While New York State may be most famous for NYC, few people know that the state is a great destination for nature lovers. Did you know that among the many parks in New York State, there are also numerous caves and caverns?
New York State has over 750 caves hidden in parks and preserves. Whether you want an easy-to-explore cave or some serious hiking, NY has it all. Howe Caverns is the biggest cave, but hundreds more are available.
Here is a list of the best caves and caverns to explore in New York State.
1. Howe Caverns: Most Popular
Most people living in upstate New York will have heard of Howe Caverns because it is the most popular cave in the state. The walk inside the cave is just over a mile, and there is a quarter-mile boat ride as well.
This cave is perfect for families or beginners because it’s a relatively easy but enjoyable trip. You’ll see limestone corridors and an underground riverbed where you can take a boat ride. After winding down through the creviced passages deep down in the caverns, you will reach an underground lake that ends in pitch-black darkness.
This cave took six million years to form, and it makes a fantastic day trip for families visiting (or living) in New York State. In addition to the cave that is 156 feet (48 meters) below the surface, families can enjoy a tour of the mining company above.
In addition to exploring the gem-mining business, you can also go zip lining, wall climbing, and much more.
2. Secret Caverns: Sister Attraction
Sister Caverns is just a short ride away from Howe’s Caverns. Curiously, in 1928, a herd of cows discovered it but they unfortunately didn’t survive the 85-foot (25.9-meter) drop. On the bright side, the walkways into and out of the cave have been renovated since.
The cement walkways make the hike down through the caves a lot less difficult. It’s advisable to go all the way down and take the time to climb down the 103 steps (made of rock) to reach the breathtaking 100-foot (30.48-meter) waterfall.
Make sure you explore all the interesting rock formations. Did I mention there’s no ban on touching those formations when exploring? This makes it a great idea for kids visiting the cave, and you won’t have to worry about them keeping their hands to themselves. The cavern’s entrance has a 60s artsy feel, with rainbow-colored drawings covering every wall and man-made surface, and is a fantastic place to take a photo.
3. Natural Stone Bridge & Caves: Open-Air Waterways
The jaw-dropping marble cave entrance known as the Stone Bridge is one the largest of its kind. This family-owned operation offers self-guided tours in summer, where you can visit surface caves and above-ground geology displays. The tour covers around 14 miles (23 kilometers) to explore.
While that’s an incredible experience on its own, there is a more adventurous tour that includes a cave crawl.
The Adventure Tour lasts up to four hours and includes dipping in the underground lake for a therapeutic cave float. You can also visit the site in winter for snowshoeing near the ice flowing into the river, the Stone Bridge, and more.
Activities include disc golf, climbing walls, and a lot of family-friendly entertainment. The landscape is also perfect for exploring rocks and other geological features you might find interesting. The staff will even help you navigate the geological evolution and history of the area.
4. Sellecks Karst Preserve: Interconnecting Caves
Four interconnecting caves spanning a 15-acre preserve make for an exciting adventure. The largest of the four caves (Sellecks Cave) begins with a sinkhole you’ll need vertical gear to drop down to.
You will also see a short stream that is around 700 feet (213 meters) deep, and the cave covers an impressive 1000 feet (305 meters) of passage.
The second cave (Levys Cave) is smaller at only 200 feet (60.96 meters), with a 12-foot (3.65-meter) drop most experienced cavers can handle with a rope or even a cable ladder.
Cave 575’s drop is 15 feet (4.6 meters), also requiring a rope. There you’ll find an abundance of fossils to explore. Finally, explore the bottom of a large sinkhole to discover Natural Bridge Cave–a natural limestone bridge.
Overall, this cave is more suitable for experienced cavers and hikers. I wouldn’t recommend bringing along small children.
5. Ella Armstrong Cave: Drop Straight Down
While this is a short (and small) vertical cave in Albany County, the straight drop downwards is worth a visit. You’ll need special caving gear, such as climbing equipment. If you ever do visit this cave, don’t skip looking for the namesake’s inscription at the entrance because it is 200 years old.
Keep in mind that this is a small cave with very little to explore, so I’d suggest pairing it with another visit on the same day.
