What is touted to be the most popular – and certainly the most advertised – underground experience in the country are Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley.
Since this U.S. Registered Natural Landmark is a mere hour’s drive from Staunton, I would be remiss to start off my 2022 trips to Virginia caverns without visiting the Grande Dame.
Although show-offy Tennessee is said to lead the pack of states with the most caves and caverns – more than 10,000 – Virginia has eight that are bonafide tourist attractions.
On a recent mid-week trip to Luray Caverns, I was heartened to drive into the mammoth parking lot and see only a small trickle of vehicles. The spring is still considered off-season and a prime time to beat the vacationers and out of schoolers!
For those who may have visited pre-Covid, the tours are now self-guided. A small brochure outlines some of the highlights seen during the hour it takes to traverse the mile and a quarter path. Tour guides do greet you at the start of the tour and of course, are ready to push the button to start up the world-famous Stalacpipe Organ in the Cathedral section.
William Campbell, Andrew Campbell, and Benton Stebbins discovered this natural wonder on August 13, 1878. They had found a promising sinkhole…Andrew and Benton felt cool air coming out of a quarter-sized hole.Luray Caverns brochure
One of the many highlights along the walkway has to be Dream Lake. This 2,500-square-foot body of clear water provides a perfect mirror of the ceiling above. Although only inches deep, it is an eerily calm and beautiful part of the underground experience.
According to the very helpful brochure, the caverns are said to be 450 million years old – which is hard to fathom. The Giant Redwood, a massive column in the Overlook area, is a baby by these standards at a mere seven million years old.
Remember this helpful tip: stalactites have a “T” for growing from the top, or ceiling, while stalagmites have a “G” as they grow from the ground.
You’ll be at the deepest part of the cavern once in Giant’s Hall. At this point in the tour, the cavern dips 164 feet below the earth’s surface. The hall has the largest space of any of the cavern rooms, and offers a chance for slightly claustrophobic folks to catch their breath. Once exiting the hall, the next part of the spelunking journey brings you to the money-maker: the much-ballyhooed pipe organ.
Ok so, the “Phantom of the Opera” has nothing on the creepiness of this world-renowned organ. Nearby stalactites are gently tapped by rubber-tipped mallets to produce its unique musical sound. The organ was created in the 1950’s by Leland W. Sprinkle, a Virginia boy who happened to be a math and engineering geek. Dances and good ole’ hoedowns also used to be held in this room, once known as the Ballroom.
In my solitary journey though the caverns, I felt spookily reassured by catching glimpses of Pluto’s Ghost along the way. This forever frozen waterfall is truly magnificent and aptly named after the Roman god of the Underworld.
Once you’ve had all of the Morlock-living you can handle, get even more bang for your buck and check out some of the ancillary activities offered at Luray Caverns. Since it’s included in the price of your cavern admission, stick your head into the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum and Toy Town Junction, a recently acquired massive antique toy collection (the original Toy Story?).