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Crystal Grottoes - Cool tour offers natural view of unique rocks

June 28, 1999

Editor's note: We asked our two student interns this summer to take a look at the Tri-State area with tourists' eyes. Through their reports, we hope you might rediscover attractions in our own back yard. This is the second story in the series.




By ERIN HEATH

photo: MARLA BROSE / staff photographer




If you're looking for a way to cool off this summer without getting wet, check out Crystal Grottoes Caverns near Boonsboro.

The Grottoes have the only solution cave in Maryland that is open to the public, according to Manager Jerry Downs.

Most commercial caves on the East Coast are formed by a flowing body of water, Downs explained. But solution caves like Crystal Grottoes are created by water that chemically dissolves the rock, not water that flows out from underground.

Since solution caves don't have flowing water to create a natural entrance, they are usually only found in man-made quarries.

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Downs said geologists have guessed that the 200 million-year-old Crystal Grottoes cave has more rock formations per square foot than any other known cave in the world.

The caverns are easy to find when you're driving along Md. 34. Just look for the billboard that says "This is it - Crystal Grottoes Caverns."

Once you get there, head straight for the office. That's where you'll find the entrance to the cave, tickets, souvenir rocks and shark teeth.

The first thing I noticed as I was descending into the cave was the instant temperature drop. The cave remains at 54.6 degrees at all times, a nice contrast to the hot days of summer.

The tour takes you through only about one-seventh of caverns. Plain white lights illuminate the rock formations, some of which have quirky names like Old Father Time, the Little Mermaid and the Capitol Building. (You'll have to use your imagination for some of them.)

Among the formations you'll see are bacon formations, which are so thin that light shines right through them, and rimstone pools, which look like puddles in the rock.

The natural colors of the cave are highlighted nicely by the white light. Hues of green are formed by algae and white by calcite. Some of the rocks look as though they have been covered by glitter or even snow.

One spot to watch for inside the cave is "The Chapel," where two couples have gotten married, one in 1935 and one in 1985. You can also hold a piece of a stalagmite and experience total darkness.

The tour guides are nice and helpful, but their answers aren't always the most detailed. (When asked why the temperature in the cave remains cool and constant, my tour guide simply responded, "because it's underground.")

The nice thing about Crystal Grottoes is that you can see the rocks without a lot of high-tech additions to the settings. You won't find colored lights, cement walkways or handrails in this cave.

However, claustrophobes beware: You'll have to go through some short and narrow passageways. I had to duck a couple times, and I'm less than 5 feet 2 inches tall.

The tour may leave you a little curious about other areas in the cave. For all the passageways you travel through, you'll see just as many tunnels that are left unexplored. However, the focus of this tour really is the rock formations.

The best advice I can give is to bring a camera. Photos are encouraged, and you won't find an underground setting that's much less tampered with than this one.

Best of all, if you like caves and you live in the area, Crystal Grottoes is practically right in your back yard - or maybe beneath it.

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