Day 1: Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Day 2: Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Day 3A: Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum
Day 3B: United States Botanic Garden
On our last trip to New York state we visited Howe Caverns. Since the boys enjoyed that experience we decided to visit Luray Caverns this trip. We made a full day of it and took in everything to see on property. Luray Caverns is about two hours west of Washington, D.C. Since we were staying to the west already, a direct route would have taken us about an hour and a half.
On our way there we did the northernmost stretch of Skyline Drive. This added about thirty minutes to the drive. Note that there is a fee to enter so it is both a slower and more expensive way to get to Luray from the DC area. But, the scenery on that part of the route (between Front Royal, VA and Rt 211) was spectacular – even the boys thought so. On the way back we decided to drive it a bit more so we took the middle section from Rt 211 to Rt 33. This was not as spectacular and probably not worth the drive.
Upon arrival at Luray Caverns we bought our tickets and then had lunch. The line was somewhat long and tickets are not timed, so its up to you to best judge the line for entry. That being said, it moves pretty fast regardless. Even more than Howe Caverns, this operation seems to be a smooth running one that’s been going for generations. That is apparent both in what you see in the caverns as well as how things are run above ground. One example is that they take your picture with a green screen at the entrance and you have the opportunity to purchase at the end – very theme-park like. It’s not a negative, but it is apparent that you are not seeing a truly unblemished natural treasure.
You can bring your own food to eat onsite, just not in the caverns. There is also a basic grill near the entrance. We later found that there is another food option across the street at the Luray Valley Museum that might have been worth exploring more had we found it earlier. We ate at the grill. The food was fine, but limited, basic, and pricey for what you got.
Note: A ticket to Luray Caverns includes entry to the Car & Carriage Caravan Museum, Toy Town Junction, and the Luray Valley Museum. I’m not even sure if you could purchase ticket to those separately. They did check our tickets at both the car and Luray Valley museums.
After lunch we went in the adjacent Toy Town Junction. I’m glad they don’t call this a museum. It’s more like someone’s well-organized toy collection. Just about everything dates from 30-50 years back, with a few popular modern items and very old things added for completeness. But, it was a fun few minutes.
After lunch we joined the line for the caverns. It was much shorter. We made the second group, which was maybe a 15 minute wait. A huge advantage for us is that strollers are allowed in the caverns. The steps are also somewhat narrow so an umbrella stroller is probably better than a big jogger. You do have to carry them up and down the stairs and the start/finish of the tour. And, there are some steep hills to watch out for with strollers. But, it makes it much easier to handle the smaller children.
The tour itself is about 45 minutes. It was well organized; our guide was knowledgeable and kept the group together and moving the entire time. One is very aware of the many other tour groups moving through the caverns with you, but they rarely interrupt the experience. There are great vistas of large caverns and smaller features. The completely still, mirror-like water was impressive. The tour concludes with the playing of the Stalacpipe Organ. By this point we had a hard time keeping the small ones quiet, but clearly we weren’t the only ones with that problem. Generally, if your group is exclusively attentive adults who want to hear everything I’d recommend staying towards the front of the group. Drop back if you have small children who might needs space or talk a lot. If you want to take pictures, dropping back may also be a good idea. Just, keep up with the group as the lights are on timers and you don’t want to end up in the dark. Also, realize that in some places the path is quite narrow and you may not be able to work back to the front for a few stops.
After our tour we headed down the hill to the car museum (and bathrooms). I must say, after the toy “museum” the car museum was impressive. If you are at all a car enthusiast, you should visit. They had an excellent variety of vehicles, displayed well with descriptions, and in excellent condition. The aisles are wide and very stroller friendly. We (adults) could have stayed much longer, but unfortunately the boys were unable to get very interested. Many of the cars had a tie-in to the region, but not all.
Finally, we went across the street to the Luray Valley Museum. As folks who have visited Sturbridge Village, there really wasn’t much to this one. It’s not that it isn’t well done, just that it isn’t very fleshed out and comes across as an afterthought. I don’t know if they have bigger plans for this area, but compared to the rest it underwhelms. There’s a small museum and five exhibit buildings from 18th century life that you can look in, but not actually enter. Again, its not bad, it just feels like it could/should be developed further.
Note: If you check their website you’ll see that they advertise a maze and rope adventure park. If I’m honest, neither looked very big or worth the price. More importantly, they didn’t really work for the age ranges we had in our group. But, take a look before you go especially if you are traveling with teens/tweens. Both are right near the entrance and you may decide that they are a good option for your family.
All in all, Luray Caverns is worth the drive. In fact, I think doing the top portion of Skyline drive on the way is worth it. There is plenty to do and abundant free parking. Clearly they can handle even very busy days. Assuming you check out all they have to offer it’s a pretty full day so doing Skyline on the way there is better as it may be getting dark when it’s time to head back east.