Onward & Outward: Penn’s Cave
This post is the first in what will be a series of posts for the rest of the semester, highlighting a number of local day-trip destinations in and around the State College area, focusing on places off the beaten path.
Let’s face it: State College can be boring. For those of us who would rather hike up a mountain than hike back to frat row, being stuck in town can grow monotonous at times. Last year, I began exploring outside of the State College area and was amazed at how much there was to do. A short road trip on a Saturday can make some of your most memorable experiences while at Penn State.
For my first installment of this series, I visited Penn’s Cave this past weekend. The cave is located in Centre Hall, PA, a town best known for its annual Grange Fair. The drive is easy: just follow PA-26 E out of State College, take PA-144 over Nittany Mountain through Pleasant Gap and down into Centre Hall where you will follow PA-192 right to Penn’s Cave. Driving this far out of town can be an interesting experience if you’ve never done it before. We were slowed briefly by a horse and buggy as we entered farmland, but to be fair, we were warned this would be possible…for the next 10 miles.
When we reached the entrance sign, we were then led down a quarter-mile long gravel drive that ended at the Victorian-style visitor center. So far, no sign of cave. We entered the visitor center and were greeted by a large selection of Penn’s Cave merchandise ranging from hoodies to pocketknives. We purchased our tickets ($16.50 for an adult ticket) and lingered briefly in the lobby until our tour was scheduled to begin. Our time was called over the loudspeaker and we made our way out.
We began following a paved path that led steeply down in the direction of the cave entrance. A number of signs along the way gave the geological explanation of caves as well as the story of Princess Nita-nee. At the end of the path, we were met with one of the longest, steepest set of stairs I’ve ever walked (read: not handicap accessible).
As we began to proceed down the stairs, we were with with a “cave smell” (not bad, just…cavey) and the cool air from the 38° F water in the cave. We met our tour guide and boarded our boat. What’s that you say? You thought this was a cave not the Everglades? Correct you are, however, this cave is the only all water cavern in the U.S. After a brief safety talk, our tour guide started up the outboard motor and we embarked into the dark abyss.
With the faint smell of gasoline fumes from the motor in the air, we made our way into the first of many “rooms” in the cave. I won’t ruin the entire thing, but the tour is comprised of a number of stops throughout the cave in which the tour guide points out both geological features as well as formations that have taken shapes such as The Statue of Liberty, shark teeth, and the Pope.
Our tour guide was very personable and made the tour an engaging experience instead of a class. We paused a few times with the lights off to experience “total darkness”, a very cool experience if you haven’t “seen” it before. We also came across some wildlife within the cave including a resident screech owl, and a small bat clinging to a cave wall within arm’s reach of the boat.
The tour exited a manmade opening at the rear of the cave at which point we made a u-turn after a brief look at Lake Nitanee and a glimpse of the animal park which can be explored on a separate tour. We re-entered through the same opening, which looked like something from a movie, and retreated back through the cave the way we came.
Passing the same scenery, the ride back was much quicker, but culminated in the grand finale in the “Garden of the Gods”, a sight which is not fairly conveyed through photos. We returned to dock the boat, thanked our guide, and made our way back up the mountain of stairs.
After a stop at the Mt. Nittany Inn (great views, great food) we returned to campus with a new found sense of local exposure and adventure. The experience at Penn’s Cave is one that cannot be found elsewhere in the U.S. and is a must see for any Penn State student during their time here.
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