Altensteiner Höhle

Cave of Altenstein

Useful Information

the entrance to the cave.
the entrance from inside, the tor is turned around a central axis.
the typical structure of the reef limestone.
Location: Altensteiner Straße 5, 36448 Bad Liebenstein.
A4 exit Eisenach-Ost, F19 20 km South to Gumpelbach, turn left to Bad Liebenstein-Schweina. On the left when leaving Schweina on the road to Schloß Altenstein and Bad Liebenstein.
(50.829025, 10.345935)
Open: Closed for renovation.
Fee: Closed for renovation.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave Speleologyriver cave horizontal cave, Zechstein-Riffkalke,
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension: L=2,800 m.
Guided tours: L=360 m, St=112, V=4,500/a [200?].
Underground lake in undeveloped part: L=250m
Bibliography: Die Altensteiner Höhle, Gemeinde Schweina, Thüringen. Hrsg: Kulturbund Gemeinde Schweina
Address: Tourist-Information Bad Liebenstein, Herzog-Georg-Straße 66, 36448 Bad Liebenstein, Tel: +49-36961-69320. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.


1798 discovered during the construction of the road from Schweina to Altenstein.
1799-1802 development of the cave, entrance tunnel and paths constructed.
19th century The dukes of Meiningen organize concerts and Illuminationen (illuminations) for selected guests.
1850 Papier temple demolished due to dilapidation.
1909-10 Electric light installed by AEG Erfurt.
1942 declared a protected landscape area.
1944-45 used as air-raid shelter.
01-APR-1951 start of exploration and development of the cave by the Friends of Nature and Local History of Schweina.
197? new light.
1984 exhibition about the genesis of the cave inside the cave opened.
1984 start of regular cave concerts.
2006 part of the National GeoPark Thüringen Inselsberg – Drei Gleichen.
2016 cave manager Bernd Mylius dies and cave is temporarily closed while searching for a new lessee.
2017 cave closed for major renovation and new light.
2019 Altenstein Reef Complex with Altenstein Cave designated a National Geotope by the Academy of Geosciences and Geotechnologies.
2023 planned reopening.


the irregular passage.
the lake in this first chamber was used for romantic boat trips during the nineteenth century.
this bust is a remainder of this time.
a typical passage.
the concert hall, originally called the dome.
a passage with huge piles of rocks, the remains of the development.
a grid secures the end of the cave. Here the cave tour ends.
a view through the bars of the grid shows, that the cave once was toured further in. But the visitors need rubber boots for this part.

Current information: the cave tenant of Altenstein Cave died unexpectedly in 2016, after which the cave was closed for the time being. Since then, the municipality of Bad Liebenstein as operator and the local caving association have been looking for a new leaseholder, but so far without success. In the 2017 season, the cave was reopened after a considerable delay, but was only open two days a week in a kind of emergency operation. It was then decided to carry out some urgent renovation work and the cave was closed for this purpose. The work is currently underway and is scheduled for completion in October 2022. It can therefore be expected that the cave will be reopened for the 2023 season. [2022]

Schloß Altenstein (Altenstein Castle) and Ruine Liebenstein (Liebenstein Ruin) stand on massive limestone rocks that grew as algae reefs on submarine rock cliffs during the Zechstein era (Perm, about 230 Ma). Today, these rock cliffs form the north-south oriented Ruhlaer Sattel (Ruhla Saddle). The Zechstein reefs have been completely eroded on the heights of the Thüringer Wald (Thuringian Forest). In the southern and northern foreland, on the other hand, they are deep below layers of red sandstone. Near Schweina is a zone that has not been uplifted as much as the Thuringian Forest, but more than the foreland. As a result, the reefs here have weathered out of the overlying strata by erosion roughly in their original form, limestone outcrops with protruding limestone cliffs.