6. Knox and Crossbones Cave Preserve: More Vertical Drops
Luckily, The Knox and Crossbones Cave Preserve isn’t far from the Ella Armstrong Cave, and is much more impressive than Ella Armstrong Cave.
The Knox Cave is very popular among cavers both during the winter and summer. It’s one of the largest in the state and offers a lot for exploration. You can also find large ice deposits during the winter months and stunning geological features.
Knox cave has an interesting history, from being used as a refugee site during Colonial times to commercialization around 90 years ago. I must mention that you need to be an experienced climber and caver to explore this site safely. The cave is also locked when it’s hibernation season for bats.
Crossbones is a more recently-discovered vertical cave, and it’s rarely visited. You’ll need a permit for the vertical drop, and it’s not recommended for inexperienced climbers.
7. Onesquethaw Cave: A Hidden Gem
Even serious spelunkers are sometimes unfamiliar with this hidden gem. Onesquethaw cave is easy to get lost in, and the passages twist and turn unexpectedly. This area is also famous for floods.
Those who know their caving history might recall a rescue effort in the early 90s to pull out college students who became trapped inside by flood waters. They might have made it out through sheer luck, but the cave remains hidden to keep inexperienced cavers away.
Given the nature of this karst landscape, I would only recommend visiting this site if you have caving experience and preferably with a highly experienced guide to be on the safe side. If you’re interested in visiting Onesquthaw, ensure you have the relevant permits and that you aren’t visiting during flood season.
8. Cave of the Winds: A Different Niagara Falls Experience
Everyone knows to visit Niagara Falls when you’re in western New York state. If you feel it’s too touristy, get really up close and personal with the waterfall from the Cave of the Winds. Visitors descend (via elevator) to the Niagara Gorge and plop their way on the wooden walkway leading up to Hurricane Deck.
The tour is guided, making it safer than other caves. In fact, the deck is handicap accessible, and I’ve seen parents take the tour with a child at the hip. Once you’re at the final point of the tour, you’ll feel like you’re practically in the famous Bridal Veil Falls.
Visiting this cave is a unique way to experience Niagara Falls because it brings more than just rainbows and water, and scenery. You’ll be close enough to get wet from the water spray from the waterfall and the roaring sound of the water.
9. Dover Plains Stone Church: Great for Easy Hiking
To combine hiking, caving, and other ways to enjoy astounding nature, visit Dover Plains. The hike is only moderately challenging, and will be suitable for kids. The entire hike is around a mile and a half, but there are 170 acres (0.69 square kilometers) on the entire preserve.
The main attraction is Stone Church Brook, with its steeple-shaped rock formation and a 30-foot (9.14-meters) waterfall. There are several trail variations to try, each offering a slightly different view of the park, but all are relatively short (under 2 miles/3.21 km). A few lookout points with forest views and the scenic church are worth blazing through the forest to see.
Although you should make sure to bring a guidebook (and map), there isn’t much to worry about as the site is relatively safe. You might also take a dip in the small pool of water at the end of the waterfall to cool off during the summer months.
Stone Church cavern has been receiving visitors since 2004. I highly recommend this park for beginner hikers or if you are hiking with a group with mixed experience levels.
10. Clarksville Cave: For Serious Cave Exploration
Conversely, if you’re looking for serious caving, Clarksville Cave is as adventurous as they come. This limestone cave was discovered in the early 1800s. Twisting and turning horizontal passageways cover around 4800 feet (1.46 kilometers). There are three entrances to the cave, which are all equally difficult.
Despite the difficulty level of this cave, it’s actually one of the most visited as its history is longer than any other cave in the entire state. Historical records show that Clarksville cave has been visited at least since 1818, less than a decade since its discovery. Of course, then only around a small section was explored.
Visiting spelunkers get to enjoy wading through knee-deep waters, cold temperatures, and more than a few low crawls. It takes at least a couple of hours to enter and exit the cave and up to four hours if you choose to wander around and enjoy the underground views a little bit more.
11. Bentley’s Cave Preserve: Unassuming but Surprisingly Large
At the very top of a hill in a small town in upstate New York, this 5-acre (20,234 square meter) preserve is legendary, to say the least.
You’ll find two caves, the larger with 1000 feet (305 meters) of passageways. This is Rensselaer County’s largest cave, and it’s not unchallenging but is suitable for beginners.
