Touring an Underground Lair in Virginia

We were in Florida and just spent 5 days riding the coasters at Universal, touring the space shuttles at Cape Canaveral and road tripping around the Florida Keys. It was a whirlwind trip so we were pretty exhausted, but also invigorated from all the sunshine.

It’s my first time driving south for spring break and I’m surprised I waited so long to do this. There’s nothing like soaking in the sun after endless snowstorms and -30 weather, I think I’ll stay down here until May…every year (ha ha!).

My friend Al was quite partial to the palm trees so he was trying to figure out a way to take one home with us. 

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There was no way we could top this fun-filled, jam-packed spring break vacation on the drive home. Or so we thought…

It was a beautiful sunny morning when we checked out of the resort in Orlando and hopped on the highway to head back north. It’s about a 2-day drive to Ontario but we weren’t in a rush so we decided on a more leisurely drive (classic road trip style).

We stopped for the night was in Fayetteville, North Carolina and enjoyed a nice dinner at a local pub. Then we cracked open our guidebooks to get a few ideas for stops over the next couple days. We remembered there were a lot of caves in Pennsylvania and Virginia, which we both would love to see, so we looked into a few cave tour suggestions.

We found a good one: Luray Caverns in Virginia is not only the largest cavern system in the Eastern U.S, but it also houses the world’s largest musical instrument: ‘The Stalacpipe Organ’.  It was once featured on the TV show ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ so we figured it’d be neat to see, but most likely also a popular tourist destination. But since we’re both geology buffs we figured it’d be worth braving the crowds (we were right).

After a 5-hour drive (with a brief stop for breakfast) we arrived in Virginia the next afternoon. The town of Luray sits in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley with the striking Blue Ridge Mountains to the East and the Appalachian Mountains to the West. It is a sight to behold and definitely worth the drive here, even if you weren’t coming to visit the caves (though if you’re coming through here, please don’t miss them!).

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Legend has it that the Luray Caverns were discovered in 1878 by a local Tinsmith, his 13-year-old nephew and three other men exploring the valley in search of a cave. They spotted a blast of air come out of a sinkhole so they frantically dug away at the rocks around it for hours. Their hard work paid off when they slid down a rope into the cave and were in complete awe at the view they saw before them.

They’d just discovered a vast world of caverns that goes on for hundreds of miles. 

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Since then, millions of visitors around the world have toured this place. I simply could not WAIT to get inside!

We arrived to a very busy parking lot but found a spot and went inside the main building to get our tickets. They were $15 each, but this was a few years back (2007) so they’re more like $24 now. I thought we’d have a long wait for the tour since it was really busy, but we only waited about 15-20 minutes. Fortunately the tours run quite often and also it was a weekday in early April. The lady selling us tickets told us that if we’d come on the weekend or during the summer the line-ups would be much worse. If you’re coming then, it’s a good idea to show up here as soon as they open (9am) to beat the line-ups.

Our tour guide showed up, introduced himself and then immediately led us all down 3 flights of stairs to the massive underground lair. He was very friendly and very informative, and had the right type of personality for the job. We liked him right away.

I really liked that the tour started in the same spot where the men who discovered this place first entered! So we got to see what they first laid their eyes upon when they slid down the rope and discovered this incredible place over a century ago. Very cool!

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This cavern has been formed over hundreds of millions of years by rainwater which gradually dissolved the soft limestone rock, leaving behind calcium carbonate that over time grows into stalactites (which hang from the ceiling) and stalagmites (that grow from the cave floor).  To this day, these caverns are still changing–albeit very slowly. It actually takes about 120 years for one inch of these stalactites or stalagmites to grow!

You can then imagine how old these caverns must be while standing beside these massive formations. Some of the oldest formations inside this cavern are estimated to be over 7 millions years old!!

Just incredible…

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It felt like we were either in the Lord of the Rings movie and a Hobbit was going to appear before us or,  perhaps we’ve gone back in time to the Jurassic Era and dinosaurs were lurking behind these formations. Either way, this place is incredibly otherworldly.

Buddy test 1 901 As we moved along on the tour we were going lower into the Valley. There were many caves within the caves down here which extend (at least for the tour) for almost 2 km. Our guide told us the deepest part of the cave is over 160 feet deep and some of the caves are 10-stories high. We didn’t expect the caves to be this enormous, it was an incredible sight to behold.  And each room we went into seemed more impressive than the last. If that was even possible!

We all took turns of taking photos of one another in front of each of the formations, everyone in our tour were super friendly. 

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We arrived in the room that houses the Stalacpipe Organ, known as the World’s Largest Instrument. It was created in 1954 by Leland Sprinkle, a mathematician/scientist who was inspired to create a stalactite-based instrument after visiting the caves. 

It was known at that time that the rocks were capable of producing incredible tones, but Sprinkle spent the next few decades doing research to finally create this famous organ. The Organ plays notes through the giant stalactites which are struck by rubber-tipped mallets and each resonates in a different tone.

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I was delighted to learn that we were going to be treated to a demonstration of this incredible instrument. Now I like me some good rock music, but this was just mind-blowing. The music from the organ reverberated throughout the vaulted ceilings of the cathedral-sized chamber that we were standing in. Absolutely amazing. This was worth the admission price alone, I thought.

This room is regularly used for weddings too! This would definitely be one very unique  spot to tie the knot…wow! (maybe a bit drippy though haha).

