What do you do when it’s seemingly the millionth day of unbearable temps here in DC? Our family escaped the heat with a trip to the Shenandoah Valley.
We started our day at Luray Caverns. We were clearly not the only ones who thought that going underground on a hot day was a good idea, but the wait to buy tickets moved quickly and soon we were in line to go into the caverns. We scanned our tickets and headed down the stairs to join a tour.
As soon as we were down in the caverns, my daughter demanded to borrow our phones to take pictures of the rock formations. She kept checking with us to be sure that they were real and it wasn’t hard to see why. We were all blown away with the natural beauty of the stalactites and stalagmites. It’s amazing to think that the caverns were formed millions of years ago.
As we wandered along the pathways, we had such a good time imagining what the different structures looked like. The ones that looked like you were walking through the mouth of a giant were some of our favorites. Another of our favorites was Dream Lake – a perfectly still body of water that reflected the stalactites like a mirror. We also enjoyed getting to hear the stalacpipe organ – an actual organ that plays music by gently tapping the stalactites.
Luray Caverns is explored by guided tour. There’s a one-way path through the caverns that’s about 1.25 miles long. On the day we visited, however, the tour guides were stationed throughout the path and we moved from guide to guide at our own pace. While this may be disappointing to some, it was perfect for our family as it let us move at our own pace. I heard that they do the tours in this manner when it’s crowded – if you’re particular about seeing the caverns one way or the other, I would call first to see how they will be operating that day. The path is paved the entire way and there are handrails as you go up and down. It’s steep in parts, but not so steep that you couldn’t push a stroller up. There is, however, a set of stairs to initially descend into the caverns.
One of the nicest parts of visiting in the summer is how cool it was. The outside weather does not affect tours of the caverns. It’s 54 degrees year round, though with the high humidity it feels like 65 degrees. We were glad that we had brought light sweatshirts to put on as we got further and further into the caverns. We were also glad that we had worn sneakers – many of the paths are wet, and with the incline, it would have been difficult in flip flops.
On your way in to the caverns your picture is taken in front of a green screen, and on your way out they will help you find a picture package with the structures digitally placed in the background. If you can resist the picture package, you then exit through the gift shop. I was glad that we had taken a few family pictures in the actual caverns so we could skip the fake ones. If you don’t want to buy pictures or spend money in the gift shop, it’s best to have a plan for your kids.
Also included in your admission to Luray Caverns is admission to the Luray Valley Museum, the Car and Carriage Caravan, and Toy Town Junction. We walked through each, though my daughter wasn’t very interested in any of them. Kids who really like cars might enjoy the Car and Carriage Caravan and we did enjoy seeing some of the Civil War artifacts in the Luray Valley Museum. Not included in your admission are the Garden Maze and Rope Adventure Course. We looked at both and decided instead to head to Skyline Drive to continue our day.
The Thornton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive is about a 15 minute drive from Luray Caverns. Skyline Drive runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park and is the only public road through the park. There is a $25 entrance fee per car which is good for 7 days. The weather was so much nicer in the mountains then back at home that a spur of the moment drive seemed like the perfect way to spend the afternoon.
As you drive Skyline Drive, there are 75 different overlooks that allow you to stop and take in the beauty of the mountains. Our plan was to just drive the section from Thornton Gap back to Front Royal, but instead we headed south so we could take in the view from the higher elevations. We drove about 20 miles along the drive to the highest point in the park, stopping at many of the overlooks along the way. We then turned around and headed all the way back to the Front Royal entrance.
While we only stopped at the overlooks, there are also many hiking trails through the park. Because this was a spur-of-the-moment trip, we hadn’t packed sunblock or bug spray, and decided to come back and try the hikes when we’re a bit more prepared. You can look at the suggested hikes online and plan the best one for your family. Even with just stopping at the overlooks, we really enjoyed our time. In fact, my daughter liked it just as much as Luray Caverns. Her favorite stop was the Hazel Mountain Overlook because there were rocks that you could carefully climb up for a really spectacular view. We also made a stop at the end of our day at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center to learn a little more about the park.
Overall, our trip to the Shenendoah Valley was the perfect way to escape the DC heat and enjoy nature as a family. We’re already talking about when we can go back!
Things to Know – Luray Caverns
- Admission to the Caverns is $27 for adults and $14 for children (6-12). Children 5 & under are free with a paying adult. It includes the tour of the caverns as well as admission to the two adjoining museums. Discounts are available with your Giant card – we got 50% off our second adult admission. The Garden Maze and Ropes Adventure Park are both separate tickets.
- There is a restroom right before you go down the stairs into the cavern. Be sure to use it as there are none underground. Tours take a little over an hour; because we had a self-paced tour, we spent about 90 minutes in the caverns.
- There are several places to purchase food and drink, as well as plenty of picnic tables if you want to bring your own lunch. Prices seemed a bit high, and we overheard families complaining about the “tourist trap” nature of everything above ground.
Things to Know – Skyline Drive
- Admission to Skyline Drive is $25 per vehicle and is good for 7 days. Your admission helps support the National Parks.
- While there are wayside food stops every 25 miles, packing a picnic lunch is highly recommended. We also passed several rest room stops that were remarkably clean.
- Be sure to bring sunblock and bug spray with you. While the bugs might not be bad in the fall, they were thick during our summer visit and we all came home with bug bite souvenirs.
Photos courtesy of Mara Surridge.