One of the best parts about welcoming guests to your home for a vacation is identifying the activities, meals, and destinations that will best highlight your hometown’s personality. Balancing your favorite spots with your guests’ interests and the length of their stay is a bit like putting together a puzzle. There will always be more to see and do than any schedule allows, which means planning a custom itinerary and making recommendations usually starts weeks before their plane touches down or their car pulls into your driveway.
We were beyond excited when Adam’s brother, sister-in-law, and our nieces and nephew decided to visit us for a week during the kids’ Thanksgiving break from school, and as soon as their plane tickets were purchased we began pouring through our notes, and even older Road Unraveled posts, to build a few day trips that would show them the best of the greater Washington, DC area. As we considered what would bring a desired mix of educational, memorable, and fun experiences, Adam suggested we add a stop at Luray Caverns to the itinerary. He asked, “Remember how they mentioned it on The Simpsons? How Patty and Selma forced Richard Dean Anderson to watch their slideshow of photos from their trip to Luray Caverns?”
For a moment, I shuddered at the thought of three teenagers—Cole, Ella, and Macy—returning back to their friends with a similar, though perhaps more digital, slideshow, and of their friends’ faces contorted into the same expression on Richard Dean Anderson’s face after hours of photos of rock formations. Adam could read my mind; in his typical reassuring voice, he said, “You’re forgetting that the caverns are awesome in person. We’re not just showing them pictures.”
As usual, Adam was right. To dismiss Luray Caverns as a simple collection of stalactites and stalagmites would be to lose sight of is incomparable geology and its important place in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley history. Less than a two-hour drive from Washington, DC, Luray Caverns provides a front row seat to one of the most impressive cave systems in the United States. If you’re interested in an unforgettable lesson about some of the magic taking place below our feet, a day trip to Luray Caverns is exactly what you need.
Luray Caverns: a Natural Tourist AttractionAlthough Luray Caverns’ origins might be the stuff of legends, or at least the incredible proof of what nature and our planet can do, its discovery was practically a premonition by the man who found it. Benton Pixley Stebbins moved from New York City to the Shenandoah Valley in hopes of discovering a limestone cave that could make him rich through tourism and ticket sales. Luck was on his side in August 1878 when he stumbled upon a sinkhole emitting cool air, a telltale sign that a cave system might be just below. Stebbins’ partner Andrew Campbell and his young nephew Quint were the first to enter the cavern after digging for several hours, creating a hole large enough for the men to descend by rope and look around by candlelight. What they found is what continues to impress visitors to this day: limestone cave structures adorned with naturally formed columns and formations far beyond what they could have imagined.
Stebbins and Campbell purchased the property containing the cave entrance when the owner of the land declared bankruptcy just a month after they discovered the opening. However, it wasn’t theirs for long; although they kept their discovery a secret, once the state found out the land had been sold at an exceptionally undervalued price the sale was sent to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which in 1881 determined the sale was fraudulent and nullified the purchase. While Stebbins never realized his dream of operating a profit-making cave system in the Shenandoah Valley, the cave system he discovered is the largest cavern in the eastern USA.
What to See in Luray Caverns
Patty and Selma might be able to bore guests to tears with slideshow photos of rocks, but Luray Caverns brings geology to life—fitting, since the cave itself is very much alive. While a basic geology education is helpful for making the most of your visit, and is expertly presented during guided tours, the only thing you have to know to appreciate Luray Caverns is that the entire system was created by natural processes. During the last 400 million years our planet has been hard at work, and it has only been during the last century that humans have known where to go to reap the benefits.
► Stalactites and Stalagmites
More than anything else, Luray Caverns is defined by stalactites and stalagmites. While they look the same, stalactites are found on the cave’s ceilings and were formed as materials like minerals, mud, and water dripped into the cave. Conversely, stalagmites are found on the cave’s floors, and they grow up toward the ceiling and are made from the same materials. There are thousands of stalactites and stalagmites within the cave system, and they combine to provide stunning formations that are visible to guests who visit. To this day, the stalactites and stalagmites are still growing, which is the reason why Luray Caverns is, indeed, alive.
► The “fried eggs” of Luray CavernsAlthough the vast majority of Luray Caverns’ charm is in the earth-made beauty, two of our favorite features are manmade. Guided tours point out what are known as the fried eggs, two smooth rocks that look like circular yolks sitting in clear albumen. Nature made them, but they used to be full-fledged stalagmites; in 1921, two workers accidentally snapped them off at their bases, and over time they came to resemble a popular breakfast food. Although guides will remind you not to touch them, we saw many hands sneak out of pockets to slide against the smooth surface as visitors shuffled by.
► Dream Lake
Even though Luray Caverns dips as low as 260 feet below the surface of the earth, it’s still home to a few bodies of water, including the Dream Lake reflecting pool. Dream Lake looks enormous upon approach, and at 2,500 square feet it’s bigger than any body of water you might expect to find. At no more than 18 inches deep, though, it’s an optical illusion in the middle of the cavern, and its perfect stillness reflects the stalactites dangling above it.