Altensteiner Höhle (Altenstein Cave) is a passage cave, i.e. it consists more or less of a main passage with a few side branches. At the same time, it is a river cave, through which a cave river flows, which has already started to flow through a deeper passage in the front part of the cave and rises in a spring only 100 m from the cave. The cave is truly exceptional, not only because it is the only river cave in Germany, apart from Wimsen Cave, that has been turned into a show cave. The structure of the reef can be seen very nicely on the cave walls. The reef rock is without layers and has many small irregular cavities. At the time of the reef's formation, debris was already collecting in the spaces between the reefs, which can be recognized by the clear stratification. It also provides a cross-section of the reef and the transition to the lagoon, which was once within a more or less circular reef. The cave also has almost no dripstones. Since no dripping water enters the cave from above, they cannot form. The reason for this is probably an impermeable layer above the cave ceiling.

In addition to the extraordinary geology, the history of the cave is also truly extraordinary. Depending on how you look at it, it is probably the oldest real show cave in Germany. It was not onl guided, it had convenient trails and light, This is the result of its location and history of discovery. In 1798, the Zechstein reef was a bare rocky head of karstified limestone and dolomite, a result of mining in the area. The surrounding forests had been completely cleared to produce wood for mining and charcoal for smelting. Soil erosion occurred on the limestone soil and a rocky desert was left behind. In 1798, the sovereign, Herzog Georg I. von Sachsen-Meiningen (Duke Georg I of Saxe-Meiningen), decided to turn the 160-hectare area into a landscape park. Ideas for this were provided by the artists he had taken in at his court, the author Jean Paul, and the ideas of the Freemasons, of whom he was a member. As the first prince of the Aufklärung (Age of Enlightenment), he was open to new ideas and the project was certainly also a project of renown.

So the area was planted, paths were laid out, caves in the limestone rocks were made accessible with paths, and even park architecture such as the Chinese Cottage, the Flower Basket Rock, the Knight's Chapel, the Devil's Bridge or the Luisenthal Waterfall was created. But one of the first projects was the road from Schweina up to Altenstein Castle. And it was during the construction of the road that the cave was discovered, either as early as 1798 or, as is generally publicized, in 1799. There are various legends, the most famous being that the duke's carriage had a defect and, while trying to repair it, a tool fell into a hole next to the road, which had been opened during the construction of the road days before. While trying to get the tool out, the cave was discovered and the Duke, who was waiting for the work to be finished, was among the first to explore the cave. As a result the cave was included in the overall concept of the park and from 1799 onwards was developed with paths and light, and like the park was furnished with architectural citations. During events or visits, not only the park but also the cave was visited, there were so-called echo concerts and the cave was illuminated with hundreds of oil lamps and Bengal lights. The cave river was dammed up and a servant drove a barge across the lake, a "paper temple" was set up, a kind of backdrop made of papier mache and wood that looked like a Greek temple. This was obviously a reminiscence of the Greek myths and the river Styx. A so-called "Rauschwehr" (noise weir) was also installed, which dammed the cave stream and produced a loud roar when the slide valve was pulled. So first all the lights were extinguished and then the noise was switched on, causing a shiver among the surprised guests. An early precursor of modern horror movies.

The development work at the cave was completed in 1802, but the early death of the duke in 1803 prevented further development, and his successors were less ambitious, although the park and castle continued to be used. Altenstein Palace, built in the style of the English late Renaissance, remained the summer residence of the dukes of Meiningen. Notable visitors included Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt and Prince von Pückler-Muskau. The cave remained an essential part of the park complex throughout the entire period. The lighting was provided by about 300 to 400 glass oil lamps from Lauscha, which were fixed to the wall. They were filled with coloured water, thus emitting coloured light; the necessary chemicals were bought from the local pharmacist. Unfortunately, it is not known how these lamps were constructed; the delicate glass lamps all seem to have been broken. Pitch torches and Bengal lights were also used. Other features at these events were thousands of lamps in the park, servants in period uniforms distributing drinks and food, and of course music.

From the beginning, the cave was an important economic factor for Bad Liebenstein. The decline of mining was the reason why many miners were out of work. The construction of the park and the development of the cave required people who were able to lay paths in limestone and so it provided work to the locals. After completion, the cave was freely accessible and was visited by locals and shown to visitors. In Bad Liebenstein, water containing carbonic acid rises from the southern edge faults of the Thuringian Forest. The place owes its medicinal reputation to these springs. Soon spa visitors were visiting the cave and many residents were earning money as guides.

