I got back from Newport News on Wednesday afternoon, and went to our last Ukulele and Ice Cream performance and to the dojo that evening, so pretty much nothing was done to prepare for the trip until Thursday morning, departure day. Well, I had made camping reservations at Max V. Shaul State Park near Cobleskill, NY. We arrived there in late afternoon. It was an okay camping place. One of the two biggest problems was that the camping sites were carved out of the living rock, or at least ours was, or at least ours was mostly covered with more rocks than dirt. Trees managed to grow in it, and despite initial doubts we were able to drive most of our tent stakes in most of the way. The other biggest problem was that on Friday evenings the park hosts an open mic night, which I suppose isn’t a problem if you happen to be in the mood for the music being played, which I wasn’t. Aside from that, not a bad place. Wooded, so you didn’t feel like you were sharing a field with your 150 closest acquaintances. Nor were there 150 acquaintances there on the weeknights; occupancy rate was pretty low.
We camped there for its proximity to the main thing Kenny wanted to do and the reason for not being in the Adirondacks, which was Howe Caverns… and, since it was nearby, Secret Caverns. Friday morning we started off with Howe. I’d last been there, in round numbers, fifty years ago. A few things I remembered, like the Pipe Organ, and the boat ride, and the Winding Way. I didn’t remember the Bridal Altar, where several hundred couples have gotten married over the past 170ish years, with the heart-shaped piece of calcite they’ve embedded in the floor with a light under it to demonstrate its translucency. I suppose they could have added that since I was there. (Supposedly if you step on the heart, and are single, and of a suitable age, you’ll get married within a year. Younger singles will just have good luck, and married persons will have a second honeymoon. I may have stepped on it a couple times.) I also remember that after threading through the very narrow Winding Way to its terminus, we had to turn around and thread our way back. This was not conducive to tourist throughput, it being decidedly not a place one tour group could enter while another was exiting, so in 1972 they blasted a new passage back to the cave entrance.
We stayed for lunch at the on-site cafe, which was no worse nor more overpriced than you might expect, possibly less so on both counts.
Then we headed up the road another mile or so to Secret Caverns. The guy in charge there was apologetic when we came in, for reasons I never did quite fully understand; there was a tour bus group on tour then, fifty or so visitors from Japan, and it would be 20 or 25 minutes before we could go in. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a tour to start any sooner than that, so no big deal, but he proceeded to charge us both the child rate to make up for the delay. I didn’t time it but it seemed a fair bit less than 20 minutes before we were able to start. Our group consisted of the tour guide, me, Kenny, and nobody else. As we were finishing up we had to wait at the stairs (no elevators at Secret) for a busload of Indian tourists. Bit of a variation, then, in tour size.
Aside from the fact they’re both tourist caves on the same stretch of road, the two operations are utterly different. I’m glad we did both. If forced to choose I’d take Howe over Secret. Yeah, Howe is a good deal more expensive and more slick and more hokey. On the other hand, Howe is physically bigger and has more interesting formations and features to see, and they give it a better presentation. But Secret does have the waterfall… 100 feet, they claim; I think they exaggerate, and if it turned out to be entirely artificial it wouldn’t surprise me, but it was something Howe doesn’t have. And there’s the whole friendly, small-scale, Mom and Pop vibe. In fact part of their schtick seems to be deliberate parody of goofy roadside America. Anyway, unless you’re really rushed, you don’t need to choose.
I seem to recall hearing, by the way, of significant bad blood and perhaps some legal proceedings between the two in the past. These days, though, there’s links to each on the other’s web sites, and at Secret I noticed the brochure wall had a stack of Howe brochures. Guess they’re on good terms now.
There was still some time left before dinner, so we stopped off at Gobbler’s Knob, not the Punxutawney Phil one but a mini golf / driving range / par 3 course / ice cream establishment outside Cobleskill. Not a bad mini golf course, and once you pay they let you go through it as many times as you want… we played it twice. That and the ice cream were both very reasonably priced.
Saturday we were up not as early as I’d thought we’d be, but early enough to get to the Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain trailhead while there were still parking spaces. A fair bit of a drive from the campgrounds but I wanted to get a mountain in this year. I haven’t shaken the PF completely but it wasn’t bothering me much before or during the climb, and hasn’t flared up after. We spent altogether about six hours climbing up to the five Giant Ledges, down into the col, and up to the Panther summit. Apparently whoever surveyed the Catskills didn’t have the same brilliant idea as the Adirondack surveyors who burned the tops of many of the mountains in order to get better views, leaving them bald (the mountains, not the surveyors) ever since. So you don’t get the 360 degree panoramas on the Catskill summits, and the best views are not necessarily right at the top. But great views are there anyway.
Not much mud on the hike up. Probably because it’s been dry weather there lately. We did get some rain Thursday evening, but it was sunny and pleasant other than that — best camping weather we’ve had in years.
Dinner last night at a Chinese buffet, and then home again today.