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Walking under Virginia

August 10, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Luray Caverns is an easy day trip from the Tri-State area - but the destination seems like another world.

The 400-million-year-old caverns in Luray, Va. - about one hour and 45 minutes southwest of Hagerstown in the Shenandoah Valley - span 64 acres under the earth's surface. Brilliantly colored chambers filled with towering stone columns, shimmering pools, icicle-shaped stalactites and stalagmites and the world's only stalacpipe organ stretch 10 stories high - making Luray Caverns the largest cave system in the eastern United States, and the fourth largest system in the country, caverns spokesman John Shaffer says.

"The rooms are just cathedral-sized," he says. "It's hard to imagine their mammoth size."

But it's easy to imagine the astonishment of the men who discovered the caverns just about exactly 125 years ago. The men, dubbed the "Phantom Chasers," were searching for a cave as a profit-making venture when they stumbled upon the massive subterranean wonderland now known as Luray Caverns on Aug. 13, 1878, according to the Luray Caverns Web site at www.luraycaverns.com.

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Cold air rushing out of a limestone sinkhole atop a hill west of Luray blew out town tinsmith Andrew Campbell's candle while he was exploring with his nephew and three other men. After spending hours digging away loose rock, Campbell and his nephew slid down a rope into an amazing series of enormous caves. Andrew Campbell, William Campbell and photographer Benton Stebbins kept their discovery a secret when they purchased the land from owner Sam Buracker in September 1878 after a court-ordered auction due to Buracker's outstanding debts, the Web site states.

Years of court battles raged after the truth came to light. In 1881, the Supreme Court of Virginia nullified the explorers' purchase. Buracker's major creditor then sold the property to the Luray Cave and Hotel Company. The land changed hands numerous times until the Luray Caverns Corp., the current owner, purchased the property in 1905.

About 500,000 people from throughout the world now visit Luray Caverns - which the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1974 designated as a U.S. Natural Landmark - each year, Shaffer says.

Visitors can explore the surreal world on guided tours or go it alone along paved and well-lighted walkways through the caverns, which were created by 4 million centuries worth of seeping groundwater dissolving limestone at a rate of one-tenth of an inch per year, he says. Visitors marvel at the abundance of stalagmites and stalactites - mineral deposits formed by the evaporation of dripping, mineral-filled water at a rate of one cubic inch per 120 years.

The caverns, which are open for tours seven days a week year-round, boast more than 45,000 days of consecutive operation since the attraction opened for business on Nov. 6, 1978, Shaffer says.

The Luray Caverns Corp. is now working with the London-based Guinness Book of World Records to determine the tourism company's world ranking for this longevity streak, he says.

In addition to exploring the caverns, visitors can check out an exhibit of more than 140 items relating to America's transportation history at the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum. The display includes cars, carriages, coaches and costumes dating from 1725. Silent film star Rudolph Valentino's 1925 Rolls Royce is among the gems of the collection, according to the Luray Caverns Web site.

Adventurous visitors also might enjoy trying to make their way out of the one-acre Garden Maze - a half-mile path that twists through 8-foot trees, past fountains and into a cave. Nearby, the 47 bells in the 117-foot "Singing Tower" chime regular recitals. For golfers, the neighboring Caverns Country Club Resort boasts an 18-hole, par 72 course.

A 250-seat food area and three gift shops offer nourishment and souvenirs for visitors to Luray Caverns.




If you go


Luray Caverns

About 15 miles east of Interstate 81 in Luray, Va.

1-540-743-6551

www.luraycaverns.com

Open seven days a week

March 15 through June 14, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

June 15 through Labor Day, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

After Labor Day through Oct. 31, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Nov. 1 through March 14, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

General admission tickets, which include entrance fee for Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, cost $17 for people ages 14 and older, $15 for senior citizens and $8 for children ages 7 to 13. Children ages 6 and younger are free.

Tickets for the Garden Maze cost $5 for adults and $4 for children.

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