By Russell Dunn
If you have hiked extensively through the Shawangunks, then you have been exposed to its awesome world of rock buttresses and toppled boulders, glacially-carved lakes, bouncing rivers, and plunging waterfalls — all superimposed on a backdrop of white Shawangunk Conglomerate. But there is more to the Shawangunks than what you see on the surface. There is also a world underground — the incredible caves of the Shawangunks.
When we talk about caves of the Shawangunks, we are actually talking about four different kinds of caves — solutional, tectonic, talus, and shelter. Solutional caves are created by the erosive power of underground streams. Pompey's Cave, Mystery Cave, Rhodes Cave, and Graham Mountain Cave are examples of such caves. Because some contain speleothem — formations such as stalagmites, stalactites, and flowstone — they are typically what people think of when caves come to mind.
Tectonic (crevice and fissure) caves form where the bedrock has cracked apart forming a rift. The Ellenville Ice Caves (a.k.a. Shingle Gully Caves) are a perfect example of this type of cave. You will see numerous fissures and crevices throughout the Shawangunks, particularly as you approach the escarpment edge of the plateau.
Talus caves are created when large blocks break off of the escarpment wall and come to rest against each other, forming enterable spaces between them. Many caves of this type can be found in the Shawangunks, particularly in the Mohonk Preserve.
Shelter Caves are formed by overhanging ledges. They are occasionally used by hikers seeking refuge from the elements.
The most famous cave site in the Shawangunks is a conglomeration of tectonic, talus, and shelter caves located at Ice Cave Mountain — a name given to it when the site was a commercial attraction from 1967 to 1996. The trail leads you along and down through a series of deep fissures and chasms, and along the base of an escarpment where huge blocks of rubble lay strewn about and overhanging ledges form shelter caves. You can visit the caves today by going up to the Sam's Point Dwarf Pine Ridge Preserve which is run by the Nature Conservancy.
Deeper in the interior region of the southern Shawangunks are the Ellenville Ice Caves at Shingle Gully where a huge chasm has formed, most likely the result of a large block of Shawangunk Conglomerate sliding across the underlying Hudson shale, undoubtedly nudged by the last glacier that passed through this area. There are many nooks and crannies to explore in this narrow canyon, and many are so recessed that they retain ice and snow throughout most of the year. You do need a permit, however, to enter the area where the caves are located. Permits can be obtained at the Visitor's Center at Sam's Point.
One of the most well-known and historically significant solutional caves of the Shawangunks is Pompey's Cave, which is formed in the bedrock under Kripplebush Creek. It is one of New York State's longest caves with passageways totaling nearly 4,000 feet. During most of the year, the section of Kripplebush Creek containing the cave becomes bone dry on the surface when the entire stream is pirated underground.
Pompey's Cave has been known about since 1832 when it was first written up and later republished in the Ellenville Journal in 1870. Legend has it that an Afro-American family hid inside the cave in the 1850s during the Civil War, and that the cave was earlier discovered by an Afro-American farm hand named Pompey.
Mystery Cave (a.k.a. Surprise Cave) on the western flank of the Shawangunk Mountains is a large cave with nearly two miles of passageways. Unlike Pompey's Cave, however, it is a multi-level maze, containing many passageways that crisscross both vertically and horizontally like a game of three dimensional tic-tac-toe. It was discovered back in the mid-1960s by two cavers. The cave is appropriately named, for few people know of its existence and fewer still have entered it.
Rhodes Cave is a smaller version of Mystery Cave and formed in the bedrock of a brook that flows northwest down the side of the Shawangunk range into the Basha Kill. Many of its passageways run parallel to each other, interconnected by cross passages.
Graham Mountain Cave is truly a caver's cave, for its Big Breakdown Room, which measures 200 feet long by 12 to 45 feet wide, but is only one to five feet high, and requires negotiating a 200-foot-long crawlway with the dimensions of a coffin. It is appropriately named 'Torture Alley.'
Like hiking, biking, paddling, or rock-climbing, caving is a great way to appreciate the full range of what the Gunks have to offer. To optimize your outdoor experience, however, it's best to join a local grotto (caving club) and learn not only where caves are located, but also the ethics of responsible caving, and how to stay safe underground. For more information and assistance, the following grottos can be consulted:
Shawangunk-Catskill Area Grotto
128 Washington Ave
Kingston, NY, 12401
147 E. 82nd Street #7E
New York, NY, 11128
PO Box 804
Schoharie, NY, 12157
Rensselaer Outing Club
RPI Student Union
Troy, NY, 12180
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