A different world is waiting just a 90-minute drive from the District, a land 164 feet beneath the earth’s surface that will fascinate families, encourage children to use their imaginations and remind adults of the wonders of nature.At Luray Caverns, one of the most-visited attractions in the United States, visitors can hear the sounds of the Great Stalacpipe Organ and touch one of the unique creations that looks just like two fried eggs. They can throw pennies into the sparkling wishing well and see towering formations such as Pluto’s Ghost, an ominous column that can be seen from a number of vantage points within the cave.
Guides lead one-hour tours along well-lit, paved walkways and provide the history of the cavern.
As she leads a group through the caverns, tour guide Erin Smith says two local men, tinsmith Andrew Campbell and photographer Benton Stebbins, discovered the caverns in 1878 whey they noticed cold air coming from a limestone sinkhole. After noticing the draft, they spent four hours widening the opening and climbing down into the earth to discover the largest cavern in the East.
Ms. Smith explains that everything in the caverns was formed by water. As water seeps into the cave, the solution of calcium carbonate in the cave’s atmosphere gives up some of its carbon dioxide and allows a precipitation of lime to form. It begins as a thin deposit ring of crystallized calcite. The end result as the process continues is a breathtaking array of stalagmites, stalactites, columns and pillars, formations that look like frozen waterfalls, and other creations.
“Luray Caverns is an active cave where new deposits accumulate at the rate of one cubic inch in 120 years,” Ms. Smith says.
These deposits produce beautiful formations such as Saracen’s Tent, one of the most perfectly formed drapery structures in the world. It resembles a shimmering drapery parted to welcome guests. Another favorite is Dream Lake, which is a perfect reflection of the many stalactites hanging overhead.
John Shaffer, director of public relations for Luray Caverns, says the tours allow families to enjoy the caverns while still ensuring protection of this natural landmark.
“There is no question that we are stewards to one of the finest natural wonders,” he says. “We want to allow the public to explore, keeping in mind that we are protecting an icon in Virginia.”
He says visitors will enjoy experiencing a totally different kind of atmosphere, in which they can feel the cool air in the cavern and hear the unique, hushed sounds.
“Children will enjoy wondering what is going to be around the next corner,” he says.
He says children also enjoy seeing the formations displayed in a range of colors and using their creativity to imagine what the different formations resemble. For example, a group of stalactites hanging down resembles a group of fish hung out to dry. Drip formations look like ice cream cones or Christmas trees.
“One of the children last week said, ‘That looks like my mother’s new hairdo,’” Ms. Smith jokes as she points to a stalagmite. Other formations, she says, have been given names such as Snoopy’s Dog House and the Liberty Bell.
The most popular display in the caverns is the Great Stalacpipe Organ, invented in 1954 by Leland Sprinkle of Springfield. Ms. Smith explains that Mr. Sprinkle searched the caverns with English tuning forks, tapping potential formations. He selected and altered stalactites from more than 31/2 acres to ensure that they matched a musical scale to be part of what would become known as the world’s largest musical instrument. Today, the organ is played by an automated system.
In addition to the caverns, other attractions at the site include a garden maze and the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum. The museum features more than 140 displays related to transportation, including cars, carriages, coaches and costumes dating from 1725.
Children also will love the garden maze, a 1-acre ornamental garden of paths. There is an additional fee to enter the maze, but the museum is included in the caverns’ admission price.
“We wanted something that still blended with the culture here, and we thought the maze was a good match for natural wonders,” says Mr. Shaffer. “We thought children would enjoy the maze, trying to weave their way to the center, to run through the corridors to find their little brother or sister.”
Priscilla Branch of Centreville brought her 9-year-old son, Atat, to experience Luray Caverns, and she says they both were impressed by the caverns’ beauty.
“It’s a wonderful adventure,” Ms. Branch says. “It gives you an appreciation of time, but it also has images in the different formations, and that encourages creativity, when the kids can see different shapes. There really is something here for everyone, for all kids.”
“When I first went inside, it was kind of scary,” Atat says. He says he especially enjoyed the wishing well, and he liked the different designs he saw in the cavern formations.
“I liked the ones that looked like people, and there was one that looked like a dog,” he says.
WHEN YOU GO:
LOCATION: Luray Caverns is about 90 miles from the District.
Directions: From the Beltway, take Interstate 66 west to Gainesville. Take Route U.S. Route 29 south to Warrenton, then take U.S. Route 211 west to the caverns.
Admission: $17 for adults, $15 for seniors, $8 for children ages 7 through 13, free for children younger than 6 accompanied by an adult. Group rates are available.
Hours: The caverns are open daily. Guided tours depart about every 20 minutes. Through Labor Day, the first tour departs at 9 a.m. and the last tour of the day departs at 7 p.m. The Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, included in the price of admission, opens at 9 a.m. and closes 90 minutes after the last caverns tour concludes.
More information: Call 540/743-6551, or visit www.luraycaverns.com.