Be sure to bring standard caving gear if you want to explore the inside of the caverns. Despite the small entrance, visitors suddenly find themselves in a large passageway that is just a sample of what’s yet to come.
I feel that I must warn you that exploring this cave requires a lot of crawling through muddy streams, but it’s all worth it. The cave has attracted a lot of local lore, with many saying it was used as a hideout several times. There are even official reports of considering its use as a bomb shelter during the Second World War!
Nonetheless, I highly recommend this for beginners who are interested in advancing their caving experience.
12. Lockport Cave: Underground Boat Ride
There are two “caves” in Lockport city. One is underneath limestone and bedrock, and has been sealed since before the end of the 19th century. No other entries to the cavern have been discovered, despite multiple amateur and professional attempts.
Nowadays, what’s referred to as “Lockport Cave” is a water tunnel constructed sometime in the 19th century. It now hosts an underground boat ride as a tourist attraction, and the water tunnel also holds Halloween-themed events, which I highly recommend.
Although there aren’t any geological formations to explore, it’s a bit of history. This cave is important in showcasing how industrialization was expanding in Western New York. The water tunnel provided power that fueled industrialization in the area.
13. Cooper’s Cave: Industry Meets Nature
Although not technically a real cave, Cooper’s Cave is actually the inspiration for the famous American novel The Last of the Mohicans. The cave was named after the author (James Fenimore Cooper), who incorporated the caverns in the novel.
Visitors can explore the bridge connecting Glens Falls to South Glens Falls. This is above the small “cave” which is between the hydroelectric plant and the dam. The cave is of historical importance because legend has it that the Mohicans took refuge there.
In fact, Cooper’s cave is part of the Independence trail, which helped save countless Native Americans during the French and Indian War.
14. Ellenville Fault Ice Caves: Ice in the Middle of Summer
If you’re ever craving the sight of naturally formed ice well into the summer, you’ll want to visit the Ellenville Fault Ice Caves in the Minnewaska State Park Reserve. You may be familiar with the area because it is known as Sam’s point, where you can find pitch pine barrens, a lake, and more scenery surrounding ice caves.
The crevices fill up with ice and snow during the winter months, so you can only explore the geology of the caves during the summer months. A peculiar characteristic of the Ellenville Fault Ice Caves is that they aren’t made of limestone. Instead, the quartz conglomerate is more resistant to erosion.
Moreover, even on the hottest days of summer, the natural refrigeration of the caves keeps the temperature inside low. You can take guided hikes or visit on your own, but visiting these ice caves is a must for anyone interested in spelunking.
15. Tory Cave: American History
There is a lot to explore in this limestone cave at the top of a steep slope known as the Helderberg Escarpment. I recommend visiting this cave in the springtime to see the ice stalagmites that form out of the ground.
If you studied the early history of the United States, you’d probably know that tories were the colonists who supported the British side of the War of American Independence. Legend has it, that a tory (Jacob Salsbury) hid in this cave and was tried then and there. Also, the spy was hanged inside the cave.
Many hikers pass by the marker for Tory Cave without ever wandering inside it. However, the marker cannot be seen from the roadway. Nonetheless, if you can find it, I highly recommend taking a tour of the cave.
16. Schroeder’s Pants Cave: Legendary Visits
Initially explored in the 50s, Schroeder’s Pants Cave is worth a visit. The odd name is after one of the first two explorers. As the story goes, Herber W. Schroeder lost the backside of his pants on one of his first expeditions to the cave.
In addition, an even more legendary visit was by James G. Mitchell, who died of hypothermia in the cave and was subsequently entombed inside it after three-day search efforts were fruitless. The remains were recovered forty years later upon further exploration.
As you can expect, visiting this cave is not recommended for beginners. Make sure to bring a professional with years of experience if you intend to visit Schroeder’s Pants Cave. This is a serious cave, but it is very beautiful.
17. Hailes Cave: Variety of Bat Species
Lastly, Hailes Cave can be found on the western side of Albany County. In this bat cave, you can find all six bat species that are known to hibernate in New York state.
This site is an important biological site that is often visited by biologists and other scientists. Nonetheless, it’s worth a visit if you’re interested in chiropterology. You can only access the spooky cave by hiking, and the surrounding area is worth the visit as well.