Caving in New Hampshire, family-style
A caver emerges from the cool depths of one of New Hampshire's many caves.
When most folks think of caving, what may come to mind are images of harnessed, headlamp-fused-to-helmet adventurers, descending along endless lengths of rope deep into inky abysses, while colonies of abruptly roused bats scatter madly up and around them. This is how caving is accomplished in many parts of the country — just not here. While the experience in New Hampshire is different, it can be plenty exciting and very accessible for folks with kids as well. If you are willing to do a little hiking, you can find a cave to explore.
Most New Englanders are familiar with the Polar Caves in Rumney and the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves in Kinsman Notch, and while those are fun, worthwhile attractions, caves discovered off the beaten path make for great adventures for explorers both big and little. There are many caves that are hard to get to and only accessible to experienced rock climbers, but with a little research and planning you can find a cave to explore that’s not too difficult to reach and within your comfort zone. Pawtuckaway State Park alone boasts about 33 recorded caves and most of those were only just discovered in 2012.
And even though caving in New Hampshire doesn’t require a great deal of skill or specialized gear, it’s always a good idea to go into any expedition with some care and planning, just as you would for any trip out into the wilderness. Be sure to dress for warmth, wear clothing you don’t mind getting grubby and bring some helmets (bike helmets work great) to protect those heads. Above all, bring your sense of adventure. Maybe you will be the next to discover a cave in the Granite State.
There are at least 200 known and recorded caves in New Hampshire and new ones are being discovered every year.
While you could get away with fairly minimal gear during a caving excursion here in NH, sturdy footwear is always a good investment, especially considering the hiking you might need to do to get there. The Merrell Moab hiking shoe ($110) is waterproof and features lightweight, breathable fabrics, but is tough enough to handle the rigors of both the granite and the trail.
While you probably won’t require a headlamp for the kind of caving you’re likely to do in New Hampshire, it’s a good idea to bring at least a reliable flashlight to illuminate your way. The Olight i1LED flashlight with Cree XM-L LED ($49.95) features 180 lumens and a convenient pocket clip and key ring holder.
You could take pictures in any cave with a camera using a flash, but for the enthusiast who wants to get some more natural shots in low light, the Canon PowerShot S95 10MP Digital Camera ($429) scores high marks. Featuring Canon’s HS system and a 3.8x optical zoom, this slim, highly portable point-and-shoot will make lasting memories of your caving adventures.
No matter what the weather is outside, you can be sure that the average temps inside any cave will be lower so be prepared with warm layers. This North Face Women’s TKA 100 Texture Masonic Hoodie ($44.98) provides lightweight warmth and is highly breathable and quick-drying to keep you comfortable during any activity.
If you bring your kids along on your next caving excursion, a great idea is to have them carry a little of their own gear — just enough to give them a sense of responsibility. The Kids Hiking Belt Kit ($39.99) from Blue Ridge Overland Gear is a clever system that allows children to stash their own supplies, from a small flashlight to snacks (with a built-in trail mix pouch) and features an adjustable belt and lumbar support.
Expert Advice From Aaron Tester
Aaron Tester has been exploring the caves of the Virginias and the Northeast for 21 years. His grandfather first took him caving when he was 11 in the George Washington National Forest and he’s been at it ever since. He has lived in New Hampshire for the past 10 years and works as a civil servant in Portsmouth. When not underground or in the cubicle, his interests range from raising his own organic food, hiking and backpacking to the fiber arts.
What is the right term to use, “spelunker” or “caver”?
Spelunking was a term that came about first in the ’40s and is derived from the Greek word for cave, but spelunker has a very negative connotation, and it means people who just grab flashlights and go caving without any caution. You hear about rescues down south of people getting lost in the cave systems. Cavers are prepared and cautious while in the cave. The caver’s motto is “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”
What was the best caving experience you ever had?
One of the best I’ve recently had was helping to explore and map the second-longest cave in Vermont that was just discovered. It’s about 2,400 feet long and it just keeps going, so that was pretty exciting. Another trip was to Marshall’s Cave in Virginia, which is well known, and I had been to before. I went with the Boston Grotto group and had a group from MIT with us. We were able to get into the lower recesses and formations were everywhere, a very well-decorated cave, as it’s called. And to have them have that experience was very cool as it’s something that people don’t normally get to see.
Can you describe the caving experience in New Hampshire vs. other areas you’ve explored, like the Virginias and what people can expect to find here?
Caves up here are colder. The temps run in the 40s, even in the summer. You may run into a porcupine or raccoon. You won’t find huge colonies of bats here because it’s not the right environment. The granite is really coarse, and expect lots of crawling around on hands and knees, though there are some stand-up chambers.
What are some of your favorite caves/caverns to explore in New Hampshire?
Pawtuckaway is my first suggestion to anyone who wants to check out this kind of thing. There are lots of smaller boulder caves, even if you don’t want to walk up to Devil’s Den. The boulder fields are at the foot of North Mountain. The “Attic” is cool and people geocache up there. All along the floor there are boulder caves with rooms or ones you can crawl through. There is also another named Devil’s Den in Alton with great views of Winnipesaukee. It’s about 30 feet long and you can stand up for the whole thing. There are two entrances — one is a rough scramble, the other is a vertical entrance.
Are there certain precautions people should take when exploring caves or special gear that’s needed?
Just be cautious of your footing and watch your head. If you are considering a more serious caving trip, there are some basic rules: never go alone, always have at least three sources of light, wear appropriate gear, (helmet, gloves, warm clothes and sturdy footwear), tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. If you aren’t sure you can safely enter the cave or part of it, then don’t. It gives you a good reason to return to the cave after you have learned some new skills.