Console of the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Its
Console of the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Its "pipes" extends over 3.5 acres of the cave.

Luray Caverns

Field review by the editors.

Luray, Virginia

Luray Caverns was a tourist attraction even before its discovery, at least in the mind of Benton Pixley Stebbins. He was a New Yorker who came to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley convinced that its underlying soft limestone (perfect for caves) and soon-to-be-competed railroad could be parts of a money-making tourism bonanza -- if he could discover a cave worth promoting.

Luray was originally lit by wagon wheel chandeliers studded with candles.
Luray was originally lit by wagon wheel chandeliers studded with candles.

He did discover just such a cave, with two local partners, on August 13, 1878. Luray Caverns opened for tours (by candlelight) less than three months later. By the early 20th century Luray had paved walkways, electric lights, and a reputation as America's premiere show cave. It was hugely profitable -- but not for Benton Pixley Stebbins. He had kept the cave a secret when he'd bought the land, cheap, and then had it taken away from him by the Virginia Supreme Court.

Tourists gape at the 47-foot-high Double Column in Giant's Hall.
Tourists gape at the 47-foot-high Double Column in Giant's Hall.

Stebbins may have been the only person in history disappointed by Luray Caverns. Everyone else has been subterranean-stupefied by its enormous rooms, fantastic formations, and the ease and comfort of its tour. It was a must-see on our own family vacations; we still cherish and preserve a souvenir vinyl recording of the Great Stalacpipe Organ.

Luray's famous Fried Eggs.
Luray's famous Fried Eggs

If your idea of a cave is based on old Hollywood movies or TV shows, Luray Caverns delivers. It's what everyone expects a cave to be, minus only the hibernating dinosaurs and Neanderthals.

"Many people are afraid that the Caverns might be difficult or dangerous, or that you might get dirty," said John Schaffer, resident historian and marketing director of Luray (He began working there as a guide in the 1970s). Most caves are difficult and dirty, but not Luray. Schaffer called a visit to the Caverns a "soft adventure," which aptly describes a cave tour with no internal stairs, no mud, high ceilings, plenty of light, and a tour so carefully mapped that you never walk the same path twice and end up back at the entrance in exactly one hour.

Glassy surface of Dream Lake reflects mirror image of the spiky ceiling.
Glassy surface of Dream Lake reflects mirror image of the spiky ceiling.

(In 2018 the Caverns plans to open a new main entrance, tunneled through the side of a hill, making Luray a completely stair-free cave.)

Despite Luray's picture-perfect natural formations with poetic 19th century names -- Sacaran's Tent, Pluto's Ghost, Titinia's Veil -- Schaffer said that its most memorable features are its unnatural 20th century additions: the humble Fried Eggs and the Great Stalacpipe Organ. The eggs were mistakenly created in 1921 when workmen accidentally snapped off two stalagmites next to the tour path. Millions of fingers have since smoothed the stubs into the Fried Eggs. This activity is officially forbidden, yet many visitors still do it surreptitiously, including Michelle Obama when she toured Luray as First Lady in 2009 (She guiltily admitted it later).

1957: Leland Sprinkle messes up his suit tuning the Great Stalacpipe Organ.
1957: Leland Sprinkle messes up his suit tuning the Great Stalacpipe Organ.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ was the vision of cave tourist Leland Wilfred Sprinkle, who saw a Luray guide play Mary Had a Little Lamb by tapping stalactites with a hammer, and convinced Luray management that he could turn the cave itself into a musical instrument. In June 1957, after three years of testing over 3,000 stalactites, he sat at the organ keyboard to play its first selections.

"It's like having the largest musical instrument on Earth on the Moon," said Schaffer of the organ. "if you're in the Caverns for an hour it's beautiful and wonderful. But If you're in there 365 days a year it's damp and drippy." According to Schaffer the organ has three employees assigned to keep it running. "There's always something that needs to be rewired." Yet the organ is played dozens of times a day, and between 15,000 and 20,000 times a year (Luray is the most visited cave in the U.S.). Technical difficulties have silenced the Great Stalacpipe Organ for only a handful of tours in over 60 years of operation.

Luray's tourist trail winds through too many formations to name.
Luray's tourist trail winds through too many formations to name.

The organ's cave control room, hidden behind its console, "is like the Batcave or Frankenstein's laboratory," said Schaffer. "Sparks fly when the relays trigger the mallets." A big sign, which Schaffer paraphrased as, "Don't touch or you'll die," warns off the unwary.

Luray Caverns was designated a Registered Natural Landmark in 1974, which means that it can have no garish colored lights, no exploring off the designated paths (Only a third of the cave is open to the public), and no Phantom of the Opera performances on the organ, not even on Halloween. Ironically, Luray's Natural Landmark status has ensured the preservation of its unnatural Fried Eggs and Organ, while forbidding the creation of any further embellishments.

Because Luray is a "live" cave -- its formations collectively grow about a cubic inch every 120 years -- we asked Schaffer what will happen when Luray's musical stalactites grow out of tune. Will its Natural Landmark status stop them from being adjusted with a belt sander? Schaffer said that Luray wasn't too concerned because it probably won't happen for another thousand years. "We'll ask the National Park Service then."

Luray Caverns

Address:
101 Cave Hill Rd, Luray, VA
Directions:
Just west of town, on the north side of US Hwy 211/340. Cave is a constant 54 degrees, so bring a jacket or sweater.
Hours:
Summer daily 9-7, fewer hours off-season. (Call to verify)
Phone:
540-743-6551
Admission:
Adults $28.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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Nearby Offbeat Places

Yogi Bear StatueYogi Bear Statue, Luray, VA - 5 mi.
Doofy Johnny Appleseed StatueDoofy Johnny Appleseed Statue, New Market, VA - 10 mi.
Tombstone of a HorseTombstone of a Horse, Mount Jackson, VA - 10 mi.
In the region:
Boy and the Boot, Orkney Springs, VA - 20 mi.

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October 17, 2018

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