Multi-color lights show off the rock formations in Laurel Caverns.
Underground beauty awaits visitors to these wondrous caves. Photo courtesy of Laurel Caverns.

It’s not exactly the time of year that a sweater is recommended for comfort. But how refreshing when it is!

Head underground to caverns and caves where the temperature is naturally set at a brisk 52 degrees. Each underground spot boasts unique features of beautiful geologic formations and fascinating tours. Travel by boat, take a haunted lantern tour or just admire the ancient creations of these natural wonders. It’s a great way to beat the heat!

A boat of passengers below the cavernous Penn's Cave.
Visitors to Penn’s Cave travel by boat through the immense caverns. Photo courtesy of Penn’s Cave.

1. Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park

Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park holds the distinction of being the only all-water cavern and wildlife park in the U.S. Located about 18 miles from State College, Penn’s Cave also is the only cave in the state that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

What’s really cool here — besides the temperature — is that your entire 45-minute guided tour takes place in a boat.

Make your way down a 300-foot paved path, then step down 48 steps to the dock. The flat-bottom motorboats accommodate 20-22 people during an interpretive, guided tour. The winding waterway through Penn’s Cave reveals stunning formations made by years and years of dripping water. The stalactites and stalagmites form rock cascades, “curtains” and unusual shapes with names like the Statue of Liberty and the Garden of the Gods.

When the weather allows, the boat continues outside for a turn on Lake Nitanee.

On the surface, families can have fun getting lost and found while making their way through Prospector Pete’s Miners Maze. The 4,800-square-foot labyrinth is designed with lots of twists and turns, four checkpoint stations and an observation tower. Accept the challenge to win the best completion time of the day.

The 90-minute Farm-Nature-Wildlife Tour takes visitors by bus through 1,600 acres of grazing pastures, mountain trails and forests. You’ll spot North American animals such as bison, Texas longhorn cattle, elk, bears and bighorn sheep. Don’t miss walking through the natural butterfly garden with flitting Monarchs, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Viceroys.

Cave Tours are $23.50, $22.50 for seniors and $13.50 for kids ages 2-12 years. The Farm-Nature-Wildlife Tour is $25.50, $24.50 for seniors and $16.50 for ages 2-12. Entry fees to Prospector Pete’s Miners Maze are $6, $5 for seniors and $3 for ages 2-12. Combo packages and military discounts are available.

Laurel Caverns are lighted in bright colors, highlighting the incredible formations.
Laurel Caverns are lighted in bright colors, highlighting the incredible formations. Photo courtesy of Laurel Caverns.

2. Laurel Caverns

The Laurel Highlands region is home to the largest and deepest cave of any kind in Pennsylvania, and possibly the largest sandstone cave in the world. Laurel Caverns, located 50 miles south of Pittsburgh near Farmington, is a fascinating destination. Three different tours are offered through its four miles of labyrinthian passages, including rigorous rappelling and spelunking.

You won’t see typical stalactites and stalagmites throughout the caves here. Those were smoothed into sculpted sandstone walls formed millions of years ago by wind and water currents. Colorful lights projected on the walls bring about the best views of the geological formations.

Above ground, kids ages 4-9 will enjoy venturing into the simulated cave where they can venture through the dark space with flashlights and hunt for 12 cave paintings. The largest simulated cave in the world, the space was intentionally designed with a leaky roof that allows chemically duplicated limestone to drip down and grow stalactites and stalagmites.

Choose your tour:

The 600-foot Guided Tour (30 to 40 minutes) passes through the easiest illuminated passages with no steps. Your guide will offer a lesson on the geology and history of the caverns while admiring about 1,200 feet of lighted passages. While the tour is designed to accommodate everyone, there are two narrow spots that will not allow a wheelchair to pass through.

If you wish to venture deeper in the caverns, the 1,800-foot Self-Guided Tour (30 to 45 minutes) travels through the longest passages. Inside one of the steepest caves in the U.S., visitors hike down 17 stories. A short orientation will get you started. Families love that they can make their way down at their own pace. Warning: This tour is extremely strenuous for those with creaky knees or heart issues. The good news is there is no extra charge to take the Self-Guided Tour following the Guided Tour.

Above ground, kids can try their luck at panning for gemstones, too. They’ll use screening techniques to produce a bagful of shiny stones to take home.

Laurel Caverns is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $17, $15 for seniors older than 65, $13 for middle and high school students, $11 for kids ages 5 and older, and $3 for pre-K children. Spelunking, offered on weekends, is $40 for half-day caving and $60 for a full day.

And be sure to admire the landscape from atop Chestnut Ridge at the Visitor Center. On a clear day, you can spot Pittsburgh’s skyline within the five-county view.

A bright yellow flat coal car awaits visitors at Tour-Ed Mine.
Visitors travel 160 feet below ground in an authentic flat coal car at Tour-Ed Mine. Photo courtesy of Tour-Ed Mine.

