If you’ve never been inside a large cave, the one in Luray, Virginia is a marvel that will not fail to impress you. I was there as a boy, about 50 years ago, and unsurprisingly I found little had changed but me, though if anything the cave seemed bigger this time!
The entrance is well hidden, inside a normal-looking building, next to the gift shop, just a simple door. When your guide opens it and leads you inside you descend about two stories into the earth down concrete stairs, and suddenly there you are inside a huge cavern of wonders.
While it’s true that the walkways cross over, under and around each other, make no mistake, the features in Luray are HUGE. Walking the cavern covers about 1.25 miles. Often the ceiling is low overhead, but then it opens up onto giant stone waterfall/draperies like this one.
The lighting in the cave is well done, if heavy on the yellows. A flash shot like this one brings out some of the gray and white in the stone that’s hard to see without it.
But the lighting also adds greatly to the experience. For instance, here’s part of the underground lake in a flash shot…
…and the same area without flash, just the lighting provided. Now you can barely tell where the surface line is, and which part is reflected in the perfectly still water.
The walkways are generally wide and easy, with brick or concrete underfoot, though sometimes you have to watch for obstacles like stalactites hanging in the path. We noticed quite a few that had their ends broken off. Our guide said that in the early years of the cave tours (it was discovered in the 1870s), visitors were allowed to break off one as a souvenir. That didn’t last long, but of course the damage is still obvious in the glacial pace of cave features. An active Stalactite grows only about one inch in 120 years. Many we saw are inactive and not growing.
Here’s a massive one that fell from the ceiling about 7,000 years ago, and is now partially covered by later features. Does not give one a feeling of confidence about what’s overhead!
I didn’t take photos of some of the most famous features like the Fried Eggs, and the Stalactite Organ (which we heard demonstrated: little hammers hit them to make bell-like notes), but tried to get pictures of things that appealed to me.
After about an hour it was time to climb the stairs back out of this timeless wonder into the ephemeral surface world. Can you imagine the impact the discovery of this cave had on the three men who found it and saw it for the first time? They actually got scared by some of what they saw and didn’t come back for a few weeks, but soon enough plans were underway to let the world see their discovery, and unlike some caves, this one has been mostly preserved well. Go see it if you can.