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Escape summer’s heat with an underground serenade in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley
By Tom Adkinson

(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of travel stories spotlighting destinations and activities to consider in a time of coronavirus and to inspire safe outings elsewhere.)

luray caverns
Cave “explorers” peer down to another layer of intricate formations in Luray Caverns; image by Tom Adkinson.

LURAY, Virginia – It’s hot, your air-conditioner is working overtime and you just want to chill out. Those factors – perhaps plus a desire to listen to what’s been called the world’s largest musical instrument – point you toward Luray Caverns, hidden under the ridges that line Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley.

It’s always pleasantly cool inside Luray Caverns, about 54 degrees, making it a welcome retreat from the outside heat.

luray caverns - Great Stalacpipe Organ
Fred Rogers, of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame, once played the Great Stalacpipe Organ for his television friends; image by Luray Caverns.

Veterans of commercial cave tours have heard of stalactites (the cave formations that descend) and stalagmites (the ones that grow upward), but what about stalacpipes?

OK, it’s a made-up word from the folks at Luray Caverns, but it’s highly descriptive. Stalacpipes are carefully chosen stalactites incorporated into the Great Stalacpipe Organ, which cavern owners call the world’s largest musical instrument.

Rubber-tipped mallets electronically tap the stalacpipes, which resonate with symphonic tones. Every Luray Caverns tour includes an automated performance, and the multi-tiered console works, too. One guest organist was Fred Rogers during production of a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode.

luray caverns - cave bacon
Cavers call this thin and wavy formation cave bacon for obvious reasons; image by Tom Adkinson.

One-hour tours, available every day of the year, are an easy walk of 1.25 miles. A novelty at Luray Caverns is that the tour path has no stairs. A new entrance completed in 2019 made cave tours accessible to many people who never expected an easy excursion into an underground world.

luray caverns vineyard
Numerous vineyards and wineries are near Luray Caverns, including Muse Vineyards, which offers great mountain views image by Tom Adkinson.

The cave was 40 million years in the making, but it was discovered for commercial tourism only in 1878. There was a “Grand Illumination” that year that used 1,000 tallow candles.

Electric lights came soon thereafter in 1881, making Luray Caverns the first cave to benefit from Thomas Edison’s invention.

It gained early fame when nine Smithsonian Institution scientists inspected it in 1880 and issued a report declaring, “ . . . it is safe to say that there is probably no other cave in the world more completely and profusely decorated with stalactite and stalagmite ornamentation than that of Luray.”

luray caverns
Like any good tourist attraction, Luray Caverns makes sure its guests can take an “I’ve been there” photo; image by Tom Adkinson.

There are water features in Luray Caverns, including a mind-messing lake that creates a mirror image of a stalactite-covered ceiling and a place that visitors have turned into a wishing well. Through the decades, the left-behind coins have provided more than $1 million for numerous charities.

Early cave visitors arrived by carriage, wagon or horseback, and then by excursion trains. You are more likely to wheel in from I-81 via New Market. Luray, which is headquarters for Shenandoah National Park, is about 90 miles west of Washington, D.C., and 140 miles northeast of Roanoke.

Other attractions directly at Luray Caverns include the Valley Museum, the Car and Carriage Caravan (complete with an operating 1892 Benz auto), the 47-bell Singing Tower and the Luray Garden Maze.

The entire Shenandoah Valley, of course, is full of treasures, including a number of wineries. One example is Muse Vineyards, only about 25 miles from Luray Caverns, where you can enjoy an award-winning wine while looking across a series of forested ridges and wondering what lies underneath.

Trip Planning Resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published August 28, 2020

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