Looking to get out of dodge, but don’t want to deal with beach traffic, sweltering heat or boatloads of tourists? Here’s the scoop on the coolest, wildest and oldest caves within a day trip of the Nation’s Capitol. Whether you want to tire the kids out on an endless hike, ride an elevator 34 stories down, listen to nature’s pipe organ, or just chill out (caves are around 55° year round) the opportunity to go spelunking is just a cave away.
Imagine shimmying down a rope, candle in hand and dropping into an alien world of stalagmites, stalactites and giant rooms. You might think you ended up on Mars–even though you’d still be on earth. That’s exactly how Luray Caverns was discovered way back in 1878. Little ones (and big ones) won’t be able to fathom just how all that stuff ended up underground. The largest musical instrument in the world is down there too. The Stalacpipe Organ (over three acres of the caverns) makes the stalactites sing just by tapping them (keep your hands to yourself please). Different rooms offer spectacular viewing of crystal clear pools, towering stalagmites, and snow white calcite formations. In addition to the caverns, your ticket also gets you into the Luray Valley Museum, showcasing the American Frontier; the Car and Carriage Museum where you can take a ride through time; and for future conductors life comes alive in miniature at the new Toy Town Junction.
101 Cave Hill Rd. (Luray, Va)
Cost: $26/adults; $14/kids ages 6-12
Virginia’s Natural Bridge Caverns
For a long day trip or a fun overnighter, visit Virginia’s Natural Bridge Caverns. Dropping 34 stories underground, little ones won’t believe their eyes. Slow moving water over thousands of years has created wonders like the Colossal Dome room, Mirror Lake, and the Well Room. Above ground, families can hike to the Natural Bridge which formed after a cave collapsed leaving the arch above. Legend has it that George Washington’s initials are carved in the side after surveying the land for Lord Fairfax. History, geology, nature and family all in one…we call that a win win.
5 Appledore Ln. (Natural Bridge, Va)
Cost: $18/adults; $12/kids ages 7-12
Crystal Grottoes Caverns
The only caves open to the public in Maryland, families will see the grottoes just as they were in 1920 when discovered by a quarrying crew. Formed by a syncline process– groundwater moving through the limestone rather than streaming over it–the caves feature the traditional stalagmites and stalactites, as well as helectites that look like grapes, cauliflower, and bendy soda straws. The Lake Room is one not to be missed as reflection of the ceilings shimmers in the waters down below. Run by the same family for generations, these caves are a fun, kitschy way to escape the beltway and take in nature’s bountiful views–minus the mosquitos!
19821 Shepherdstown Pike (Boonsboro, Md)
Cost: $20/adults; $10/kids ages 11 and under (cash only)
Since the end has never been found here, little ones might be tempted to try and find it. However, we’re pretty sure they will be distracted by the giant rooms filled with stalagmites, stalactites, massive curtains, and more. Knights-in-training will be in awe of the Shield Formations, while princesses-to-be will adore the Cathedral Room with its soaring ceilings. Adventurers should be forewarned that strollers and back baby carriers are not allowed, and it is the longest commercial cave tour in the state of Virginia, clocking in at just shy of a mile.
1800 Endless Caverns Rd. (New Market, Va)
Cost: $20/adults; $9/kids ages 4 to 12
Bacon lovers will stand in awe at the Shenandoah Caverns. National Geographic featured the cave’s “Breakfast Bacon” as one of the most unusual aspects of cave formations way back in 1964. Formed by red striped draperies of limestone, the bacon lines the main passageway. For families with larger strollers or wheelchairs, Shenandoah Caverns is the only cave system in Virginia to have its own elevator. Hopping off on a gravel pathway, you and the kiddos can tour 17 (!) rooms including Long View Hall, Diamond Cascade and Rainbow Lake. They even have their very own Capitol Dome!
261 Caverns Rd. (Quicksburg, Va)
Cost: $24/adults; $12/kids ages 6-12
Miniature spelunkers who can’t stand longer car rides should head to Skyline Caverns, stat. They are the closest caves to D.C. (a little over an hour drive), so jumping beans won’t have to spend hours strapped in their car seats. Proximity aside, families can get up close and personal with the rare Anthodites–perfect 6-sided crystalline structures made of pure calcite. Unique to Virginia caves, Skyline Caverns tours offer views of three underground streams and a 37-foot Rainbow Waterfall. Kids will be mesmerized, and wonder just how all of this could be hiding below the ground they walked in on. You can also visit the Wishing Well, Trout Stream, and Painted Desert.
10344 Stonewall Jackson Hwy (Front Royal, Va)
Cost: $15/kids; Free/kids under 1
Have you been to any of these caverns? Tell us about it in the comments section below.