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“Our feeling is that we have entered a new state of being…Before us are glittering stalactites and fluted columns strong enough to bear a world; draperies in broad folds and a thousand tints; cascades of snow-white stone; and, beyond, a background of pitchy darkness in which the imagination locates more than the eye can see.”
S.Z. Ammen, History and Description of The Luray Cave, 1882

This description of Virginia’s Luray Caverns taken from an 1882 guidebook may have been written 141 years ago, but the words and the images they conjure are as relevant and accurate today as they were then. That’s the beauty of visiting a natural wonder that took hundreds of millions of years to create: it doesn’t change all that much even in almost five generations. And another thing that doesn’t change is the childlike wonder this other-worldly underworld inspires in its visitors, Henk and I included. It’s one of the reasons why Luray Caverns was an absolute surprise and delight, and why we think that visiting them is one of the best things to do in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

The Thrill of Discovery

When archaeologist Howard Carter first broke through the sealed tomb of Tutankhamen and was asked if he could see anything through the hole, his response was: “Yes, wonderful things.” I imagine that reaction would have been similar for cave hunters Benton Stebbins and Andrew and Billy Campbell when they first set eyes on the interior of Virginia’s Luray Caverns.

But these men weren’t just cave hunters looking for adventure or adrenaline addicts looking for a thrill; they were on a very specific, very entrepreneurial mission that day in August of 1878 when they set out to explore the Shenandoah Valley.

Luray Caverns postcard of its discoverers US Archive
An historic postcard of Billy Campbell and Benton Stebbins *Photo US Archive

Cave-Hunting with a Business Goal

Benton Stebbins was the man who had assembled this unique trio of explorers. An itinerant photographer and former newspaper publisher, Stebbins had come to this part of Virginia in search of a very specific natural feature: a ‘big cave’ that he had visions of developing into a tourist attraction. To help with his search, he enlisted the help of Luray local Andrew Campbell and his nephew Billy Campbell and the three men began searching for sinkholes near the Shenandoah River.

Shenandoah Valley Virginia
The hills in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley are riddled with limestone caves

Over the course of six weeks, the three men examined more than 30 possible sites but had yet to locate anything promising, when Billy pointed out a 40-foot wide depression close to Luray that was choked with brush and debris. Exploring a little further, Billy reported feeling a strong draft of cold air rising from the earth, prompting the three men to spend the day laboriously digging out the debris to clear an entrance big enough to allow Andrew, the more experienced caver, to squeeze through.

Lowering yourself into a dark abyss through a constricted opening in the ground is not something everyone would be willing to do, but Andrew was not new to spelunking, and he willingly squeezed through the opening and dropped into the blackness. Finding his footing, he lit a candle to survey his surroundings, and instantly knew their search had come to an end.

Luray Caverns Into the depths

Even by candlelight, the interior of that first cavern was enough to excite and inspire Andrew and his companions. What would later become known as ‘Entrance Hall’ appeared to be a vault dripping with stalactites, its floor littered with massive stalagmites, and the space in between seemingly supported by mammoth columns – the first of many the men would eventually discover within. The men knew they had found the cave they were looking for and immediately set out to buy the land, being careful to keep their incredible discovery a secret.

The sale went through and Stebbins wasted no time in getting his venture off the ground: within 3 months, the trio had laid out a tour that covered a mile of underground trails in Luray Caverns, charging visitors fifty cents apiece to visit. It looked like Stebbin’s tourist enterprise was off to a fine start. By 1881, he had even installed electricity to further enhance the visitor experience, the first time this was ever done to illuminate a cave, and ‘cave fever’ began to catch on thanks to newspaper articles, illustrated features in Harper’s Bazaar, and the completion of the railway station in Luray which brought more visitors to the Valley.

Luray Cavern historical illustration
An Illustration of Luray Cavern from Ammen’s book History and Description of The Luray Cave, 1882

Boom to Bust

Sadly, Stebbin’s dream of striking it rich with his underground discovery was not to be. His purchase of the land was contested by the previous owners, who cited fraud because Stebbins had failed to disclose his discovery of the caverns, and in a dramatic reversal of fortune, Stebbin’s claim to the land was overturned, the sale voided, and he was left without a cave, without a business and without any profit from his venture.

And the original landowner, Samuel Buracker? His son-in-law was the lawyer who launched the fraud claim and he became the new owner of the property. In the years that followed, the property changed hands several times until 1905 when a man named Theodore Northcott bought it and formed the Luray Caverns Corporation which still owns the property to this day.