3. Tour-Ed Mine & Museum

Unlike naturally formed caverns, this tour takes visitors through the man-made caves of a coal mine. Former coal miners take the lead in guiding visitors through the Tour-Ed Mine & Museum in Tarentum. The miners provide the perfect perspective in explaining coal mining experiences throughout the nearly 170 years of the site’s operation.

Hard hats on, you’ll travel 160 feet below the Earth in a flat coal car for the half-mile journey. The fascinating 30-minute tour demonstrates mining tools and methods from the 1850s to current times. Learn why miners carried canaries and how today’s miners alert themselves to the danger of methane gas. How dark is dark? At a pause with the lights out, you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

Coal mined here was shipped across the country, as well as used locally at the Allegheny Steel Plant, Tarentum Power and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Plant. When the mine closed its production, it was modified for tour safety and reopened as an educational facility in 1970. Since then, Tour-Ed Mine has hosted more than 1 million tours for families, school groups and scouts.

Visit the Coal Miners Museum to get a look at the company store, where miners bought goods with company scrip, and explore a recreated coal miner’s home. On-site picnic facilities allow families to bring their own lunches for a full-day outing.

Tours require a reservation, made at least 24 hours in advance. Admission is $9.50 ($9 for ages 12 and younger).

Farther afield

Head east across Pennsylvania for more underground natural wonders.

Indian Echo Caverns' rimstone pool shimmers among rock formations.
Visit the shimmering rimstone pool at Indian Echo Caverns. Photo courtesy of Indian Echo Caverns.

4. Indian Echo Caverns

Heading to Hershey this summer? Here’s a terrific stop along the way. The underground adventure at Indian Echo Caverns in Hummelstown (just east of Harrisburg) covers more than 440 million years. The 45-minute guided tour descends almost a mile underground. The well-lighted interior shows off columns and straw-like formations that include stalactites, stalagmites and a large rimstone pool. The natural spectacles are mesmerizing. Learn how active formations grow about an inch every 120 years.

Above ground, kids can visit farm animals at the Discovery Barnyard, run wild at the playground or pan for minerals at the Gold Rush site.

Cavern tours are $24.50, $22 for seniors and $14.50 for kids ages 2-11.

A group of visitors stand witin the tall rock formations of Lincoln Caverns & Whisper Rocks.
The history of Lincoln Caverns & Whisper Rocks goes back 440 million years. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Caverns & Whisper Rocks.

5. Lincoln Caverns & Whisper Rocks

The 1-hour interpretive tour at Lincoln Caverns & Whisper Rocks in Huntingdon (about 30 minutes east of Altoona) explores passageways and rooms filled with massive flowstones, thousands of delicate stalactites, pure white calcite and sparkling crystals. The natural beauty has been protected and preserved since it was discovered in 1930. The guided tour is paced at a leisurely, slow-paced walk, but there are several flights of steps and uphill paths.

Special events include Fun Day Mondays, T-Rex Tuesdays, Come to the Dark Side Black Light Adventures and Baturday Saturdays.

Tours are $20.98, $19.98 for seniors and $12.98 for kids ages 4-12 years. Combo tickets are available.

A path through rock formations in Lost River Caverns.
The guided tour at Lost River Caverns includes 1,200 steps and pathways. Photo courtesy of Lost River Caverns.

6. Lost River Caverns

Lehigh Valley’s Lost River Caverns in Hellertown (just outside of the city of Allentown) is named for the mysterious river running through the cavern, originating from an unknown source and disappearing beneath the surface. The caverns have a storied past that includes a hiding place for bootleggers’ stash, a ballroom where revelers enjoyed a naturally air-conditioned space and a dedicated chapel where services were regularly held.

Tours, which began in 1930, include the river and five cavern chambers filled with stalactites, stalagmites, crystal formations and other fluorescent minerals. The guided walking tour runs about 30-45 minutes, covering approximately 1,200 feet of paved walkways. Several ramps and steps must be negotiated, preventing a handicapped-accessible tour. Tours are $14.50 and $9.50 for ages 3-12. Reservations are required.

Concrete steps and paths take visitors 125 underground at Crystal Cave.
Guides will lead visitors 125 feet underground along concrete walks and steps at Crystal Cave. Photo courtesy of Crystal Cave.

7. Crystal Cave

The 1-hour walking tour at Crystal Cave in Kutztown (30 minutes east of Allentown) includes a movie in the Crystal Cave Theater, where the history of Pennsylvania’s first show cave will be presented, along with the geology of caves. Then, guides will lead visitors 125 feet underground along concrete walks and steps. The natural stone sculptures, including formations with names like “The Prairie Dogs” and “The Totem Pole” are found among stalactites, stalagmites, and pillar and dropstone formations.

Guided tours are $12 for ages 12 and older, $14 for ages 4-11 and free for ages 3 and younger.

Guides dressed in 1870s Victorian clothing lead the Lantern Tour, offered Friday and Saturday evenings. They tell the tales of spooky and sinister ghostly experiences at the haunted cave from the past to the present. This haunted tour is not recommended for ages 8 and younger. Reservations are required.

The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.

Sally Quinn is a Pittsburgh-based editor and writer who writes about food, entertainment, kid stuff, pop culture, cocktails!