5 cool caverns to visit

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Ava Liese Wentz of Severna Park wasn't sure what to expect when she was led through a little door in the side of a hill in Boonsboro, but what she found inside was captivating.

Owner Jerry Downs in Crystal Grottoes CavernWentz was taking a tour of Crystal Grottoes Caverns (pictured), a naturally occurring underground cave in western Maryland.

“You go under this overhang and then there are these lights and you can see all of the rock formations. It was quite mesmerizing,” Wentz says. “It was a nice alternative way to see nature.”

Like Wentz, you can easily explore the world below ground at a cavern in Maryland, Virginia or Pennsylvania.

Caverns are naturally formed voids or openings beneath the surface of the earth created by dissolving limestone bedrock, says D.K. Brezinski, an Appalachian stratigrapher at the Maryland Geological Survey in Baltimore. As the water slowly eats away at the mineral, intricate and elaborate rock formations and patterns are left behind, making these underground grottoes the perfect spot for families to learn more about geology and chemistry. But be sure to dress warmly; these underground wonders remain around 54 degrees Fahrenheit all year.

Here are five caverns that are all within a few hours' drive of Annapolis.

Crystal Grottoes Caverns
Boonsboro, Maryland

Located at the foot of Maryland’s South Mountain Range, Crystal Grottoes Caverns were first discovered in 1920 by workers quarrying for limestone when constructing nearby State Route 34. These grottoes are unique as they were formed in a syncline — a concave fold or bend in the rock layers. While on the 35-minute guided tour, families can wander along a well-lit, gravel path through the caverns’ seven different chambers to catch a glimpse of many rock formations including stalactites, stalagmites, columns, rimstone pools and more.

1 hour and 40 minutes from Annapolis
$20 adults; $10 children 11 and younger (cash only)
301-432-6336, crystalgrottoescaverns.com

Skyline Caverns
Skyline Caverns,  American EagleFront Royal, Virginia

On the banks of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, Skyline Caverns was first discovered in 1937 by Walter Amos, who could analyze an area's landscape to determine if a cavern lay beneath. The one-hour guided tour follows a gravel path through 12 chambers featuring three streams, a lake, a 37-foot waterfall and even anthodite clusters, a rare calcite formation only seen in four public caverns in the world. Above ground kids can ride a miniature train, wander through a mirror maze and walk the half-mile nature trail see natural cave.

2 hours from Annapolis
$22 adults; $11 ages 7-13; free for children 6 and younger
540-635-4545, skylinecaverns.com

Double Column at Luray Caverns, photo courtesy Luray CavernsLuray Caverns
Luray, Virginia

Nestled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Luray Caverns is the largest underground cavern discovered in the East, spanning over 64 acres. Wander along the well-lit, paved pathway through the cavern's 11 chambers featuring 10-foot ceilings, columns and underground bodies of water. You’ll also get a chance to see the Great Stalacpipe Organ, the world’s largest underground musical instrument made of stalactites. While there, be sure to visit the Luray Valley Museum and the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, both of which are included with general admission to the caverns. Search for gems at the Stonyman Mining Company Gem Sluice, get lost in the Garden Maze and enjoy other activities for an extra fee.

2 hours and 30 minutes from Annapolis
$27 adults; $14 ages 6-12; free for children 5 and younger
540-743-6551, luraycaverns.com

Indian Echo Cavern, photo courtesy Indian Echo Cavern


Indian Echo Caverns
Hummelstown, Pennsylvania

Only 3 miles west of Hersheypark, Indian Echo Caverns is full of underground life, including ever-growing rock formations, two species of bats, cave crickets and even salamanders. While on a 45-minute guided tour you’ll learn about the caverns’ past, including the story of a Pennsylvania hermit who lived in the caverns from 1802 to 1821. Catch sight of three underground lakes as you travel along the gravel pathway through nine separate “rooms.” Aboveground families can enjoy a picnic area, playground, petting zoo and the Gem Mill, where you can search for gemstones from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

2 hours from Annapolis
$18 adults; $10 ages 2-11; free for children younger than 2
717-566-8131, indianechocaverns.com

Lost River Caverns
Hellertown, Pennsylvania

Sitting just a few hours north of Philadelphia, Lost River Caverns is home to the Crystal Chapel, a large chamber featuring a waterfall and dazzling white flowstone wall. Because of its elaborate backdrop, the grand chamber was rented out for weddings and other ceremonies from 1949 to 2009. The 45-minute guided tour leads along a well-lit, paved pathway through five chambers past elaborate rock formations. Before you leave, be sure to check out the fossils, minerals, gems and antiques on display at the Gilman Museum; walk the nature trail; search for gems at the Gem Mill; or picnic by Silver Creek at the Picnic Grove.

3 hours from Annapolis
$13.25 adults; $8.25 ages 3-12; free for children 2 and younger
610-838-8767, lostcave.com

Story by Amanda Danaher
Photos courtesy: Crystal Grottoes Caverns, Skyline Caverns, Luray Caverns and Indian Echo Caverns

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