When I was a kid I visited the Luray Caverns in Virginia with my family on a summer vacation. I was only 10 so I don’t remember every detail but I do remember them being cold (they are subterranean after all) and simply incredible to gaze at (when you’re a 10 year old, everything is that much more “cool”). Nearly twenty years later and they were still the only caverns I had visited until last week when I finally crossed an item off my Western Pennsylvania Bucket list and made it to the Laurel Caverns.
The Laurel Caverns are about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh and are actually in close proximity of one of Pennsylvania’s most famous sights, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (along with another house he designed and one I loved visiting, Kentuck Knob). So even though the caverns are in an extremely rural area, there truly are tons of neat things to check out, coupled with the fact that you’re in one of the prettiest areas in the state from an outdoors standpoint (Ohiopyle State Park for starters).
The caverns are the largest in the state of Pennsylvania and have been known to recorded history since the 18th century, although it’s thought that the Native Americans would have used the caves even before then. The majority of the passage ceilings in its three miles of passages are between ten and twenty feet high (some reaching an incredible height of 50 feet) with an average width of over twelve feet. The cave is actually located beneath a 435 acre privately owned geological preserve. Because the property is at the top of Chestnut Ridge, all of the water that enters the cave is perfect, literally and figuratively.
The traditional guided tour lasts an hour and covers a total walking distance of about 3,000 feet. Although everything from spelunking to cave rappelling is offered, I opted for just the general tour. I was more interested in being able to really study the formations and take good photographs, not worrying about harnesses and ropes or having to crawl “military” style on the ground.
Tours are offered pretty continuously so once one tour fills up, another one forms so you don’t have to worry about arriving at a “set” time per se. There seemed to be about two dozen people in our tour. Large groups can be “okay” if they’re handled properly. In the case of my tour at Laurel Caverns, I didn’t think the size was done too well. Too much time was spent waiting on those at the end of the group to arrive at the new spot where the guide would talk. So besides the people ambling a bit too much, her waiting for those same people to yell “caboose,” (t0 let her know they were there), seemed to take away from the tour itself (there was also another group after us that always seems to be waiting on us to move on).
The other unfortunate part of the tour was that there was a family with two small children-the girl looked to be about three or four, the boy roughly one. The toddler did not settle down during the entire tour. He was never screaming or high pitched wailing but he was just so loud in an “I can’t be settled” sort of way that for me it really detracted from the tour. It made hearing the guide difficult at times and frankly, hearing the very loud and unsettling antics of a baby is not what I wanted to have on my tour. There is no age limit for the general tour but this couple had two children under the age of five, neither of whom seemed at all interested in looking at rocks and formations. Why would you bring them and more importantly, mar the experience for others? I know they want to attract families and as many visitors as possible, but to me it would be better if the Caverns actually did have a policy of no children under the age of five on their general tours.
But on to the enjoyable parts of the visit-I saw so many incredible rocks and formations and thanks to a year spent working at an oil and gas company, I knew many of the geology terms being batted about by the guide. It was extremely neat to see where the original entrance was…akin to a back door kitchen, a far cry from the more orderly and clearly established entrance that one passes through at the visitor’s center. I also thought it was cool imagining tour groups from a century ago making their way through the passages. I can’t imagine women doing so in the long and thick skirts they once had to wear.
My favorite part of the tour was probably the sound and light show. It was actually held at the spot where weddings used to take place (they’re no longer allowed to offer them; the guide didn’t say why). But the sound and light played against the backdrop of Handel’s Hallelujah which is a hymn I just adore.
Am I glad I finally made it to the Caverns? Yes.They were beautiful to visit, I just wish I could have been on a different tour. When it comes to seeing “natural creations,” they truly can’t be beat.
Information on visiting:
The general tour costs $12 for adults, $11 for seniors (65 and up), $10 for youth (grades 6-12), and $9 for children (k-5). Pre-school age children are free with parents.
Tours only operate from May to October since the rest of the year, bats live there (truly).
Because of its size, the Caverns are the largest natural bat hibernaculum in Pennsylvania and are closed to visitors during the bat hibernation season.
Dress warmly! I can’t stress this enough. The temperature inside the caverns is around 52 degrees F.
I forgot to bring a jacket and actually got a bad head cold that I had all of last week. It’s going to be cold.