writings about the caverns attracted other explorers. Indian Echo Caverns was first opened to the general public in 1929, with a massive commercialization project to make the treacherous terrain safe for visitors. The caverns now welcome hundreds of thousands of guests each year.

Indian Echo Caverns is open daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day and from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. the rest of the season. The entertaining and educational tour is 45 minutes long, given by a professionally trained interpretive guide who explains the caverns’ geology, history, and animal life, and shows the beautiful formations inside, which may be photographed or recorded. Visitors can also spend time at Gem Mill Junction, where budding prospectors can try their luck at searching for gemstones, the well-stocked gift shop, two covered picnic areas, a spacious playground, and a petting zoo. For more information, including current pricing for adults, kids, and groups, call (717) 566-8131 or visit www.indianechocaverns.com.

In Lehigh Valley’s Hellertown, PA, you’ll find Lost River Caverns, the entrance of which was accidentally created in 1883, while a limestone quarry operation was digging at the site of the current parking lot. In 1930, handrails, lighting, and walkways were added and the cave was opened to the public. Five picturesque cavern chambers have an abundance of crystal formations, and moving through the cavern is the Lost River, whose clear waters mysteriously originate from an unknown source before disappearing again beneath the surface. One of the magnificent rooms in the cavern was dedicated as the non-sectarian Crystal Chapel in 1949 and has been the site of numerous weddings, as well as being used as a ballroom in the late 1800s.  The cave’s colorful history includes its use by bootleggers during the prohibition years and by college fraternities for initiation ceremonies. Also onsite is the Gilman Museum, containing rare fossils, unique minerals and gems, and one of the area’s largest private collections of antique weapons. A peaceful shaded picnic grove with a covered bridge overlooks Silver Creek, and offers the perfect place to enjoy an outdoor lunch.

Lost River Caverns is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Hours are 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. the remainder of the year. Frequent guided tours are available and special group rates are offered. Individual tickets are $12.50 for adults and $7.75 for children ages 3 to 12. For details, call (610) 838-8767 or visit www.lostcave.com.

Another underground wonderland is Crystal Cave Park, located near Kutztown in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.  Advertised as Pennsylvania’s most popular natural attraction, one of its first tourist attractions, and the state’s oldest operating cave, Crystal Cave has been visited by millions of people since it was discovered in 1871. The 45-minute interpretive tour includes an eight-minute video presentation in the Crystal Cave Theater and views of uniquely named marvels of stone sculpture.

The cave grounds comprise an area of 125 wooded acres. The location also boasts an ice cream parlor and restaurant that are open daily in July and August and weekends in June and September, offering a variety of fast food and Dutch specialties, plus an assortment of ice cream cones, sundaes, and Dutch treats.   Visitors can try their skills at the unusual miniature golf course made with historic relics as obstacles; it’s open seasonally and costs $4.50 per player. Also visit the free Rock & Mineral Shop and Museum, featuring a very unique 1891 “opera bus” that at one time provided transportation for customers to and from the train station.

Crystal Cave is open every day from March 1 through November 30 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (with extended summer hours), and closed in December, January, and February. For rates and details, call (610) 683-6765 or visit www.crystalcavepa.com.