You’ve Been to Paris but You’ve Never Been to the Luray Caverns?

by Kerry Dougherty

Today we’re taking a break from politics, woke culture and indictments. It’s Explore Beautiful Virginia time. A midsummer palate cleanser!

But first a question:

Why does every tourist destination sell fudge? More precisely, is there some sort of law that mandates every vacation spot feature a “fudgery”? Is there something about salt air or mountain breezes that creates a sudden craving for a calorie-dense chunk of flavored sugar?

I don’t have the answer, but yes, there is the requisite fudgery just outside the entrance to Luray Caverns. No, we didn’t go in during a family trip to Luray last weekend. The getaway to Virginia’s amazing natural wonder was sweet enough.

Let me just say this: if you’re a Virginian who’s been to Paris but you haven’t been to Luray, shame on you.

I first visited the caverns on a family vacation in the 1960s because my parents had heard about the spectacular underground world and believed it was worth driving almost 300 miles, dragging a camper behind our Dodge station wagon, to experience it.

We took our kids in the 1990s and returned last weekend with the whole family.

Luray Caverns are old but they never get old. This breathtaking subterranean universe — hundreds of millions of years in the making — is simply stunning. It’s also clean. No drinks, fudge or litter allowed. And the entrance price is not outlandish: $32 for adults, $16 for kids 6–12, and $29 for seniors.

A small, guided “Discovery Tour” is offered every morning before the caverns open to the public. That one’s a little pricey: $60 for adults, $30 for children.

Thrifty travelers that we are, I took my 7-year-old granddaughter on the early tour and she went back with the rest of the gang later to give them a guided tour. If you like geology and want to do more than just gape at the formations in the cave, the quiet tour with a small group is the way to go.

Luray Caverns are the largest in the Eastern U.S. (I guess Kentucky isn’t considered the East. Mammoth Cave in the Bluegrass State is the longest cave system in the world, but it’s not as pretty as ours. In fact, it’s rather barebones.) Luray, on the other hand has 99 acres of colorful geological features. It was discovered in 1878 by three men who decided to investigate a little bit of cool air blowing out of the earth in rural Page County. They dug out an opening and one William Campbell lowered himself into the hole on a rope.

What the brave Mr. Campbell discovered, by candlelight, was astonishing.

Acres and acres of stalactites, stalagmites, ponds and eerie features. Luray was on private land and still is, although the caverns were designated a National Natural Landmark in 1973 and are open to the public 365 days a year.

With a constant temperature of 54 degrees it’s easy to see why locals once met in the “Ballroom” for dances during the hot summer months. It’s still a cool place to visit on a 99-degree day.

The reddish formations contain iron and iron oxide; the white ones are calcium carbonate. See? I paid attention on our tour!

Dream Lake. Yep, the formations at the bottom of the photo are just a watery reflection of what’s above.

When stalactites and stalagmites meet, they form a column. These formations grow only about an inch every 130 years. Don’t even think about touching them!

The world’s only “stalacpipe” organ. In 1854 the largest musical instrument on earth was unveiled. Leland Sprinkle of Springfield, Va. — a mathematician and electronic scientist — explored the caverns looking for stalactites that matched a musical scale when tapped with a rubber mallet. He wired the formations and connected them to the organ. When visitors get to the “Cathedral Room” they’re asked to pipe down so they can hear the soft strains of music coming from the natural formations.

This is Hayden, our guide on the morning tour. It was his first day on the job and he knew his stuff. No, those are not his usual clothes.

Me and my sidekick, rising 2nd grader SG. I’m the tall one. She’s crazy about science and geology and stole my phone a few times to shoot some of today’s photos. (I deliberately left my sunglasses in the car and was reduced to squinting into the morning sun.)

We’ve never been to Paris.

Republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed and Unedited.