Journeys to the center of the Earth Caverns: Where to go to descend into the region's otherworldly caves with their eerie formations. It's pretty cool.

Up Front

August 13, 1998|By Judith Forman | Judith Forman,SUN STAFF

They're millions of years old, hundreds of feet below the ground and dripping with calcium carbonate formations. And many of them are just a day trip away from Baltimore.

Caverns are natural wonders carved out by underground rivers millions of years ago. Water that has seeped into the limestone caves creates formations that crystallize. The crystals come in many shapes and sizes: columns, ribbons, stalactites (hanging crystals) and stalagmites (crystals that grow up from the ground).

Below is a list of caverns found in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. For some cool relief (they all stay about 55 degrees year-round) from a hot August day, spend some time in a local cave and see what's going on down under (ground, that is).

Maryland

Crystal Grottoes Caverns, Boonsboro

Located about 75 miles outside of Baltimore in Washington County, Crystal Grottoes Caverns is the only "show cave" open for tours in the state. "Grotto" refers to a series of interconnecting underground pathways.

Surrounded by cornfields, trees and a quiet creek is an old stone building that houses the entrance. Old is a relative word - while the caverns have been forming for the past 250 million years, they were discovered on Sept. 18, 1920, when the State Roads Commission was quarrying for limestone to build up state Route 34. The landowners decided to commercialize the cave and opened it to the public in April 1922.

Since 1966, it's been owned by the family of Jerry Downs, who has been running the caverns for the past 17 years. It's a small, no-frills operation that aims to show off the natural wonders of the caverns and not much else.

Highlights of the tour include unique formations that resemble chandeliers, bacon, an Egyptian mummy, the U.S. Capitol building and a reflecting pool.

There are 26 stairs that take visitors 86 feet underground; a ramp back up leads to the building. Inside the caverns, the walkways are similar to sidewalks and make for an easy jaunt through the 1/7 of a mile tour.

Above ground, visitors can purchase rocks, gems and minerals that were excavated out of the caves and then lunch at the picnic tables by the creek. There's not much else to see in the immediate area, although the Antietam Battlefield is six miles away from Crystal Grottoes Caverns.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily April 1-Oct. 31; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. weekends November-March; 30-minute tours run every 15 minutes.

Admission: $8.50; $4.50 children under 12. Group tours at

reduced rates available; call for a reservation.

Call: 301-432-6336

Virginia

Luray Caverns, Luray

A Disneyland of the caving world, Luray Caverns is an organized, well-run site that draws about 500,000 visitors annually. Walking 70 stairs down, visitors enter into a 54-degree underworld that was discovered in August 1878 by Andrew Campbell and Benton Stebbins after they felt a cool draft of air coming from a sinkhole. Little did they know they were stumbling upon what was to become the fourth-largest cave in the United States and the biggest on the East Coast.

The tour, which takes place 164 feet beneath the Earth's surface, leads guests a mile and a quarter along a brick pathway equipped with handrails. Highlights include Dream Lake, a wide pool that reflects thousands of stalactites hanging from above; Fried Eggs, a formation resembling two eggs sunny-side up that was created from the bases of two stalagmites accidentally broken by workmen; and the Great Stalacpipe Organ, the world's largest natural musical instrument, which taps out notes on stone formations. The organ is located in the caverns' Cathedral, which has been host to more than 300 weddings.

Today through Sunday, Luray will celebrate its 120-year "Inchiversary" - since its formations grow at a rate of one cubic inch every 120 years. Events will include a Grand Illumination of the caverns by candlelight, music, fireworks and a photographic tour of the caverns.

The guide (and the accompanying guide-in-training) were knowledgeable and eager to answer even the most obscure questions about Luray. They let stragglers take their time and didn't hurry anyone through the tour. A chair lift up and down the stairs makes the tour accessible to those with wheelchairs and strollers.

The grounds of Luray Caverns are well-developed and include two motels, a gas station and food service. And like any true paid attraction, the cavern tour dumps guests out into the gift shop, where the likes of bumper stickers, postcards and shot glasses abound.

Where: Luray in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, about 130 miles from Baltimore

Hours: Open daily, 9 a.m.-7 p.m., June 15-Labor Day; 9 a.m.-6 p.m., day after Labor Day-Oct. 31; 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Nov. 1-March 14 (9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays); 9 a.m.-6 p.m., March 15-June 14. Hourlong tours run every 10 to 20 minutes.

Admission: $13; $6 ages 7-13; free for children under 7 with an adult; $11 seniors 62 and older. Includes visit to Historic Car and Carriage Museum.

Call: 540-743-6551

Other Virginia caverns

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