This goes on until the Second World War, in the meantime the cave is illuminated by electricity, but during the wars the number of visitors is low, and during the Second World War another danger comes to the cave. Towards the end of the war, more and more factories are moved underground, and it is easier to use an existing cave than to dig a tunnel. This seems to have been the reason why the cave was declared a protected landscape area in 1942. The hope was to avoid destruction, but this only partially worked; the cave was developed and used as an air raid shelter. After the war, the cave was no longer usable as a show cave, contemporary descriptions use the term "devastated". The bust also seems to have been lost at this time. The temple dummy at the lake was made of paper and wood and after 50 years it was so heavily damaged by humidity that it was removed. Instead, a column was erected with the bust of George I on it. However, this bust was lost at some point, the present bust bears no resemblance to the Duke, moreover it has a whisker and a medal, neither of which the Duke had. A plausible explanation is based on the account of a former cave guide who was in the cave in 1945 as a youth with a former cave guide. The latter had been given a pistol in the turmoil of the end of the war and was doing target practice on the bust. An obvious assumption is that at some point he realized that the bust's absence would be noticed and therefore stole a bust of about the same size from Glücksbrunn Castle, only 100 metres away. The owner of this castle was a rich mine owner, and he was a bearer of the order already mentioned. Unfortunately, no other image of him has survived, so the theory cannot be verified. However, the story goes even further, the bust was not really welcome at the time of the GDR, as it represented an absolutist ruler. Thus, during the renovation in 1951, it was walled into a support column, very high up and unlit, so that visitors did not notice it at all. Only after the fall of the Wall was it returned to its previous place.

The Altenstein Cave was a popular show cave for almost two centuries. But it had its largest number of visitors during the GDR era. The cave enthusiasts from Schweina around the cave guide Kurt Lohfing took over the operation of the cave on 01-APR-1951. They paved paths, repaired the light and even extended the show section. The number of visitors virtually exploded, 50-60,000 visitors a year were quite normal. Even an attempt was made to dig an exit tunnel, the idea being to allow one-way operation because two-way traffic limited the number of visitors. The tunnel was dug, but failed because the slope debris around the exit was unstable and kept closing the tunnel. And finally, in the 1970s, the lighting was renewed. The following theory, that the cave was formed as a primary cave during the formation of the reef limestone, probably dates from this time. It is quite creative, but also very unlikely. Any cavities in the reef limestone would probably have been filled in during diagenesis, or at least in the long time since the limestone was formed. Presumably they would have been filled with calcite.

Altenstein Cave was largely formed as a primary cave. As the reef developed, the corals grew unevenly and repeatedly enclosed larger cavities. When the cave stream sought its way through the rock, it naturally chose the easiest path, and this went through as many pre-existing cavities as possible. So the stream connected the already existing cavities to form the long passage.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, changes were made here as well, after the show cave had continued unchanged for the time being. But the cave was no longer the only one accessible; it had received a lot of competition, not least because of the possibility of long-distance travel. The landscape of the caving associations also changed, they were now registered associations and no longer offshoots of the Kulturbund. In 1998, speleologists from the Thüringer Höhlenverein e.V. (THV) and the Mitteldeutsche Speleologische Gesellschaft e.V. (MSG) and the caving club "Die Altensteiner 1799", with the support of the municipality of Schweina, began to push ahead with research. The occasion was probably the upcoming 200th anniversary. Various investigations were carried out, the cave was resurveyed and new passages were discovered and explored. This research continues to this day and the surveyed length of the cave has increased to 2.8 km in 2022, making this the longest cave in Thuringia.

In the cave the bones of Biologycave bears (Ursus spelaeus) were discovered, but they were almost certainly washed into the cave. The cave had no natural entrance until its discovery in 1799, so it was not a bear cave. In fact, they were also only found in a single alcove, and have since disappeared. It seems to have been common from the beginning for visitors to take a bone or tooth as a souvenir.

Other caves are known in the neighbourhood of the Altenstein Cave and in the other reefs. Some smaller ones have been integrated into the Altenstein Park. The rock above the cave is called Hohler Fels (Hollow Rock) because, according to legend, it is completely hollow and filled with water. In Bad Liebenstein is the Erdfallhöhle (sinkhole cave), where remains of the cave bear have also been found.