The Explorographer
luray caverns

Facing Fears, Reaping Rewards – Luray Caverns, VA

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge C.1798

When I was a kid, like most kids, I loved exploring. I still do, but as an adult I tend to be way more cautious about what and where I explore. I think as we get older we think about family, home, avoiding prison, you know, that sort of thing. Needless to say, life and the things we have lived, shapes us. After a rocky 12 year marriage which ended in divorce, my life and health took a big spiral downwards. Anxiety did terrible things to my coping skills.

One of those coping skills had to do with dealing with claustrophobia. As a child I had no issues at all with this. Wedging myself between fences and buildings, trees and rocks, none of it bothered me. Our family used to visit a local cavern attraction called Howe Caverns every summer and I loved it.


Well, fast-forward 40 years and here we are. Having visited some nice slot canyons out west several times over the past 4 years kind of started my weaning process of doing more adventuring in tight places. My girlfriend loves exploring caves, but with all the spelunking gear ans such. And though I am not ready for that, I decided that I would try to book a special tour of a place we were visiting over the fall called Luray (Loo-Ray) Caverns. She was super excited when I got the news they would provide me with a private off-hours tour so that I would have time to film all the areas of the caverns. I was, nervous but, I was excited too. Unfortunately, when we got there, the person that I thought was our guide, was actually another photographer. Still cool, though I thought this would be a solo excursion. Generally if I am by myself I get in a zone and am able to get the shots that I want. If others are around I tend to end up talking shop and missing the boat. This guy while a bit of a curmudgeon, was fairly quiet. 8am rolled in and we met our guide and the tour got started. Here we go! Down 3 flights of stair to the entrance.

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Luray Caverns was discovered on August 13, 1878 by five local men, including Andrew J. Campbell (a local tinsmith), his 13-year-old nephew Quint, and local photographer Benton Stebbins. Their attention had been attracted by a protruding limestone outcrop and by a nearby sinkhole noted to have cool air issuing from it. Seeking an underground cavern, the men started to dig and, about 4 hours later, a hole was created for the smallest men (Andrew and Quint) to squeeze through, slide down a rope and explore by candlelight. The first column they saw was named the Washington Column, in honor of the first United States President. Upon entering the area called Skeleton’s Gorge, bone fragments (among other artifacts) were found embedded in calcite. Other traces of previous human occupation included pieces of charcoal, flint, and human bone fragments embedded in stalagmite. A skeleton, thought to be that of a Native American girl, found in one of the chasms, was estimated, from the current rate of stalagmite growth, to be not more than 500 years old. Her remains may have slipped into the caverns after her burial hole collapsed due to a sinkhole, although the real cause is unknown.

The Explore

First impression upon getting to the first area is that this place is totally set with tourism in mind. The challenge is trying to shoot it like it isn’t. Just because there are walkways, railings and the such, doesn’t mean they represent the experience. Put in place to protect people from getting hurt but mostly to protect the cavern itself from people hurting it. They are extremely well situated as to not ruin the natural feel and look of the cave. Even the lighting is craftily hidden behind sculpted shades made to look like hollowed out formations. We start our walk-through. The first formation I see is called the Washington Column.

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They say it was named after our first president as it was the first major formation to greet explorer Andrew Campbell as he entered. Just imagine coming upon this thing in the dark with only a candle to light your way! It really reminds me of “The Destroyer” from the move Thor! See what I mean?

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While my reference may be a bit obscure, the caverns have inspired movies, television shows, and even video games. The 1977 movie “The Other Side of Midnight” with Susan Sarandon and several TV shows have been filmed at the location. And it is said that “Lamplight Caverns” from the video game Fallout 3 were loosely based on Luray Caverns. One of the more “famous” attractions of Luray Caverns that drew me to visit was an area called “Dream Lake”. A shallow pool of water that is mirror still. Little did I know that it was so close to the start of the tour.

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The lighting here is extremely difficult to manage. I ended up doing 3 exposure, 32bit HDR processing on these images and I really wish I would have taken at least 5 exposures. The dynamic range down here is extremely vast. A note on the water, even though it looks deep and scary, it is actually only about 18″ deep at its deepest point. Not the deepest water in the cavern itself, but it does have the biggest impact.

