The Earth Beneath our Feet
PENN’S CAVE & Wildlife Park
A rush of cool air rolled over us as we descended the steep stairs to the entrance of Penn’s Cave. A flat, wide motorboat with two rows of benches sat in the green pool, ready to take guests into the eerie depths. Large trout swam in the shadows and they dimpled the surface, looking for a handout. We peered into the cave and saw only darkness, for the light from the outside world penetrated just a short distance. We boarded the boat for the 45 minute, one-mile cave tour through this fascinating underground world of living stalactites and stalagmites.
The sinkhole in which the boat sat is 75 feet deep and several hundred feet in diameter. Millions of gallons of spring water gush out of this black labyrinth in the earth. It is located inside Penn’s Cave, a commercial cave in Centre Hall, a stone’s throw from State College. This huge water hole is also the headwaters of Penn’s Creek, which flows and winds for 73 miles until it meets the Susquehanna River in Selinsgrove. It was in this town, on the banks of Penn’s Creek, that John Penn, a nephew of William Penn, (founder of Pennsylvania) lived and owned land…hence the name. Penn’s Cave is the only all-water cavern in America and it is one of only three caverns in Pennsylvania on the National Register of Historic Places.
Our guide chugged the boat through the natural limestone passageways and pointed out the decorated formations. He said, “Penn’s Cave is a live cave, meaning dripping water is still creating the formations, although it occurs extremely slowly. Surface water, high in calcium, seeps through joints in the rock. The water evaporates and leaves behind minerals that are deposited on the rock in the form of beautiful flowstones, draperies, cascades, pillars and gigantic columns.”
He shares names like “Garden of the Gods,” “Niagara Falls,” and “The Chinese Dragon,” which are attached to certain formations and we stretched our imagination to see them. Our guide asked us to pull in our hands as we passed through the narrow “Straights of Gibraltar” and twice we must duck to get under the low roof of the cave. It was a fascinating experience to float through the cave in a wooden boat, free to stare at the illuminated underground beauty that surrounded us, never having to be concerned where to place our feet as on a walking tour.
Soon, we emerged from the darkness into Lake Nita-nee, from whom the famous Penn State Nittany Lion is named, and which Penn’s Creek empties into. Our guide tells us, “Legend has it that Nita-nee was a Seneca Indian Princess who fell in love with a French trapper, Malahi Boyer. Unable to marry because of Indian custom, they ran away and were captured, and Malachi was thrown into Penn’s Cave to die. Some say you can still hear his ghost wailing and mourning the loss of his love.” With that last comment, our ears perk up and we become more attentive!
After our boating adventure, we are encouraged to explore the 1,600 acres of forests and fields, ride through the wildlife park on their tour bus and view mountain lions, timber wolves, elk, big-horned sheep, etc.
Their working century farm showcases longhorn cattle, bison, and wild mustangs.
Most of us stick to mountains and rivers for our outdoor adventures, but if we limit our experiences to the earth’s surface, we overlook the magical caverns beneath our feet. There are more than 50,000 caverns in the U.S. and Pennsylvania alone has over 1,100 mapped wild caves. Over 80 % of America’s 120 show caves that are open to the public for tours are government owned, but all of PA’s show caves are small-family, privately owned, passed down generation after generation.
Highly decorated commercial show caves are a great place to learn about the fascinating geology of the underworld and about how our earth was formed millions of years ago, as groundwater flowed through openings and dissolved rock. The Commonwealth is blessed with a plethora of caves, particularly in the state’s center and east, because of all the naturally occurring limestone, which reacts strongly to the erosion of water. Limestone is soluble and it dissolves over time. Rainwater picks up carbon dioxide in the air, forming a very weak solution of carbonic acid that over time dissolves limestone and forms a cave in the form of underground rooms and passages. Limestone caves are known to be the deepest and longest in the world.
The Pennsylvania Caves Association (PCA), a non-profit group, promotes conservation and preservation of these underground environments for the education and enjoyment of all. There are seven commercial caves in the organization, all are different, and all are considered Pennsylvania natural wonders. Many of the commercial caves were discovered a long time ago, by happenstance- farmers stumbling across sinkholes and discovering cool air spewing out of a hole on the earth’s surface, or during road construction.
These commercial caves offer guided tours on safe and smoothly constructed walkways where you can travel upright, and use sturdy steel handrails. Electric lights illuminate your path and pumps remove excess water. They involve some walking (except for Penn’s Cave) and tours last between 30-60 minutes. A few caves even offer opportunities for wild caving, or spelunking- something to aspire to if you get bitten by the caving bug.
Inside, you’ll be able to see an extensive array of breath-taking cave “decorations” such as stalactites, stalagmites, giant columns, draperies, hollow soda straw formations, and dripping flowstones- a formation where calcite-filled water streamed over rocks for thousands of years, leaving trails of deposit that look like icing. You can marvel at formations like translucent “cave bacon” and hollow dripping “soda straws,” flowstones that looked like milk flowed over a surface and froze. Formations are lit indirectly, accentuating the formations beautifully. You can learn how calcium carbonate dripped through cracks on the earth’s surface and very slowly ate away the world below, creating formations, one drop at a time.
I will highlight a few of Pennsylvania’s commercial caves here but check out every single one if you have the time. Each has its own special features and all caves have fascinating stories to tell. Although their actual tour does not take that long, there also offer multiple activities you can enjoy at the site, making the outing a nice day trip. Many have hiking/walking nature trails, museums, souvenir and gem shops, gemstone panning opportunities, films, snack bars and ice cream parlors, playgrounds and picnic groves. Some offer trout feeding, miniature golf, wildlife farms, and great public programs. All have a rich history as visiting caves is one America’s oldest forms of tourism. Summertime is a great time to head underground and have a respite from the heat. Caves remain a near constant 48-54 degrees underground so a light sweater is usually advised, even in the sweltering topside heat! Tours are limited to specific numbers to be Covid safe and mask wearing is mandatory.
