Family Fun at Penn’s Cave, Centre Hall, Pa

If you’re visiting the beautiful state of Pennsylvania, we think a trip to the centrally-located Penn’s Cave deserves to be on your family’s to-do list. The Historic Penn’s Cave and Wildlife Park is located near State College and offers a breathtaking boat tour through the country’s only all-water cavern. Kids will also enjoy the miner’s maze, gemstone panning, and wildlife tour. Adults and older children won’t want to miss the opportunity to take an off-road mountain tour by Jeep that takes you from “the cave rock to the mountain top”. Read on for more about these attractions and a glimpse of the beautiful cavern.

Background & History

Located in the heart of Pennsylvania just miles from State College, Penn’s Cave is a natural limestone cave running about one quarter of a mile in length. The cave, discovered centuries ago by the Seneca Indians, contains a multitude of intricate and beautiful “speleothems“, or formations, that have been sculpted by time. The legend of Penn’s Cave paints a tragic love story between a white trader and the famous Indian princess, Nita-nee (who many out-of-staters may recognize from the famous Nittany Lion mascot).

Nearby is the historic Penn’s Cave House which was built in 1885. The house, which once served as a hotel and is now used for special events, rests on a limestone foundation and is a perfect example of late 19th century rural Pennsylvania architecture. Both the cave and house occupy spots on the National Register’s list of Historic Places.

Cave Tour

A 45-50 minute boat tour of the cavern is available year-round. The guided tours leave the cave entrance every 10 minutes and take approximately 20 people at a time through the winding cavern, through the man-made tunnel at the other end and onto Lake Nitanee (when weather permits), and back again.

The tour guides are knowledgeable and friendly (and flexible too, stopping or pausing for visitors to take pictures). Budding geologists in your family will enjoy learning all about the cave’s ecosystem and will learn about the differences between the various speleothems, such as stalagmites, stalactites, columns, straws, and much more. On your boat ride you’ll hear the tale of the French trapper, Malachi, who fell in love with the Indian princess Nita-nee.

Lights throughout the cave illuminate the sparkling columns and ceilings of the cavern and are a wonder to behold. One of the rooms of the cave even features colored and multicolored lights. Many of the formations have also been fittingly named for what they resemble, such as The Statue of Liberty, Niagra Falls, or the Chinese dragon. But kids and adults alike will have fun deciding for themselves what the complex and intricate formations look like. And you’ll also get to experience the cave in its natural state of pitch-black darkness (but only for a moment!).

Other Activities

After your cave tour, be sure to enjoy all the other activities offered. April through November, visitors can take a 90-minute farm, nature, and wild-life tour. The 1,600 acres owned by Penn’s Cave hosts bears, wolves, elk, deer, bobcats, bison, longhorn cattle, mustangs, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions. A gorgeous sunflower field also makes a great opportunity for beautiful pictures of your kids. For the adventurous adults and older kids in the family, a guided 2.5 hour jeep tour through the mountain is available by advanced reservation.

The young and the old will enjoy getting lost in the 4,800 square feet Prospector Pete’s Maze. Afterwards, take your little ones to Prospector Pete’s gemstone mining right outside of the Visitor’s Center to pan for semi-precious stones, fossils, and arrowheads.

We also recommend budgeting some time to browse the souvenirs and cool stuffed animals (both the toys and real ones). The cafe offers bison burgers and other goodies with plenty of seating, or you can enjoy your lunch outside under the shelters. There’s also a patio outside of the visitor’s center and a grassy hillside if you just want to eat a quick snack or take a break.

Visitor Tips

  • Boat tours through the cavern are given year-round, even in the winter (when you may also see some bats inside)!
  • The cave stays at about 52°F all year, so bring warm clothing, even in the summer.
  • There is a set of steps leading down to the cave entrance which is not handicap or stroller-accessible, so plan accordingly.
  • There are life jackets in the boat under the seats but are not required. However, the water can be deep in some locations so you will probably want to outfit younger children and babies in a life jacket.
  • State College is about 20 minutes away and home to Penn State University. The area offers a plethora of places to stay and more activities including hiking Mount Nittany, skiing at Tussey Mountain, the Downtown Farmer’s Market on Fridays during the summer and fall, the Discovery Space museum for kids, lots of sports, and much more!

While you’re in the area, consider heading north to grand canyon country to take in some spectacular views. Check out our article Visiting the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon for things to do & see!

Photo credits: The Whimsical Photographer

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Laura is a wife and a new mom living on the East Coast. She and her husband welcomed their first child in September 2013. She has a passion for photography and an incurable case of Wanderlust. In her spare time she enjoys blogging about photography, travel, married life, and motherhood at The Whimsical Photographer.

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