Today’s visitors face no such hazards. The entrance to Howe Caverns, 156 feet, or about 16 stories, below ground, is reached by elevator, just like descending to the lower level of a parking garage. Visitors need not fear squeezing through wormholes, either. The elevator opens to a vestibule at the base of the elevator shaft, blasted out of the earth in 1928. This high-ceilinged room is one of only a few passages in these caverns that have been enlarged for commercial tours. A brick-paved path follows the gurgling course of an underground stream for a half-mile through water-worn canyons. At the beginning of the tour, guides refer to it as the River Styx, after the one in Greek mythology that separates the world of the living from Hades, the underworld realm of the dead.
Rivers like this one carved these caverns from limestone, which is softer than the granite underpinning much of New England. The subtle electric lighting along the walls illuminates rippling layers of tawny limestone formed up to 435 million years ago, the folded floors of ancient seas. Geologists have found fossil beds above the cave ceiling, concluding that the caves toured by visitors predate most fossils. Like above-ground river canyons in the American West, the caverns take their fluid forms from vanished currents. Walls bulge out, then recede. Ceilings dip down, then soar into cathedral-like domes.
By the time visitors board flat-bottomed boats to cross a still passage of the river, the caverns are dark and deep - and cold. Although the body of water has changed names at this point, from the River Styx to the Lake of Venus, the atmosphere feels less like a lover’s lane than the eerie underworld. Few passengers utter even a murmur in the murk, leaving the drip of the tour guides’ paddles to punctuate the silence. The guides reverse direction by poling from the opposite ends of the boats, passengers turning to face forward. Disembarking, they retrace the route until making a detour into the Bridal Altar, a shelf-like flowstone formation where many couples have swapped vows. (Hokey alert: a heart, cut from pale, translucent calcite, is set into the floor in front of the “altar,’’ lighted from below.) The final detour is the most enchanting passage of the 90-minute tour. Called the Winding Way, this narrow canyon zigs and zags between walls four or five feet apart. Soaring ceilings keep the claustrophobia factor in check.
Secret Caverns, a short hop down the road, has more of a mom-and-pop flavor than its rival attraction, and is still owned by the family of the engineer who bought the land in the 1920s. As a series of antic cartoon billboards suggests, the site presents itself with a humorous twist. Visitors enter the caverns through a rustic shed, descending 103 narrow steps past the forms of ancient sea creatures imprinted in the limestone. Aside from the concrete path and the widening of the Lemon Squeeze, a passage formerly so tight that people had to crawl through it, the Secret Caverns remain in their original state. It is clear from some discolored walls, however, that visitors have not resisted touching the slick calcite. Water sluices along both sides of the path, and the walls weep steadily.
Daily, mid-April to Nov. 1. Ages 16 and older $16, 6-15 $8, 5 and under free.