I was also trying to convince myself. Like many D.C.-area residents, I’d passed the signs for Luray Caverns plenty of times while driving to some other, farther-flung place. This particular tourist attraction was always a little too out of the way for an impromptu side trip. But that rainy Saturday, I was determined to see some caves.
I lured Steve out of bed with coffee, and two hours later, we arrived at what looked like a strip mall, albeit one that someone had dropped in the middle of nowhere. “Where are the caverns?” Steve said.
We had to walk past a collection of unrelated attractions — including a ropes course, a hedge maze and a museum of classic cars — to find the caverns’ entrance, housed in a building with an architectural style reminiscent of a Jersey Turnpike rest stop. Built to entice road trippers to stop for a day or more, the whole Luray Caverns enterprise has been owned by the same family for 112 years. Patriarch Theodore Clay Northcott originally used the cool air of the caverns to create what he called the first air-conditioned building in the world — a sanatorium called Limair. The sanatorium has since burned down, but the family’s small empire has grown over the years to include the aforementioned side attractions, plus two motels and a golf course. These days, a ticket to tour the caverns also includes access to the adjacent toy and antique car museums.
“You’re in luck: The next tour is about to start,” said a cheery woman in khaki pants who herded us through a doorway with a small staircase, like it was an ordinary basement. But as we walked down the stairs, the view widened until we found ourselves at the mouth of an enormous cave, decorated lavishly with curtains and columns of sepia-toned stone.
Virginia, we later learned, is riddled with underground chambers like Luray. In fact, there are nearly 4,000 caves in the state, though most are on private property and accessible only to spelunkers with the training and fortitude to wiggle through tiny, dark holes in the ground. Luray, on the other hand, is a hit with tourists because it’s conveniently paved and well lit — a fact emphasized by our tour guide.
“All 748 of our lights are on timers. I do not want to leave anyone behind in cave darkness. So please stay with the group at all times,” she said, with the high-low cadence of a flight attendant giving a safety briefing.
Thus began our tour of the cave, a leisurely, hour-long walk on a winding path through what was once an ancient sea, our guide explained. When the water drained, it formed caverns that were decorated by the slow drip of water through layers of limestone and clay. Calcite-rich drips from the ceiling become stalactites, drips on the floor accumulated into stalagmites — and when the two met in the middle, they created enormous columns of stone.
Our tour guide pointed out one such formation, a 500-foot pillar called Pluto’s Ghost. “You have to remember that when people first explored these caverns, they only had flickering candles or gas lamps,” the guide explained, adding that the formation was named after the lord of the underworld from Roman myth, not Disney’s cartoon dog. “They thought it was following them.”
Many of the Luray’s rock formations have even more poetic names. Among them is Saracen’s Tent, a drapery of nearly paper-thin stone that formed when mineral-bearing water dripped down the ceiling’s serrated incline. Then there was the most beautiful sight of the tour: the perfectly still Dream Lake, which reflects the enormous stalactites hanging above, making it look much deeper than it is.
Near the end of the tour, we entered a large, open part of the cave called the Cathedral, where, in 1954, a man named Leland Sprinkle installed an electric church organ and wired it up to tiny hammers that bang on stalagmites and stalactites to produce different notes. Our tour guide pressed a button to make the organ play a Lutheran hymn.
“Isn’t this the best rock music you’ve ever heard?” she asked, a pun that made the group groan.
A short walk later, we were back at the staircase where we had started. Outside, the air had warmed and the rain had stopped. We moved on to our next stop: the Garden Maze.
Made up of an acre of 8-foot-tall evergreens, this labyrinth proved to be pretty difficult. After about 15 minutes of wrong turns and dead ends, Steve and I were glad to stumble upon a raised platform that provided an elevated view of the maze and helped us find the way out.
It was clear from our adventures above and below ground that Luray was certainly worth its own trip. But after hours of wandering, we were glad to have a GPS to take us directly home.
Luray Caverns, 101 Cave Hill Road, Luray, Va.; spring hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; adults $27, kids ages 6 to 12 $14, kids under 5 free.
More Virginia caves to explore
Luray Caverns is a special place, but it’s not unique: Virginia is home to nearly 4,000 known caves, some of which are accessible to the general public. Here are three other caverns that you can get to from D.C. in two hours or less.
Skyline Caverns: Just an hour and a half from D.C., these caverns include flowing streams and rare rock formations called anthodites, which look a lot like spiky sea urchins. 10344 Stonewall Jackson Hwy., Front Royal, Va.; spring hours: open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; adults $22, children $11.
Shenandoah Caverns: Among the coolest formations in these 17 “rooms”: paper-thin rock formations that look like enormous strips of bacon hanging from the ceiling. 261 Caverns Road, Quicksburg, Va.; spring hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; adults $24, children $12.
Endless Caverns: This 6-mile-long cave is close enough to the surface for tree roots to poke through the ceiling. Notable rock formations include rimstone, where lacy ridges form on boulders. 1800 Endless Caverns Road, New Market, Va.; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through Nov. 15; adults $20, children $9.