Looking for a warm weather outing that really rocks?
From the Capital Region, it’s an easy drive to three really cool geologic attractions.
In Schoharie County, there’s Howe Caverns and Secret Caverns; and in the Warren County hamlet of Pottersville, just south of Schroon Lake, you can explore Natural Stone Bridge and Caves Park.
At the Gazette, we did some digging and found out what’s cracking this summer at all three places:
NATURAL STONE BRIDGE AND CAVES PARK
Natural Stone Bridge and Caves Park is one of the geologic wonders of the Adirondacks.
Early explorers called the massive stone bridge “Ponte de Dios” or “Bridge of God,” and the formation is the largest cave entrance made of marble in the East.
Unlike Howe Caverns and Secret Caverns, the park is mostly above ground and its tour is self-guided.
Visitors are invited to grab a wooden walking stick from a bin and follow a pristine, three-quarter-mile trail that winds along a boulder-strewn river and has handrails made from tree branches. Along the way, you peer into river potholes, step into the misty entrance of “Noisy Cave,” where water bursts through a narrow tunnel, and bend down to examine tiny woodland flowers and mosses.
“You go at your own rate. You can check things out. You can sit and relax by the river for a while,” says Greg Beckler, who runs the park with his wife Dee and three children. “Lots of people tell me that they enjoy the peaceful, back-to-nature feeling they get when they come here. ”
Beckler’s family has owned this land since the Revolutionary War and started doing tours in the 1940s.
“Each generation that has owned and managed the caves has brought it to the next level. We grow it a little by little each year,” he says.
The park’s geology and history are explained on markers and exhibits. Museum-grade specimens of rocks and minerals, including a one-ton chunk of amethyst, are on display, and many are sold in the gift shop. You can also watch as geodes, cannonball-like stones, are sawed open to reveal the crystals inside.
Since Beckler and his wife took over in 2001, the park has added several activities for families, including a “dino dig,” a gem sluice and disc golf.
Adventure tours allow visitors to explore the inside of a cave.
Scheduled in July and August, the three-hour guided tours take participants age 13 and older on a dark crawl with flashlights and then a float through a water-filled cave. Helmets, jumpsuits, flashlights and flotation vests are provided.
New this summer is a day camp for children and an expanded artisan’s gallery at the park’s welcome building on Route 9, where there’s an ice-cream stand and an iconic yellow sign that dates to the 1960s.
“The neat thing about this attraction is that in a very small space you get exposed to what you can see in the whole Adirondack Park,” says Beckler.
“A lot of people can’t go and hike the high peaks or go exploring caves on their own, so we provide a safe way to experience that in an afternoon or morning.”
At Secret Caverns, you can chill out below the earth, but this natural attraction is also cool in a funky, folksy sort of way, from its hand-painted roadside billboards to its unique gift shop.
On an hourlong guided tour, visitors descend 103 concrete steps into the 50-degree cavern and walk along the Lost River to a 100-foot-tall waterfall and then return up the same stairway.
Todd Del Marter, head tour guide, says “the petrified escalator” is not as strenuous as it sounds. “There are three or four different landings that you can stop and take a rest on.”
Roger Mallory, a civil engineer, founded Secret Caverns in 1929, when visitors who wanted to explore the tour were given a rope, a helmet, a flashlight and a bag lunch.
“His vision was to keep it as natural as possible,” says Del Marter.
Operated by the same family for more than 80 years, the attraction is now owned by Mallory’s grandson.
In recent years, above-ground improvements have included more parking, expanded nature trails and the addition of a picnic ground.
The biggest change was in 1996, after a fire destroyed the lodge at the entrance to the caverns and it was rebuilt.
The gift shop in the new lodge sells all kinds of rocks and fossils as well as unusual items like cribbage boards made of elk antlers and lucky rabbit’s feet.
“We’re always updating what we offer in the gift shop. We offer an eclectic mix of things that you won’t find in other places,” says Del Marter.
The cavern’s billboards, which are currently painted by Del Marter, keep changing, too, as he usually has an artwork-in-progress right on the front lawn.