Crystal Cave was PA’s first show cave, dating back to 1871, and is one of the oldest in the entire United States. An inn was built and carriages brought visitors via train for this unique outing. Today this restored white frame building is the gift shop and ticket station. Before heading out on the tour, Co-owner Jim DeLong shows me the many wonderful historic photographs on display at Crystal Cave, which tell the story of this cave’s unique history. “Cavers came to dance to live hoe-down bands, while a concession stand sold food and alcohol,” he shares. “There were even underground weddings and Baptisms at “Altar Rock,” he adds. “Charter bus excursions came from New York, New Jersey, Delaware and from all over Pennsylvania.”
Crystal Cave is famous for the thousands of the beautiful rare mineral- aragonite, as well as calcite crystals (hence its name). Aragonite crystals have flower-like clusters of four-inch long needles. Underground streams carved out rooms and passageways, such as “Cathedral Dome” in “Cathedral Chamber” with 2-300 stalactites (hang “tight” -from the ceiling down, as opposed to stalagmites- from the floor up).
I took my two nephews to Crystal Cave, who had never been underground. Besides being substantially wowed by the cave’s decorations, they had big fun afterwards, panning for minerals in the wooden sluice box. Each bag of sand that your purchase in the giftshop has an abundant amount of beautiful crystals and colored minerals that the running water reveals as you slide around your framed screen.
Crystal Cave Museum is worth a look where the actual stagecoach wagon that transported cave visitors is displayed. Berks County Conservancy recognized Crystal Cave as a county historic site in 2003.
LINCOLN CAVERNS & Whisper Rocks
Three generations of the Dunlavy family have been managing beautiful Lincoln Caverns and Whisper Rocks, promoting fun and cave education in the state for many decades. There are two unconnected caves to explore at this location, Lincoln Caverns and Whisper Rocks.
Owner Ann Dunlavy tells me how her father, Myron, Jr. discovered the second cave, 75-foot Whisper Rocks, in the winter of 1941, (4 years after he purchased Lincoln Caverns). Myron noticed that the snow melted faster around a hole in the ground, as the warmer cave air was coming forth. “It took three years of digging just to find the cave,” Ann shares, only interrupted for her father to serve in war. “And it took twenty years to clear it for the public,” she shared.
Whisper Cave features three-foot-long soda straw formations and many tunnels and windows. Lincoln Caverns has one of the largest, most expansive cave rooms in the state. An unusual feature is Purity Cascade, which is a large flow stone formation made of a mineral that acted like a filter, taking out impurities and creating a magical phosphorescent glow when viewed under black light. “Once a week,” the Ann tells me, “we have a special black light tour offered so visitors can view this magnificent formation.”
Because Ann Dunlavy grew up being personally involved in the show cave business, she cares deeply about what is underground, and makes it her mission to not only entertain but educate the public, especially the upcoming generations. Ann hosts events for the whole family throughout the year and caters to school groups and scouts. A wide variety of scout badges are offered: animal habitat, cave explorer, bats, fossils, geocaching, etc. as well as Kids Cave Camp, and camping at Warrior Ridge Campground. Ann also developed an extensive school field trip program and underground classroom which is aligned with the PA Dept of Education’s Academic Standards in Environment & Ecology, Geography and Science & Technology. In a single calendar year, Lincoln Caverns hosts approximately 5,000 students in over 60 schools in a dozen counties. Cave and karst education is very important as their aquifers are the source of water for millions of people, and they give us a unique understanding of the connections between human actions and our natural environment.
Ann puts on a memorable haunted cave experience around Halloween and in between being happily terrorized inside the cave, you can learn interesting facts about caves from the narrating spooks. Like bats, for example, which are so very important to our planet because they are the only major predator of night-flying insects. A summer colony of 1,000 bats can consume 22 pounds of insects each night or as many as 4.5 million insects. Naturalists share live brown bats that have been abandoned by their mothers and hand-raised as babies. Short videos are shown by the worldwide Bat Conservation International to further educate visitors on the extreme value of these misunderstood creatures. All PA caves are closed during the winter hibernation months.
One of the best parts about exploring a cave is becoming acquainted with this entirely different and unique part of our planet- the fascinating world of the underground. It makes you appreciate and understand our earth like never before. This year- 2021- is International Year of Caves and Karst so why not celebrate and check out one or all of Pennsylvania’s beautiful show caves.
Other PA Show Caves:
Laurel Caverns Geological Park, in the Laurel Highlands, is PA’s largest cave, at 3.5 miles long, which includes the guided section and staff directed exploring wild section. They offer a Scout geology and climbing merit badge and a rappelling high adventure program, as well as geology seminars and fossil hunts.
Lost River Caverns in Lehigh County showcases five separate underground chambers and has a Jungle Garden with a waterfall and fish pond.
Indian Echo Caverns and Estate near Hershey, PA offers a non- walking tour who are unable to walk, as well as an authentic tipi and covered wagon, a rock-climbing wall, and a petting zoo in their outdoor attractions. Besides their underground tour of the cave’s beautiful formations, weddings, birthday parties and reunions, etc. are made available for guests.
Woodward Cave in Centre County near State College, is one of PA’s largest with its extensive “Hall of Statues,” and the 14 -foot long, free standing stalagmite “Tower of Babel.” This cave offers an extensive campground and cabins, and barn dances in their recreational hall.
(a version of this story appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine)
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Thanks Cindy – a wonderful cavern travel guide!