Luray Caverns virginia loveVA sign
Luray Caverns today is one of Virginia’s Top Natural Wonders

Virginia’s Luray Caverns Today: the State’s Most Popular Natural Attraction

Obviously Stebbins had the right idea, because Luray Caverns was an instant hit with the 19th century public, and its popularity has only grown in the decades since the caves were discovered. In 1954 it was named a U.S. Natural Landmark and today the Caverns have become the most popular natural wonder in Virginia. But it isn’t just the size of Luray Cavern’s ‘rooms’ that make this place so spectacular, it is the formations contained within them that are so diverse and unusual that many visitors have labelled this cave system as one of the most beautiful in the world.

Stalactites, Stalagmites, Curtains and More

From the moment you enter the caverns, you are transported into a strange underground world where up becomes down and visual vertigo sets in. Ceilings drip with stalactites of every imaginable size, and stalagmites of every shape stretch upwards in an effort to join their overhead companions, sometimes touching in a delicate kiss. In some places, huge flowstone sheets hang like tapestries creating intimate rooms, around which massive columns rise like giant redwood trees in a petrified underworld forest.

Luray Caverns 'Petrified Forest'
Walking between these giant structures feels like strolling through an underground forest

One formation in particular, appropriately named the Fallen Stalactite could have passed for an enormous old growth tree in a primordial forest, and the fact that it detached from the ceiling serves as a reminder that even something that looks this permanent can fall victim to earthquakes, which is what shook this one loose 7,000 years ago.

Luray Caverns Fallen Stalactite
This fallen stalactite is the size of a giant old growth tree!

CAVE LINGO TIPS: Stalactites are formed by water dripping FROM the roof of the cave which gradually build up at the rate of 1 inch every 120 years or so.
Stalagmites, on the other hand, are formed when excess water drips to the floor, causing a buildup from the ground UP.
Flowstone are ‘sheet-like’ structures that looks like curtains or draperies.

A Fantasy Land for Adults and Children Alike

Luray Caverns reawakens the child in all of us, and I couldn’t help feeling a sense of excitement and anticipation that made me want to sprint to the next feature ahead of everyone else. In fact, I had to resist the temptation to hurry and instead made myself slow down to appreciate the incredible beauty right in front of me.

Luray Caverns Tatiana's Veil
“Tatiana’s Veil’ is made of white calcium carbonate

It’s hard to pick a favourite place in these magical caverns, but one of the most visually stunning features has to be Dream Lake, whose perfectly still waters mirror the ceiling stalactites above with such clarity that you are fooled into believing that the ‘lake’ is a spacious void filled with stalagmites. Entranced by this vision, I couldn’t help but feel like I was part of a Lord of the Rings realm, a place not of this earth, but rather a figment of some creative director’s imagination.

Luray Caverns Dream Lake 1
Dream Lake is a master of illusion: what is up and what is down? Where is the water?

There’s whimsy here, too, particularly in formations like the Totems, a group of slender, freestanding columns that resembled multi-tiered cakes dripping with icing, which brought to mind the wonder-filled world of Dr. Seuss.

Luray Caverns Totems
Named the Totems, these structures looked like Dr. Seuss’ handiwork to me

And two scars left from broken-off stalagmites that look like a pair of fried eggs always bring a smile to visitors, including Michelle Obama who visited here with her daughters in 2010.

Luray Caverns fried eggs

Nature’s Sculptural Masterpieces

Walking through Luray Caverns can feel almost spiritual at times, like entering a vast underground cathedral with fluted columns supporting decorated ceilings, all very reminiscent of Europe’s great houses of worship. It’s hard not to be awestruck by all this beauty .

Luray Caverns Giants Hall
Giant’s Hall in Luray Caverns feels like Mother Nature’s Cathedral

Approaching the massive flowstone structure known as Saracen’s Tent, I was amazed at the translucency of the ‘drapery’ and the delicacy of the fabric-like folds surrounding this intimate space.

Luray Caverns Saracen's Tent
Saracen’s Tent

I was reminded of marble drapery on the figures carved by Michelangelo, although his creative process was to remove material to achieve his delicate results, the opposite of what is happening here in Luray Caverns’ additive structures.

Luray Caverns Saracen's Tent Flowstone
This flowstone looks so delicate it might blow in the wind

The World’s Biggest Musical Instrument

One of the most unusual features in Luray Caverns is found in a huge space known as the Ballroom: here a specially-modified organ actually uses stalactites as a musical instrument! This was the brainchild of Leland Sprinkle (you have to love that name!) who in 1954 decided to put his expertise as a mathematician and electronics engineer to work in order to tap into the musical potential of the cave’s formations – which he did, quite literally. It took him more than 3 years of gently tapping stalactites to find ones that resonated with the correct musical notes.