Unfortunately many of my photos on this tour didn’t work out, so I didn’t get a great shot of the organ itself. Not only was the lighting bad for photos, my camera (at the time–this was 2007) wasn’t great and it was an old model. So I’m looking forward to going back with my SLR. If your camera has a ‘low-light’ setting (or other manual options), you may still get pretty good shots in the cave. Of course, an iPhone would probably work pretty well too.

You can see the organ in this picture at the very back where people are standing.

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Our tour guide told us that touching any of the formations is strictly prohibited. This is because the natural oils from your hands will create a barrier that makes it impossible for water to reach the rock. Thus, a human hand can halt the growth of these stalactites & stalagmites, so if you do come with young kids be sure to tell them not to touch anything (I know, easier said than done) to help preserve the cavern.

While we continued along the tour, our guide told us that if a drop of water falls on you it’s known as a ‘Cave Kiss’, and is said to bring good luck. Well, since we have been ‘kissed’ repeatedly in here by the rainwater we agreed that we should buy a lottery ticket when we leave (we didn’t…oops!).

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This is one of my favourite formations here in Luray: Saracen’s Tent. Composed of long, smooth sheets of rock that hang from the cave’s ceiling almost resembling giant drapes.  Some of the sheets of rock are so thin you can almost see through them.  They look surreal, and more like someone created them as a piece of art. But rest assured, this is actually the handiwork of the very talented Mother Nature.  

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Believe it or not, there’s also a lake here in this cave! It’s called Dream Lake and it’s the largest body of water in the caverns, about 2,500 square feet. The lake is just under 18 inches deep and you can clearly see the stalactites which hang above in the reflection. 

It’s just stunning. I took quite a few photos and a couple of them worked out, anyway.

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We ended the tour at the Wishing Well. All the change that’s been thrown into this cave pool is pulled out every year and is donated to charity. Since 1954, over half a million dollars has been thrown into it by visitors all over the world!

Not everyone is happy about this wishing well, though. Unfortunately the coins release metal into the water and can (and have) damaged the cave’s formations. The green colour on the rocks in the well is caused by the copper from all the pennies thrown in. So it’s not ideal, however at least the money collected in here goes to charity.

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The tour was absolutely wonderful and I’m sure if it’s this jaw dropping to adults, I can only imagine a child’s reaction when he or she first enters this cave. It’s the perfect activity for everyone in the family, and you don’t even need to be a rock hound or geology freak to appreciate it either.

A little worried about visiting this place because you’re claustrophobic? Have no fear! This cave is massive and in some areas the cave ceilings are 10-stories tall! So you won’t be crawling through a tiny, dark cave whatsoever. Instead, you’ll walk along a paved walkway  along with a tour guide and a bunch of other people (including many young kids as it’s a very family friendly tour).   

Interestingly, I came across this article on the future of the cavern due to a huge fight within the family. While Luray is the 3rd most popular cave in the U.S (just behind Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico), Luray is privately owned and considered a ‘Show Cave’ (meaning it’s simply there to make money) whereas the other two are National Parks. With almost a half million visitors a year all paying $24 a pop,  I bet the owners get a pretty good revenue off this attraction.  

If you decided to come here, check out their website for their hours as well as Tour Times. If you want to visit on a weekend or in spring/summer, we were told getting here first thing in the morning is your best bet to avoid long line-ups and waits.

But even if you have to wait awhile, rest assured it’s totally worth it!

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8 thoughts on “Touring an Underground Lair in Virginia

  1. Hi Dana! Love to read your blogs… You are a great writer – easy to follow and fun to read. And I used to like seeing your baking creations too on Facebook – but I think you are gone on Facebook ?!?! Did I do that? Sue

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    • Hi Sue!! Thanks so much, I am so glad you are enjoying my blog. It’s fun to share my stories and it’s even more hilarious that Al likes my blog because it helps remind him where he’s been (HA HA!). He couldn’t recall the cave when I sent him a photo, but I think my story helped. At the time, he LOVED this tour and was really happy we stopped to see this cave. This was such a neat place!
      I’m not actually on Facebook right now so it definitely wasn’t you! Just taking a break as I’ve been super busy. I hope you’re doing well and you guys are enjoying the start of Spring finally, HURRAY! 🙂 (Hi Harley!!!!!) Dana

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    • Thanks so much Kelsey, it was an awesome tour and can’t recommend it enough to anyone in the area. Now I want to do some of the other cave tours when I’m driving through the ‘hood again. Thanks so much for reading and leaving a comment! 🙂

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  2. Wow, can you imagine being the first to see this?? What an experience you had, it’s a bit scary for me considering my fear of small spaces, but I’d over look that just to see those caves. I can’t believe they are privately owned? Wow.. incredible!

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    • I know, Barbara, it must have been incredible for those guys back in the day to come down to see this! I was in complete awe as soon as we got down into the cave. Just incredible. I was a bit worried too as I imagined we’d be spelunking and crawling through deep spaces and over wet rocks but it was so open and the ceilings really did seem cathedral-like…and and very easy for walking (it’s a paved walkway) but there are stairs to get down there but that’s about it. So it’s no trouble at all, even for those who are slightly claustrophobic or worried about being in a small, cramped cave. I did research it first, just to be sure! haha I think I would have went anyway, but I would have been more nervous. It’s a beautiful tour and I recommend it if you find yourself in the US Northeast. Thanks for coming back and checking out my blog, I always love your comments!

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