Attractions in Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania’s Laurel Caverns

Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

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.

Pennsylvania's 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).

Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

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.

Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

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.

Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

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).

Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

The original entrance to the caverns

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.

Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

A fault line that runs through the caverns

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.

Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

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.

Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

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.

Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

Information on visiting:

Laurel Caverns

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.

 Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Urska
    August 12, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    We have a lot of caves in Slovenia but I’ve never seen anything like this one! What beautiful formations nature can make,it’s amazing!
    Urska recently posted…Postcards from IndonesiaMy Profile

    • Reply
      Julie
      August 13, 2014 at 4:57 pm

      Slovenia is a country I would love to visit. The more I see of it, the more I want to visit in person!

      I agree, that nature is absolutely amazing!

  • Reply
    Greg | Travel Blue Book
    August 13, 2014 at 6:19 am

    I love caves! I always feel like such an explorer whenever I’m in one – even though I’m on a guided tour 🙂 It is nice that tours run constantly here. Good to know you don’t have to wait.
    Greg | Travel Blue Book recently posted…Saltwater Grill: A Seafood Lover’s DelightMy Profile

    • Reply
      Julie
      August 13, 2014 at 4:58 pm

      Me too although I don’t know why it took me almost 20 years to visit another one 🙂 They’re really a fascinating place and experience, and I agree you can’t help but feeling like an explorer.

  • Reply
    Eimear
    August 13, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Ooh I have a friend in PA, maybe when I go visit her I can get her to bring me there. It must have been really hard to photograph in that light but you did a great job!

    • Reply
      Julie
      August 13, 2014 at 4:59 pm

      If you’re in the area I would definitely recommend visiting! You can’t beat “hanging with nature.” To be honest I was a little sad my photographs didn’t come out better but thanks for your kind words. I know we’re always our harshest critics 🙂

  • Reply
    Milosz Zak
    August 13, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    I like how they’ve illuminated the various chambers. For cave lovers, I really recommend to go to Vinales in Cuba – you can swim in cold-water pools there.

    • Reply
      Julie
      August 13, 2014 at 5:00 pm

      The lighting wasn’t quite what I was expecting but it made me appreciate its uniqueness all the more! Chandeliers in a cave, why yes 🙂 Cuba has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember so if I ever make it there I will be sure to go to Vinales!

  • Reply
    zof
    August 14, 2014 at 8:17 am

    WOW, I visited some caves in Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic but never got a chance to see any that would be even close to these ones. I wish I could go one day.
    zof recently posted…Home is a feeling? On the concept of home.My Profile

    • Reply
      Julie
      August 14, 2014 at 3:20 pm

      I’m sure caves in Central and Eastern Europe are quite spectacular! They were very cool to visit although so very cold 🙂

  • Reply
    Paul
    August 14, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    Brilliant article Julie! I love caves, after watching the film “The Descent” I can’t help but picture weird flesh-eating monsters everywhere haha! Great job on the photos – Shame about the small children, I haven’t got much patience with kids so I can sympathize!

    • Reply
      Julie
      August 14, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      Thanks Paul! The movie that came to mind for me was Sanctum! I will have to check out the Descent sometime, looks like a great Halloween night flick 🙂 Thanks, I wish they could have come out better but I didn’t have any super flash with me 🙂 Ahh yes, small children…I more blame parents who don’t know better!

  • Reply
    Jazzy
    August 15, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    It’s weird that it never crossed my mind to visit a cave. Thanks to you I have added visiting a cave to my Bucklist. Thanks so much. This was an informative post for me !
    Jazzy recently posted…The Start of a New Life: D.C. to Cleveland Pt.1My Profile

    • Reply
      Julie
      August 17, 2014 at 8:49 am

      I’m glad my post inspired some potential new travels ideas 🙂 They really are a fascinating place to visit and even if they aren’t totally deserted from a crowds perspective, in my opinion they’re still a unique spot!

  • Reply
    Chris Boothman
    August 16, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    Always love exploring caves and this looks one that is worthwhile experiencing. I think $12 is pretty standard for admission prices but I really like that you are able to capture some great shots while in the caverns.
    Chris Boothman recently posted…Saturday Snaps #8 – El Teide National ParkMy Profile

    • Reply
      Julie
      August 17, 2014 at 8:56 am

      Thanks Chris! It was a really cool spot to visit but especially after learning that it is a major bat habitat (although thankfully they are gone for the season) 🙂 I’m definitely interested in visiting some others in the future to continue to perfect my “cave photography” 🙂

  • Reply
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