Tourist trap: It’s such an ugly term. Of course there’s reason to beware of over-hyped destinations. But—especially with kids in tow—there’s also a certain enjoyment in surrendering, now and then, to the spectacle. I don’t know of anyplace in Virginia where that’s a truer statement than at Luray Caverns. The Caverns, as our guide on a recent tour explained, were discovered by three locals who deliberately set out to hunt for a cavern they could develop as a tourist attraction. That was back in 1878, and given that those discoverers didn’t manage to wrest a profit from their find, they’d probably be even more astonished to see what Luray looks like now.
My two girls and I made the drive up Route 340 to Luray with clear eyes. We knew this was not going to be a brush with an unspoiled wonder; the billboards alone (“Mother Nature’s Finest Interior Decorating”) make that obvious. Still, one look at the complex sprawling around the caverns parking lot told me that the good folks at Luray were going to do their best to keep our attention—and keep me spending cash—all the livelong day. Luray includes a garden maze, a ropes course, a collection of museums, and even an on-site gas station. Oh yeah, and a cavern. We rolled with it. After we bought our tickets—it felt a little like booking air travel—the girls, ages 5 and 8, asked to start in the garden maze.
I’d somehow made it this far in life without entering a maze of any kind, and assumed we’d soon become hopelessly lost, thirsty, and panicked. It didn’t happen, though: As I should have realized, the owners of tourist attractions don’t actually want the tourists to have a terrifying time. They’d sprinkled enough clues throughout the tall passageways to ensure that we could make it out—and they sprinkled us too, with cooling mist. We found our way to all four “goals” and then to the exit with only minor, enjoyable confusion.
On to the ropes course. Employees buckled us into harnesses and showed us how to maneuver them through a system of overhead rails as we tiptoed along narrow beams, rungs, and ropes about a gazillion feet in the air. Well, maybe not that high, but high enough to make me seriously nervous on my first couple of passes, as I gripped the sweaty hand of my wobbly 5-year-old. I admit it was a pretty cool moment when we both grew comfortable enough to let go of each other and she took off on her own. Her older sister, meanwhile, gallivanted fearlessly all over the course. We all felt elated when we finally descended.
After a picnic on the lawn, we got in line for a cavern tour. On a day of jarring juxtapositions, none is stranger than this: You’re inside a building, and then you go down some concrete steps and you’re standing in a cavern. The ceiling soars overhead, dripping with stalactites, and an enormous calcite formation, named for George Washington, stands on the floor before you.
Now, let me say that the tour itself at Luray, a mile and a quarter long, is not super-inspired. Our baby-faced, bored-sounding guide recited his script and little else. And I’m glad I wasn’t expecting a geology lesson for my kids, because they didn’t get one. Have I mentioned that Luray Caverns is geared toward tourists? We trudged along brick and concrete paths, obeyed the command not to touch the cave formations, and absorbed a steady stream of quasi-historical lore, all in a pack of 35 or so people.
But it’s hard to ruin a place like this. Luray is a large and astonishing feature of the earth, festooned with every kind of underground formation you could hope to see: stalactites, stalagmites, delicate drapery formations, still-as-glass pools, columns, and flowstone. Even if you ignore the official information, this is the kind of place that makes an impression: It’s a feast for the eyes and a different visual language than we’re used to above ground. The absorption and wonder of kids in such a setting is a good model for the rest of us.
It’s a feast for the eyes and a different visual language than we’re used to above ground.
After exiting the cavern, as you might guess, we were a bit spent. But still there was more—so much more to see! We made a weary attempt to appreciate the Toy Town Junction Museum, home of model trains and historical toys, skipped the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, and briefly checked out the Luray Valley Museum, which is all about Shenandoah Valley history. All of it was worthwhile enough, but there’s only so much stimulation a family can take in one day.
We’d spent the day as lemmings, true, and the cynical grownup in me sneered a little at the manufactured hokiness of it all. But my kids saw no reason to turn up their noses. They were two very happy tourists.
If You Go
Luray Caverns is open daily 9am-6pm through October; winter hours are 9am-4pm. Tickets for the cavern and museums are $28 for adults and $15 for kids 6-12. The garden maze costs $9 for adults and $7 for kids 6-12. The ropes course is $11 if you’re 48 inches tall or more, $7 if you’re not. For more information, go to luraycaverns.com.