Crystal Cave Park
Caves stay where Nature built them. As much as we might like it, owners can't drag them closer to town.
So Crystal Cave's relative proximity to New York City and Philadelphia made it a winner, with superior visitor volume since it first opened in the 19th century. Sure, it's nice looking -- "Pennsylvania's Most Beautiful," if you ask her owners or read the back of the postcards -- but convenience counts.
"The Natural Wonder" was discovered by two Pennsylvania Dutchmen, Gideon Merkel and John Gehret, on Nov. 12, 1871. Greenwich Township farmer Samuel D. F. Kohler performed the early exploration, then purchased the surrounding 47 acres for $5,000 in 1872. He locked up Crystal Cave behind a sturdy door, and it became his full time job the following year when he started charging 25 cents admission.
It was Pennsylvania's first commercial cave.
In 1876, to entice overnight guests, Kohler erected the Cave Inn. The attraction employed a stage coach opera bus wagon to transport people from the Virginville train station and Kutztown to and from the cave (okay, maybe it wasn't all that convenient in the early days).
The cave and property was sold to the DeLong and Kaufman families, Crystal Cave Company Inc., in 1923. The attraction, now on 125 acres and called Crystal Cave Park, continues to be family-run.
Attendance dropped a bit in recent years, as it has at many commercial caves, so Crystal added a Pan for Gems sluice. Crystal Cave still sees a fair amount of walk-in traffic, but according to manager Jim DeLong, effort is increasingly directed at enticing bus and group tours. When we visited, the jury was still out on the the net effect -- positive or otherwise -- of mega-attraction Cabela's built down the road.
Tickets are purchased in the gift shop (souvenirs, rocks and minerals, Pennsylvania Dutchery), housed in the same building that once was Kohler's Cave Inn. From the main building, there's a steep climb to the entrance; tours runs about 40 minutes.
The commericially developed portion of the the cave is along a large water-carved passage around ancient breakdown into five chambers -- really two long, spacious rooms. It's a comfortable 56 degrees Fahrenheit as we are shown a variety of formations and rooms with names straight from the cave-labeling handbook: Crystal Ballroom, the Devil's Den, the Totem Pole, and the Bridal Veil.
The Zoo formation yields an assortment of beasts of the imagination -- a seal, camel, alligator, beaver, and even a 3-legged turtle.
Our guide, Katelyn, points out a formation that resembles bacon, and a related breakfast item on the trail in front of us: looks like eggs. The "Eggs" formation is "touchable," and visitors don't hesitate to rub the yolky concretions.
Crystal Cave conducted the first cave wedding in Pennsylvania in 1919, near the "Upside Down Ice Cream Cone" formation. Then there was a nuptial gap of over 60 years -- the next wedding was in the 1980s.
Katelyn recalls the dumbest question she's been asked on a tour: "Are the lights natural?"
Back above ground, we wanted to check out the free Crystal Cave Museum. It was closed at the early hour we visited. First opened in 1981, it shares space with an Indian trading post and features history of the cave, region, a 1922 ice cream parlor, and a turn-of-century stagecoach used to transport visitors to the cave from town.