Luray Caverns in Virginia is the third most-visited cave system in the United States, and it’s the only one with a stalagmite pipe organ. I’ve been known to say if you’ve seen one cave, you’ve seen them all, but this one promised to be unique.
Each day roughly 3,500 people from all over the world take the one-hour tour through Luray Caverns. When I recently pulled into the massive parking lot after driving two hours in relative solitude, I was amazed at the number of cars in the lotFun Fact: According to the National Park Service, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the most visited, drawing 300,000 visitors each year. Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico is second.
ABOUT LURAY CAVERNS
The Luray Caverns are a United States National Landmark in the Shenandoah Valley, just west of the Blue Ridge/Appalachian Mountains in Luray, Virginia. No matter which direction you drive from, you’ll travel through wide-open swaths of land, rolling hills and tiny historic towns. Then, in stark contrast, the commercial ecosystem surrounding the caverns to support all the visitors becomes evident.
The Luray Caverns were discovered in 1878 and opened in 1882 below Cave Hill. Before the discovery, the area was curious due to its many sinkholes, pits and hollows. Eventually, a group of men explored more deeply and found the cave.
Today, the cave system formed by underground rivers and acid water seepage through limestone and clay covers 64 acres, but the tour covers 1.5 miles. The caverns are a constant 54 degrees with very high humidity, making it feel like 65 degrees.
Fun Fact: If a water drip lands on you in the cave, it’s called a “cave kiss.” They’re supposed to be lucky!
INSIDE THE CAVE
When I saw all the cars, I was worried about not having a ticket, but the long line moved quickly, and there were no limitations on the number of people they’d let through at one time, as far as I could tell. These caves, unlike Mammoth or Carlsbad, are not national parks. They are part of a privately owned for-profit business.
“Is it always s this busy?” I asked the ticket clerk.
He looked around at the crowds and cars in the lot and said, “Yep, this is about normal.”
Being only two hours away from Washington D.C. and the Shenandoah National Park, there are a great many foreign visitors, too, making the crowds a diverse collection of people from around the world.
After getting my ticket, I joined a crowd descending a long ramp toward the cave. There, we lined up, slowly stepping forward until we came together in a large open area. Everything was wet, and water dripped like we were in the mouth of a whale at the base of the cave. A host gave our group a brief introduction and set us off on our own to explore. A lighted walkway and signs allow the caves to be self-guided. It’s up to you how long you’ll spend but going faster than the crowd in front of you may prove challenging. Most people spend about an hour in the caves.
FORMATIONS IN LURAY CAVERNS
Strategically lighted pathways enhance the cave structures and lead into cathedral-sized rooms with up to 10-stories high ceilings. Each cave formation has a name based on how it was created. Inside Luray Caverns, I saw massive stalagmite and stalactite columns, mudflows, flowstone, curtains and drapes, mirrored pools and much more. Many formations, made of a crystalline form of limestone called calcite, look like bone.
This famed formation can be seen on postcards and other historic cavern memorabilia. It’s a s a pristine example of a calcite flowstone formation in the purest white.
Fun Fact: Shakespeare’s play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” has a Fairy Queen named Titania and this formation for named after her.
Flowstone draperies are abundant throughout the cavern. Draperies, sometimes called curtains, are thin, occasionally transparent stones that form as water works through small ceiling crevices but evaporates before it has a chance to fall. A series of curtains in Saracen’s Tent form a circular tent-like structure.
It’s hard to believe what you’re seeing at Dream Lake. This is the largest body of water in the caverns, but its deepest point is not more than 20 inches. The shimmering, still water reflects numerous stalactites in a mirror image so that you don’t know which is real and which is the dream.
Fun Fact: Stalactites only grow an inch or so every hundred years.
FRIED EGGS ROCK FORMATION
You’re not likely to see the fried egg formation elsewhere since it’s not a traditional cave formation. These formed from a damaged stalagmite, and now they are starting to slowly reform from slightly acidic water, precipitating some of their mineral content. But they sure are fun to see.
The Wishing Well is a green pond with coins donated to the Page County war memorial and other charities.
Fun Fact: People throw bills in the lake as much as change. I wonder whose job it is to dry them out for donation?
THE GREAT “STALACPIPE” ORGAN
However, the premier structure in Luray Caverns is the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Wires run from the organ into stalactites that hang from the ceilings and vibrate like tuning forks when struck. Guinness World Records says the organ, with 3.5 acres of pipes, is the world’s largest underground musical instrument.
I cannot determine how many “underground musical instruments” exist, but let me know if you have the answer.
It took me nearly an hour to make my way through the caverns to the organ, and I was right just in time. An operator plays the system just once an hour, and I arrived just as he was alerting the crowd that the song was about to begin. When I went, there wasn’t a person striking the keys; instead, it’s automated and only plays manually on special occasions.
This pipe organ is different from others I’ve seen or heard because, except for the obvious, it wasn’t as loud as others. Also, instead of coming from a central location, the music seemed to emanate from an undefined place all around us. Watch my Instagram video to hear it.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS INCLUDED A TICKET
CAR & CARRIAGE CARAVAN MUSEUM
See the history of transportation on display with over 75 historic vehicles, including an 1897 Mercedes-Benz, a 1908 Baker Electric and a 1925 Rolls Royce.
TOY TOWN JUNCTION
Enjoy a stroll down memory lane with this vast collection of trains and toys from the past.
SHENANDOAH HERITAGE VILLAGE
Discover America’s first frontier in this three-acre museum re-creation of a small 19th-century farming community.
IF YOU VISIT LURAY CAVERNS
Plan for it to take an hour to go through Luray Caverns. However, you will need time to make it through the ticket line and probably 30 minutes each for the other attractions if you choose.
It costs $32 per person to go inside Luray Caverns. It’s worth it if you’ve never seen a cave before, or like me, can’t resist a novelty organ. General Admission includes Luray Caverns, the Shenandoah Heritage Village, Toy Town Junction, and the Car & Carriage Caravan Museum. There’s also a hedge maze, rope gym, golf course and other attractions to occupy families for hours, if not days. Those are not included in the ticket price.
Luray Caverns is open 365 days a year.
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