► Sacaran’s Tent and Pluto’s Ghost
Many of the cave’s most prominent features have been given descriptive, even poetic names to distinguish them. It’s easy to spot Sacaran’s Tent, which flows from the ceiling to the ground like a curtain and looks so delicate you would imagine that, if a breeze might blow through the cave, the stalactites would gently sway as the air moved. Another stalactite structure, named Pluto’s Ghost, has the opposite effect; it stands tall and still, resembling a spirit even as you approach it. In fact, Stebbins and Campbell believed it was a ghost when they explored the cavern system, further convinced by the fact it was visible from several places within the caves. When they eventually built up the nerve to confront it, they found it was simply a tall, white formation, and it became a landmark to help them stay oriented while exploring.
► The Great Stalacpipe OrganOne of Luray Cavern’s most defining features is the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Leland W. Sprinkle first thought of the idea to build an organ within the cavern while visiting with his son; when his son accidentally hit his head on a stalagmite he heard the tone it emitted and realized the cave system’s acoustics would be a great fit for a permanent musical instrument. After three years of work, Sprinkle created the organ by identifying and then shaping stalagmites by shaving them to achieve the proper tone. He then connected rubber mallets to a keyboard so that, when played, songs would echo throughout the cavern. Interestingly, the stalagmites are not contained within a single area; they are scattered over more than three acres of the cavern’s network of rooms, which was necessarily since each stalagmite needed to be a precise size and thickness in order to produce the desired sound. Still, because of the structure of the subterranean cave, it’s possible to hear the organ in just about any location when you’re underground. Today, guided tours include a live, automated demonstration of the organ, which provides a chance to experience how music surrounds you when the organ is brought to life.
Wondering what the Great Stalacpipe Organ sounds like? Although you won’t hear a live, manual performance during most visits, this video from PBS gives you a look at how the mallets strike the stalactites as Otto Pebworth, the organist at Luray Caverns, plays Moonlight Sonata.
Luray Caverns Tour
All visits to Luray Caverns include a guided tour of the caves, which takes only an hour from start to finish. On the day we arrived, we just missed the start of one tour and had a 45-minute wait until the next tour was scheduled to begin. We spent most of that time exploring the gift shop, where the tour starts and ends. By the time our guide arrived to escort us from the earth’s surface to hundreds of feet below we had been joined by two dozen visitors ready to make the trek.
Although it takes more than a mile of walking to navigate the caverns, there are no stairs involved when visiting. While Luray Caverns is not technically an accessible destination, many visitors, including those who use wheelchairs, find it quite easy to navigate. Luray Caverns is also comfortable from a temperature perspective; the year-round temperature is often around 54 degrees Fahrenheit, but the high humidity makes it feel closer 65 degrees. Because the tours take you underground, tours operate rain or shine and aren’t impacted by snow in the winter or thunderstorms in the summer.
We have taken the Luray Caverns guided tour several times over the last decade, and each tour has consistently provided the same information no matter who served as our guide. Although the facts don’t change, the stories often do; many of our guides have told us of their family’s connections to Luray Caverns and the Shenandoah Valley region. The stories provide a nice balance to the science of how the caverns came to exist and a fun way to understand a person’s personal history with the caves at the same time you create your own. When we visited with our family, who traveled to see us from the Portland, Oregon area, we were especially excited to see their reactions. The geology of the Pacific Northwest doesn’t feature caves quite like Luray Caverns, and the guided tour was quick enough to keep us moving and focused but slow enough for us to immerse ourselves in views unlike anything you can see above ground. Luray Caverns was a win all around: lots to learn, lots to see, and lots to talk about on the car ride home.
More Information: LurayCaverns.com
Hotels Near Luray Caverns
Although it’s a bit of a drive from some of the larger cities in Virginia, there are plenty of hotels within a short drive of Luray Caverns. If you’re hoping to stay close by, take a look at Booking.com to see if there’s a hotel that meets your needs. We typically use Booking.com when researching and comparing hotels because of how easy it is to identify key amenities we need (free WiFi and parking are a must!) and those we like to have (a decent breakfast included with the room rate can be a great way to save a few dollars!). Because Luray Caverns is less than two hours from Washington, DC, just over two hours from Richmond, and 90 minutes from Charlottesville, it’s an easy day trip from any of those locations. Booking.com may also have great options for you elsewhere in Virginia, Maryland, or DC if your travels will have you spending more of your time outside of the Shenandoah Valley.
Enjoy Luray Caverns!
When you stand outside and look down at your feet, there’s a good chance you aren’t thinking about what is happening below them. When traveling to the Shenandoah Valley, a visit to Luray Caverns provides a unique opportunity to witness the magic Earth can create over the course of many millions of years. A walk through Luray Caverns is like a walk through the evolution of our planet, a chance to see the incredible formations and structures it can produce with your own eyes. The experience will almost certainly inspire you to look at the world a little differently, especially when scrolling through the photos you take during your visit.
Just don’t subject your friends to a slideshow highlighting every detail of your experience. It didn’t work for Patty and Selma, and it most likely won’t work for you. Some magic has to be experienced firsthand to be understood.
We always enjoy writing about our home state of Virginia! Here are a few more places we’ve written about.