My younger brother, Andrew, visited me in Washington, D.C. this weekend. He’s been cooped up in a studio apartment in Manhattan for the past few weeks, so I figured he’d want to stretch his legs in the wilderness. At the suggestion of my friend Wes, we headed southwest to Crabtree Falls. Unfortunately, my sedan could not conquer the rough terrain (it was not until we arrived that we discovered four wheel drive was necessary), and we were forced to abandon our hike. Determined not to have driven the 3-hour journey to central Virginia in vain, we considered alternate plans for our afternoon (after making a pit stop to get my car repaired from the poorly maintained roads at Crabtree Falls).
We decided to check out Luray Caverns, as D.C. residents are bombarded with television commercials about this place. At just two hours outside of the city, Luray is a quick trip for anyone looking to do some exploring.
After we parked in their Costco-sized lot, we proceeded to the cave entrance, where we bought our tickets – a staggering $24 each. I’m not what one would consider a cave enthusiast, though I have been to Carlsbad, so perhaps I don’t have a proper frame of reference for the appropriate cost of an hour-long tour of a cave. Still, $24 for a walk through the caves seems a bit pricy.
Our guide, Hannah, was fantastic – and by fantastic, I mean that her made-for-audio-book-narriation voice bounced off the cave walls with the kind of excitement I don’t know that I could experience multiple times a day for stalactites. She knew her script, she was friendly and she ran a tight ship. She showed us some really lovely features of the caverns, like Pluto’s Ghost and the “fried egg” formations. The most impressive of these is Mirror Lake, a pool of water no deeper than two feet that reflects the breathtaking rock ceiling above.
After the 1.25 mile walk through the winding paths of the caverns, you are, naturally, directed to exit through the gift shop. Contained within are Luray Caverns trinkets scattered among bumper stickers that say “2 Cute 4 U” and other truck stop grade memorabilia. I got the impression that the sort of people who would buy things from here would also end every social media post with #blessed (specifically those posts regarding America’s poet laureate, Toby Keith, or a successful court hearing, or a brand new motorcycle).
Your admission to the caves also allows you to visit their collection at their Car and Carriage Caravan Museum. They have a ton of neat cars there, and my brother especially enjoyed this part of the trip. We left after looking at the museum.
Here’s why: the rest of Luray Caverns is like Dollywood located in central Virginia, and I can do without that. Between the fudge store and the ropes course, it’s clear what they’re trying to do — make the cave more than just, well, a cave. There are a lot of hotels in the area that boast their proximity to Luray Caverns, so it seems people make a trip out of visiting what is essentially a theme park built on top of some really impressive geological structures. I’m not typically a curmudgeon, but I find that sort of sad, really.
We had a nice time at Luray Caverns, but my advice to fellow travelers is to make this a quick stop on the way to actually exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains. Enjoy the cave, but save the theme park for someone else. Judging by the hoards of people at 4 p.m. on a Saturday, I think they’ll be just fine.
Besides, as the Washington Post reported last year, it seems all the success of Luray Caverns has brought more harm than good to the family who owns it. A $20 million empire is still pretty good, though.