In summer heat, a getaway to a subterranean kingdom of perpetual cool and fairy-tale names like “Titania’s Veil” and “Giant’s Hall” is a temptation hard to ignore.
Luray Caverns in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley is only an hour and a half away from Washington. The cave is a popular attraction in the summer, but the first tour of the day (these begin at 9 am and leave every 20 minutes) is usually a quiet affair. The guide leads you through the dark, still chambers, with lights coming on dimly as you arrive and extinguishing as you pass. No other voices in the distance to distract you, the magic of the place is almost entirely yours to savor. This morning treat is worth an early rise.
The chambers are spectacular. My favorite, I think, is Dream Lake. Its structures are not the most intricate or fantastic, but the stillness of the water and the perfect reflection on its glassy surface are enthralling. I would love to walk into that chamber with nothing but a candle to lead me. How did it all look to the first human stumbling on this view, taking it in little by little, as the flame flickered?
Passing through the last of the grand chambers, the Giant’s Hall and the Cathedral, one feels nothing short of awed. As your parting memory, you hear the sounds of the Great Stalacpipe Organ, connected to stalactites around the cave through over five miles of wiring (the makings of the world’s largest musical instrument). My misgivings of bringing the organ to life aside–stalactites were sanded to adjust their musical scale–the experience of hearing the organ play is breathtaking. Notes reverberate throughout the great ceilings, enveloping you completely–another reason to come to the cave early: this really needs to be as intimate an experience as possible.
As you emerge from the cave, the world above shocks with all its light, and heat, and banality. A ride on Sklyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park is a welcome solitary experience to help you acclimate back back to reality: the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, an ocean of gentle green waves, are a soothing sight in any season, and there are some good lunch options, along the way (my favorite, because of its views and a relatively vegetarian-friendly menu, is the Big Meadows dining room on Milepost 51; lunch service is between 12:30 and 2 pm).