Looking for some memorable destinations with a whiff of derring-do? Cave hikes might be just the thing for explorers of all ages. Formed by glaciers and erosion, the Northeast’s caves may be small, but they harbor plenty of surprises. From hidden waterfalls to American Indian artifacts, the caves below offer a bounty of treasures for the adventuresome hiker.
The Ramparts | White Mountain National Forest, N.H.
The Ramparts, a massive boulder field formed by the crumbling backside of Carter Dome, fills the plateau behind AMC’s Carter Notch Hut. The jumbled maze hides countless crevasses, crawl spaces, and caves that sure-footed visitors can squeeze between, into, and over. Some of these nooks and crannies can hold ice and snow well into June and were used for food storage before the hut had a refrigerator. To reach the Ramparts, begin at the Nineteen-Mile Brook trailhead on Route 16 and follow the brook as it winds along the base of Wildcat Mountain. At 1.9 miles, the trail intersects with Carter Dome Trail. Continue straight on Nineteen-Mile and begin to climb, moderately at first and then more steeply until the trail crests the ridgeline and crosses Wildcat Ridge Trail. The trail then descends steeply into Carter Notch and passes between the Carter Lakes. The hut lies just beyond the water, with the Ramparts easily accessible from the bunkhouses.
DISTANCE: 7.6 miles round trip
INFO: AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains, 3rd ed. (AMC Books); White Mountain Guide, 29th ed. (AMC Books)
Indian Council Caves | Barkhamsted, Conn.
A local legend says that these caves, formed by large boulders piling against a steep cliff face, once hosted American Indian councils and ceremonial gatherings. While fairly shallow, several of the caves are large enough to stand in. Begin at the small parking area on Route 219. Follow Tunxis Trail 1.1 miles before crossing Washington Hill Road near the foundation of an old homestead and clay pit once used to make bricks. Continue on Tunxis Trail through a pine grove to another crossing of Washington Hill Road. After another mile, the trail descends steeply around an enormous cliff, into an open area surrounding the boulder caves. American Indian artifacts have been uncovered in this area. If you find any, be sure to follow proper Leave No Trace practices and leave them in place) Return via the same route.
DISTANCE: 4.2 miles round trip
INFO: AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Connecticut, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); Town of Barkhamsted
Hazel Cave | Shenandoah National Park, Va.
With its caves, waterfalls, and gorges, this quiet hike boasts all kinds of dramatic highlights. Begin on Meadow Springs trailhead, 2 miles south of the Thornton Gap Entrance Station. Parking is limited, especially on weekends, so arrive early. Hazel Mountain Trail begins as a wide gravel path until it reaches a fork with Buck Ridge Trail at 0.4 mile. Continue on Hazel Mountain Trail for another 0.8 mile then turn left onto White Rocks Trail. Descend through thick forest to Cave Falls spur trail. Follow this spur for a short but steep descent to the falls. Hazel Cave, located beside the waterfall, is formed by a large overhanging boulder. The cave extends deep beneath the shelf of the boulder and is large enough to sit inside. Stop here for lunch, a swim, or just to explore, then return via the same route.
DISTANCE: 5.6 miles round trip
INFO: Shenandoah National Park
Note: Given the prevalence of white-nose syndrome throughout the Northeast and its devastating impact on the bat population, it is important to check with local land managers before entering caves to avoid spreading the disease or disturbing bat communities.
Robert Buchsbaum, Mike Dickerman, René Laubach, Charles W.G. Smith, Steven D. Smith