Del Marter estimates that up to 30 billboards are posted on the roads leading to Secret Caverns.
“A lot of them have been up on the cave property since they started. As you get closer to Secret Caverns, you’ll see more and more of them,” he says
The fanciful artworks feature giant toothy bats, dinosaurs and a bearded guy that some people think is the late Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead.
“The people who make it past the billboards, we know they want to be there,” Del Marter jests.
Secret Caverns and its billboards are listed on the RoadsideAmerica website and have been mentioned in The New York Times and on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
“Superhighways have gone in and attractions have become more corporatized,” says Del Marter. “We really try to capture a little bit of roadside America.”
At Howe Caverns, you can cool off underground where it’s 52 degrees, or above the ground, where you can get wet and wild in the H2OGo, a new waterslide ride.
“We are the only one in New York state,” says Mark “Sparky” Spaulding, manager of Howe High Adventure, the activity area that opened last summer.
“Basically, it’s a 12-foot inflatable ball. We can put up to three people in the inner ball, add some water and it’s like a self-contained water slide for 1,100 feet.”
Since the H2OGo opened on June 8, Spaulding says it has become the most popular among the High Adventure activities, which include a four-tower zip line, a 26-foot-high rock climbing wall, an Air Jumper and a multi-level ropes course.
“For anyone 60 pounds or heavier, the zip line is the next favorite thing,” Spaulding says.
“With the zip line, you are about 40 feet in the air. We let you go on two times because the first time you are really hanging on way too tight.”
When Howe High Adventure opened last summer, it was the first expansion of the Schoharie County attraction in more than 80 years.
The Gem & Mining Building, which opened last summer, has a new activity, too.
“Now we’ve added jewelry making,” says Spaulding. “So if you take your semi-precious gemstones that you find, you can actually make jewelry out of it, right on site.”
Howe Caverns, the cave tour that’s been drawing tourists since the 1920s, is the second most popular natural attraction in New York state after Niagara Falls. In the summer, the year-round destination employs more than 200 people.
The traditional 80-minute guided tour starts on an elevator where visitors drop 156 feet into a manmade hall of rock at the entrance to the cave. A 10-foot-wide red brick path winds more than one mile through the caverns, which are 3,000 feet long and up to 75 feet high.
The tour includes a quarter-mile boat ride on the Lake of Venus and a walk through a narrow passage called the Winding Way that’s optional for claustrophobes.
Besides the traditional tour, there are lantern tours, in which the cavern lights are turned off; family flashlight tours; and two-hour adventure tours in which participants go spelunking wearing special gear.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Natural Stone Bridge and Caves Park
WHERE: 535 Stone Bridge Road, Pottersville, 2.5 miles from Northway exit 26
WHEN: Through mid-October. Park open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Sept. 1; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 7.
HOW MUCH: Adults, $12.98; children ages 5-12, $8.50; younger children are free. No strollers, wear rubber-soled walking shoes or hiking boots
SPECIAL EVENT: Rock Extravaganza, Sat., Aug. 10, live music all day, food, rock and mineral sale
MORE INFO: 494-2283, stonebridgeandcaves.com and Facebook
WHERE: 255 Discovery Drive, Howes Cave
WHEN: Cave tours, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Oct. 31; Howe High Adventure, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Labor Day; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday after Labor Day through Oct. 31.
HOW MUCH: Cave tours: adults, $25; seniors, $22; children 12-15, $21; children 5-11, $13; younger children free. Howe High Adventure: prices vary, from $6 for rock wall to $17 each for zip line and H2OGo Balls. For cave tours, wear a light jacket or sweater and walking shoes. Strollers are not allowed in cave.
SPECIAL EVENT: Bicycle Show and Swap Meet, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, July 21
MORE INFO: 296-8900, www.howecaverns.com and Facebook
WHERE: Howes Cave (follow signs from Route 7)
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in July and August; 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in September
HOW MUCH: $18 for adults, $8 for ages 6 to 15, free for younger children. No strollers. Wear a light jacket or sweater and walking shoes.
MORE INFO: 296-8558,
www.secretcaverns.com and Facebook