Prince William Forest

On our way back to Maryland from visiting friends in Richmond, we stopped for a quick hike in Prince William Forest.

It’s convenient and easy to get to – just off I-95 next to the Marine base at Quantico. There’s a $5 fee (a bit of a hassle because you have to go to the Visitor’s Center first to get a little receipt), a drop in the bucket to help defray the costs of maintaining the park. Of course, silly me, it should have been free because we JUST bought a National Parks pass – but of course I had left it at home.

Prince William Forest isn’t anything particularly special, but it’s nice to have a large chunk of protected forest land (15,000 acres) with many different trails and bike paths. The park also features campgrounds and picnic areas. Dave also learned in the Visitor’s Center that there are various small, historic cemeteries located in the middle of the forest, which are difficult to find unless you’re with a ranger (or you just stumble across one).

We hiked a trail called “Farm to Forest”, which got its name because that particular spot was once a farm, and has now been allowed to return to wilderness. I was aiming for a 1.7 mile hike, but once we got there, we realized that there were really two trails – a 1-mile loop, and a 1.7-mile extension. So, we ended up hiking more like two and a half miles. Fine for me, but maybe a little much for Lucas, since his elbow’s not 100% yet.

It was a very nice hike, and it was perfect weather. It was labeled as “moderately strenuous”, which really means it’s perhaps on the slightly strenuous side of “moderate”. There were a few ups and downs, but no major inclines or much elevation change. The trail ran along and/or crossed Quantico Creek for the middle part of the hike, which wasn’t as scenic as you might think. The best feature of the trail was all the evidence of beavers – we had never seen so many chewed trees. The beavers had obviously been quite successful, actually, because a number of the tree trunks had been chewed all the way around and had fallen. There were one or two very effective beaver dams on the creek as well. Unfortunately we didn’t actually spot any of the critters.

If you live in the DC area and are looking for a place for a quick hike, or if you’re visiting the area and are looking for a place to camp near the nation’s capital, check it out: http://www.nps.gov/prwi/.

Luray Caverns

Today’s adventure was to visit Luray Caverns, in Luray VA. It is the largest caverns in the Eastern U.S., and is advertised as the most popular.

We left Silver Spring around 10:30 am, and drove out I-66 to I-81. We got off the freeway in New Market, VA, and had lunch at a place called “Southern Kitchen”. It was a typical diner-style restaurant in a small Virginia town, which was really fun. The waitress was really friendly, the clientele were fun (though our presence lowered the average customer age to about 55 years old), and the food was tasty and affordable. Unlike while in DC, I could just order sweet tea, instead of first asking if they had it.

From there it was 15-20 minutes to Luray Caverns. We turned off Route 211 to find a much larger complex than I’d expected. In addition to the Garden Maze, which I was already aware of, there were a number of buildings. The main Visitor’s Center for the cavern itself seemed large from the outside (though, once inside, both the lobby and the meandering gift shop were cramped and the space not well-organized). There was also a cafe, a country store, a fudge shop, a “Car and Carriage Museum” (I’ll get to that later), and a small building with extra restrooms and vending machines. Oh, and a gas station at the outside corner.

Maybe I was just expecting a hole in the ground?

The tickets are expensive ($21) but the cavern itself was worth it. Although the promo materials suggest that the tours are guided, it’s actually an audio tour. This is actually preferable, because the cavern’s visitors are all types. Best to go at your own pace anyway.

Luray Caverns has a lot of different formations (which they refer to as the cavern’s “decorations”). It was quite impressive. Our favorite part, by far, was an area called “Dream Lake”. It was spectacular – a shallow lake inside the cavern that acts as a perfect mirror of the stalactites above, making it seem as though there is a perfectly symmetrical area of the cavern. It was truly impressive.

Another unique feature of Luray Caverns is the stalacpipe organ. In the late 1950s a guy visited the caverns and suggested that they connect an organ to some of the formations – because when you strike them, the crystals inside vibrate and make musical tones. He went around figuring out which formations would give him the pitches he was looking for, and set it up so that it could play four different songs. When on the tour, though, you only get to hear one. We heard “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

Caverns are hard to describe. If you enjoy them, you should visit Luray. [Of course it’s nothing near as impressive as Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, but that’s hard to top anyway.] If you’re claustrophobic, you probably already know not to bother. What’s fun about caverns is that it’s probably the best opportunity you’ll have here on Earth to feel as though you’re on another planet.

After we finished the mile-and-a-quarter meander through the caverns, spending more time than one might think possible looking at stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, etc., we ended up in (guess where?) the gift shop. We poked around there for a bit, and also in the general store.

Admission to the “Car and Carriage Museum” is free with admission to the cavern, so we figured we’d breeze through. As the name suggests, it has on display a number of automobiles and old carriages (you know, horse-and-buggy type things). They had an admirable collection of vehicles from the early 20th century, including of course the Ford models T, N, and A, and also a few sweet-looking Rolls Royces. The museum design, however, was SUPER cheesy and dated. It was filled with mannequins that were creepy, old, and had pieces of their skin chipping off. You could tell that the signs describing the different vehicles hadn’t been updated for a while – one described the company founded by Ransom E. Olds, i.e., Oldsmobile, as one of the few original companies that had managed to survive our tough economic times. Oops.

We survived that, and ended up in yet another gift shop. We bought some fudge and hit the road.

We took the scenic route back – Skyline Drive. This is actually the heart of Shenandoah National Park, which we hadn’t realized was a fee-only area. So, we bought an annual pass, figuring we’ll probably be visiting some national parks later in the summer anyway.

Unfortunately it wasn’t ideal weather for a scenic drive. The Blue Ridge Mountains were largely covered by low clouds all day, so we drove through fog for about half the drive. There are a number of beautiful scenic overlooks on both the east and west sides of the Blue Ridge… but we couldn’t see much from some of them. There were a couple of spots where the clouds weren’t sitting on us, and Dave was able to take some photos. But, it was peaceful and beautiful and relaxing.

Clearly this is the place to be in the fall, but no doubt it’s a never-ending ant line of cars when the foliage is changing.

It took us a while to get home, because as soon as we got on the Beltway, we came to a dead stop because of an accident that was blocking 3 of 4 lanes. Welcome back to civilization!