5 underground treasures in and around Pittsburgh
This story was first published on Aug. 1, 2018, and has been updated.
Pittsburgh claims many underground attractions, some deep under the earth, others exposing ancient buried treasures and others still taking a more figurative definition of “underground.”
Check out these 5 spots throughout the region.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Start your underground exploration with a bit of background on Pennsylvania’s geological history. The Stratavator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History gives kids a simulated elevator ride through the floor of the museum to 3 miles below Earth’s surface.
Along the way, a guide named Rocky (get it?) shares details about the many layers below us. Learn about limestone caves, the Upper Freeport Coal seam, plus the formation of sandstone. It’s a fun way to explore Pittsburgh’s past as a tropical paradise and to envision the vast ocean that covered the area over 300 million years ago.
Kids with an interest in fossils and bones from prehistoric times can stop in the Bone Hunters’ Quarry. There, they don safety masks and use chisels and brushes to uncover bones just like grownup paleontologists.
Tour-Ed Mine & Museum
Former coal miners take the lead in guiding visitors through the Tour-Ed Mine & Museum in Tarentum. The miners provide the perfect perspective in explaining coal-mining experiences throughout the nearly 170 years of the mine’s operation.
Hard hats on, kids and grownups travel 160 feet below the earth in a flat coal car for the half-mile journey. The fascinating 30-minute tour demonstrates mining tools and methods from the 1850s to current times. Learn why miners carried canaries to work with them, and how today’s miners alert themselves to the danger of methane gas.
Coal mined here was shipped across the country, as well as used locally at the Allegheny Steel Plant, Tarentum Power and Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant. When the mine closed to production, it was modified for tour safety and reopened as an educational facility in 1970. Since then, Tour-Ed Mine has hosted more than 1 million tours for families, school groups and scouts.
Visit the museum to get a look at the company store, where miners bought goods with company scrip, and a recreated coal miner home. On-site picnic facilities allow families to bring their own lunches for a full-day, very “coal” experience. Don’t forget a hoodie: Temperatures underground remain 52-56 degrees year-round.
The largest and deepest cave of any kind in Pennsylvania, and possibly the largest sandstone cave in the world, Laurel Caverns, located 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, is a hot destination. Three different tours are offered through its 3 miles of labyrinth passages, including rigorous rappelling classes and spelunking.
The most popular tour for kids is the 60-minute traditional guided tour. Passages and stairs are lighted throughout the 3,000-foot adventure that travels along the slope of the mountain to about 150 feet below the surface.
You won’t see typical stalactites here. Those were smoothed into sculpted sandstone walls formed millions of years ago by wind and water currents.
On the surface, kids can try their hand at panning for gemstones or try their skill at the Kavernputt. This unique mini-golf course was built in a simulated cave to give a caving experience to those with access difficulties to the natural caves. Each hole teaches an aspect of caves, combining education with entertainment.
And be sure to admire the landscape from atop Chestnut Ridge at the Visitors Center, where you can spot Pittsburgh’s skyline within the five-county view.
One of the reasons kids love this underground stop is that they travel by boat through the winding cave. The 45-minute guided tour at Penn’s Cave, located about 18 miles from State College, reveals stunning formations made by years and years of dripping water. The stalactites and stalagmites form rock cascades, “curtains” and unusual shapes with names like the Statue of Liberty and the Garden of the Gods. When the weather allows, the boat continues outside on Lake Nitanee.
There’s plenty to do aboveground, too. Kids can accept the challenge of finding their way through Prospector Pete’s Miners Maze, a 4,800-square-foot labyrinth of twists, turns and dead ends. The whole family will get a charge out of the 2-hour, off-road Cave Rock Mountain Tour. The Farm-Nature-Wildlife Tour explores grazing pastures, mountain trails and forests on a 90-minute bus ride.
Did you know that the oldest site of human inhabitation in North America is here in southwest Pennsylvania? More than 60 years ago, a farmer named Albert Miller found a curious-looking tool in a groundhog hole on his land. Having an interest in archeology, he recognized the tool as having serious significance to prehistoric study.
It took nearly 20 years before Miller found a paleontologist at the University of Pittsburgh willing to take a look at his find. A crew of archeology, paleontology and geology students was quickly dispatched to this amazing quarry. Within 6 years, more than 2 million artifacts and ecofacts of stone tools, pottery and Ice Age fire pits were recovered, along with evidence that people gathered here some 16,000 years ago.
The work continues at Meadowcroft Shelter, which was named a National Historic Landmark. Kids can visit this active archeological site and watch scientists carry on the study of our ancient neighbors. About one-third of the site has not yet been touched, but excavation will go on as technology and field methodology progresses.
A visit to Meadowcroft is a fascinating way for kids to watch discoveries unfolding firsthand from the upper observation platform. While there, check out the more recent 16th-century Monongahela Indian Village and 18th-century Frontier Trading Post.