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Long about this point I turned to our awesome guide Tara Jewell and asked her how we were doing on time. She said, “we were about 30 minutes in to the 2 hour tour.” “Awesome”, I said, “And how much more do we have to visit?” “Oh, we are about 10% of the way”, she replied. Holy cow, I was completely amazed, and a little worried. I better get my butt in gear. Each shot down here was taking about 4 minutes to complete from composition to actually capturing the long exposures. Next stop was a cool area called the “Fish Market”. It totally looked like fish hanging in a row, even before I heard the title.

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Next stop was an area called the “Vegetable Garden” as this area contains almost all formation types found in the caverns…

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I have to say, beyond the technical side of it all, this was one of the most difficult places I have ever photographed. I was so overtaken by the wonder of it all that not only was my fear of closed in space completely obliterated, but I was having trouble concentrating on the job at hand. There was just so much to look at!

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There were several points along the tour that I just wanted to jump the rail and start exploring back in those caves and crevices! Maybe I have a new calling?

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I kept thinking to myself, wow this would make the most awesome home! It was long about then we entered an area called, “The Cathedral”.

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It earned its name three-fold. It’s the largest open cavern in the system. It has a glorious “cathedral-like” ceiling complete with a giant chandelier looking stalactite which looms precariously over my head as I take this next shot.

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It’s times like these that will put the fear of god in you! And to top it off, there is the StalacPIPE organ!

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A bit kitschy I will admit, but at one time, kitschy was cool! And I think this still is! The organ’s “pipes” are actually tuned cave formations all over the site. Each fitted with an electronic pickup that feeds a signal back to the organs amplifier when struck. It’s a very eerie but amazingly ethereal sound that definitely fits the mood of this place! Roll over Beethoven!

As we safely escape the perils of the cathedral we head off to our next stop known as “The Wishing Well”. Along the way some pretty amazing features surround the walkway. It’s easy to become completely inspired down here!

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As I walk over a rise in the pathway I see it. The Wishing Well!

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The Wishing Well gets its bright green colors from the copper pennies people toss in the pool. Contrary to popular belief the coins do not hurt the cave and all of the money is cleaned out and donated to local charities every year. The pool here is roughly 6ft deep and crystal clear. Right near the well is this amazing formation called the Giant Redwood. It’s the largest formation in the caverns so it is thought it is also the oldest. It’s 40ft tall, 120ft circumference at the base, and an estimated 7.5 million years old! At the time I took the photo I had no idea what it was called. Only in conversation with Tara when writing this article did I find out the name. As I look at it, it does make perfect sense.

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Probably my favorite formation is one called “Totem Pole Valley”. This just looks like an ancient city on some distant planet. By far, my favorite shot of the day!

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Time has run out, but Tara gives some bonus time to get our shots. She was really the super guide I was promised! Coming to near the end we visit the most awesome “Great Fallen Column” weighing in at no less than 400 tons! You can see it laying sideways at the bottom of this next photo.

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Like any place that amazes, it seem like I have only been down here for 30-45 minutes, when in reality we are pushing 3 hours. Initially, as a photographer you think, well there will be a set number of formations to capture. So you prepare yourself to be semi-systematic and in the first five minutes that goes right out the window. The final prominent formation we visit is called “Pluto’s Ghost”. It is said that Campbell kept catching a glimpse of this white calcite column as they explored the cavern but could not see it in its entirety. His lantern would cause the column to flash bright white against the darker formations in his periphery, hence the “Ghost” name.

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We finally get the curtain call and it’s time to head out. One last set of “Stebbins Avenue”, the walkway home on the way to the surface.

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Well, all good things must come to an end. Or do they? The empowerment that I walked away with that day will last me the rest of my life. It may seem like a small thing to you, but for me it was monumental. It feels good to be back on track again and I cannot wait to go back and get the other 30 shots I missed! Thanks for tagging along!



Check out the BONUS PHOTOS, not included in the story here: Bonus Gallery

The Explorographer™

Explore. Photograph. Write. Repeat.

A multi-award winning travel photographer and mentor. Most known for his "abandonscape" images. Creator and curator of and

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