In the belly of the Earth
Picture yourself standing in half-darkness amid naturally-forming calcite columns, cascades, stalactites and stalagmites sixteen storeys under the surface of the Earth. It is eerily beautiful down there. The ambience is primitive, and your surroundings feel uncanny, because your mind keeps telling you that all of this had formed over an estimated span of four million years. The limestone formations you see around you are still forming and changing every day.
Luray Caverns, in Virginia, USA, is an active cave system. Located in the lush Shenandoah Valley, to the west of Blue Ridge Mountains in Luray, Virginia, Luray Caverns was discovered in 1878. Today, it is a registered National Natural Landmark (NNL), visited by some 500,000 people annually from all over the U.S. and the world.
Before we decided on visiting this awe-inspiring feat of nature, we had to find out if it would be too cold in February. We found out that the caverns' temperature remains unchanged at all times of the year. It is indeed mysterious down below!
No matter what the outside temperature is, the temperature inside the caverns is a constant 12° Celsius. With high humidity resulting from water constantly seeping through the cave's roof, walls, and floor, the temperature may feel as high as 18°.
In short, one can visit Luray Caverns any day, any season.
This marvel of nature is open to the public 365 days a year. The cost of entry is $30 for an adult. Tourists are not allowed to enter the caverns alone; you have to take a group tour led by a guide.
As you walk through the cave, you are left in awe of the geological wonders that have formed over millions of years. Once inside, let your imagination soar, because the limestone formations resemble anything from shawls, draperies, scarves and veils to fried eggs, columns and woolly mammoths!
Man continues to conquer what is on, above and below the Earth's surface. You will get a glimpse of the extent of man's relentless expedition inside these caverns. Today, 141 years after its discovery, one can easily marvel at this cave system using its step-free paved walkways. Indirect lighting installed inside the caverns not only creates an aura of mystery, but also allows visitors to take a better look at its best features.
It is a crystal-clear pool inside the caverns. The water is so clear that it creates an optical illusion, making stalactites hanging from the cave's roof appear to be stalagmites protruding from the bottom of the pool. The Dream Lake and the mirror-image of stalactites that form in its crystalline water are out of the world!
These are two stone formations resembling fried-eggs, sunny-side up. These formations are not natural, though, but the result of damages to stalagmites caused by Luray Caverns workers three decades ago. You will be impressed by how much these broken stalagmites bear resemblance to the fried eggs so many of us relish over breakfast every morning!
The Great Stalacpipe Organ
Known as the world's largest musical instrument, when electrically activated, it produces mysteriously beautiful musical tones. These rather unearthly tones are produced when rubber mallets hit thirty-seven different stalactites located across the cave!
Standing 164 feet underground, I felt small and negligible in the face of the massive stalactites that formed over four million years. Luray Caverns is one of the best examples of America's rich geological heritage. On the whole, this is a must-see site if a traveller ever visits the country's East Coast.
Let me wrap up this travelogue by sharing the lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poetry, Kubla Khan, that are etched in stone at the entrance of the caverns.
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."
Photo: Wara Karim