Luray Caverns Stalacpipe organ hammers
These hammers sound notes off the stalactites

He then rigged up a system of rubber-tipped mallets to strike each stalactite, capturing its tone with an electronic pickup that is connected to an organ. Effectively, Sprinkle was able to play music on what he named The Great Stalacpipe Organ, using the cave itself to produce the notes.

TIP: The Stalacpipe Organ is played for visitors on a regular basis – so be sure to hang around during your tour to hear one, or ask the guide when the next performance will happen. It’s definitely worth checking out this Guinness World Record holding instrument.

Luray Caverns Stalacpipe organ
Luray Caverns Stalacpipe organ

One of the Best Things to Do in Virginia

There are times, especially when it comes to what are admittedly tourist destinations, that the reality of a place doesn’t live up to its promise. That is absolutely not the case with Luray Caverns. Even though Benton Stebbins and the Campbells specifically went looking for a cave in order to lure visitors to their money-making venture, this natural wonder in Virginia may be popular with tourists, but it is not at all what I would consider a trap.

In fact, both Henk and I were so awestruck with the beauty and wonder of these caverns, that I can’t help but say Hurray for Luray!

Hurray and thanks also goes to Virginia Tourism who hosted Henk and I on our visit and introduced us to Luray Caverns.


Accessibility: Not only is Luray Caverns one of the most beautiful caves, but it is probably one of the most accessible to visit. The descent into the cave is far more comfortable than Andrew Campbell’s was in 1878: visitors follow a long sloping paved walkway that leads you to the entrance where concrete footpaths wind in and around the rooms of the cave. While there are changes in elevation along the path, nothing is too dramatic. (And claustrophobics need not fear: even the ‘smallest’ spaces in Luray aren’t small at all.)

Tours and Tickets: Tours are self-guided and every visitor receives a pamphlet listing 16 of the major features in the cave (each feature has a posted sign with corresponding number). The pamphlet provides a description with a few details about each feature’s size, the origin of the name etc.
There are also special guided historical tours available that can accommodate 30 people but need to be booked in advance through the ticketing office.

Tour Length: It’s suggested that it will take most visitors about 1 1/2 hours to complete the 1.25 mile-long (2km) trail, but if you are particularly fascinated by this place like we were, it may take you longer.

Photos and Videos: Both are welcome in the Caverns, and tripods are not a problem if you wish to bring one along.

Pets are not allowed in the caverns, so leave the furbabies at home.

Best Time to Visit: Try to avoid the summer holidays when kids are out of school and tourist season is in full swing. (This place receives 500,000 visitors every year.) We visited in late April and it wasn’t crowded at all.
TIP: Rainy days are great days for visiting the Caverns, too.

What to Wear: The caves are a consistently cool temperature throughout the year (54 degrees Fahrenheit, 12 Celsius), so you might want to wear a sweater or light jacket. And although the floor is relatively smooth, it might get a little wet from overhead drips, so wear appropriate footwear.

Cost: As of April 2023, adult admission was $32. But check with the Luray Caverns website to confirm prices and get any other details before planning your visit.

Other Things to See at Luray Caverns: Above the Caverns themselves there is a visitor centre, souvenir shop, cafe, and two exhibits that are interesting to visit (and free with your ticket). The Toy Town Junction collection was okay, but we found the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum more interesting: there is everything from Ford Model Ts to sexy roadsters, and even some of the earliest electric cars that were first produced in the early 1900s.

Car and Carriage Museum Luray Caverns Roadster

Where to Stay: The town of Luray may be small, but it boasts one of Shenandoah Valley’s most elegant and historic hotels, the Mimslyn Inn, which first opened its doors in 1931, setting a new standard of luxury and hospitality in the region. That same standard exists today and the hotel, which is a member of the Historic Hotels of America, prides itself on offering guests “Vintage Southern Hospitality” which for us translated to a warm welcome in a gracious ambience. Situated literally minutes from Luray Caverns, there’s no better place for exploring everything the Valley has to offer.

FUN PHILANTHROPIC FACT: Luray Caverns has its own ‘Wishing Well’ where every year the coins tossed by visitors are collected and donated to charity. This practice began in 1954 and as of 2017, the Well has contributed $1,180,268.32 to various organizations.

Luray Caverns wishing well
Jane with Hat Tanzania

Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.

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