Go underground to beat the heat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's August in Baltimore, and it's hazy, hot and humid. By now the fun and novelty of summer have surely worn off. Who cares about getting a tan, hitting the beach or driving with the top down anymore, when all you really want to do is stop sweating?

Actually, there is a place where it's always cool -- 100 feet underground. Even when it's 100 degrees outside, inside an underground cavern it's a cool 52-54 degrees all year long.

There are close to 100 commercial caves in the United States, and plenty are within a three-hour drive of Baltimore. If you're planning a trip to any of the caverns listed below, it's a good idea to wear comfortable shoes suitable for walking, as walkways can be wet and gravelly. Most children will enjoy a cavern tour, but very small children may be frightened to be underground for an entire hour. Strollers are often not permitted inside caverns. You may also want to take a sweater.

Maryland

Crystal Grottoes Caverns

19821 Shepherdstown Pike, Boonsboro, 301-432-6336. www.goodearthgraphics.com/showcave/md/crystal.html. Drive time: 1 hour

Crystal Grottoes is the only commercial cavern in Maryland. During the 40-minute guided tour, you'll find natural rock formations such as "The King on His Throne," "Fairyland" and a "chandelier" of pure white stalactites.

Hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April to October, weekends only from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. November to March.

Admission: $8.50 for adults, $4.50 for kids under 12, $7.50 for seniors.

Pennsylvania

Indian Echo Caverns

368 Middletown Road, Hummelstown (near Hershey). 717-566-8131. www.indianechocaverns.com. Drive time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

It is estimated that these caverns are close to 440 million years old. More than 450 years ago, the Susquehannock Indians were likely the first people to fully explore these caverns, using them as a way to escape the heat and store food. The caverns have been open commercially since 1929.

Hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. all other times; closed on major holidays.

Admission: $9 for adults; $8 for seniors over 62; $5 for children ages 3-11; free for children 2 and under.

Lincoln Caverns

U.S. 22 (William Penn Highway), Huntingdon. 814-643-0268. www.lincolncaverns.com. Drive time: 3 hours

In addition to touring the natural wonders underground, Lincoln Caverns offers visitors a chance to pan for their own gem stones. There are also nature trails, a picnic area and even a meditation chapel. Kids can check out the "Cave Crawl," where they can don knee pads and a miner's helmet and explore their own kid-size cave.

Hours: Open daily at 9 a.m., last tour leaves at 6 p.m. July 1 to Labor Day; at 5 p.m. Memorial Day Weekend to June 30; and at 4 p.m. March to May and September to November. Open for tours in December at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Special hours in October for haunted cave tours.

Admission: $9.50 adults; $8.50 for seniors 65 and older; $5.50 for children ages 5 -12; and free for children 4 and under.

Lost River Caverns

Route 412, Hellertown, 610-838-8767. www.lostcave.com. Drive time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

In addition to the caverns with five rooms of natural rock formations, Lost River features the Gilman Museum, home to rare fossils, unique minerals and gems and one of the area's largest private collections of antique weapons; a tropical garden filled with plants, an indoor waterfall and fish pond; and the underground Crystal Chapel, where more than 80 weddings have been performed.

Hours: Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. all other times; closed on major holidays.

Admission: $8 for adults, $4 for ages 3 to 12.

Crystal Cave Park

963 Crystal Cave Road, Kutztown, 610-683-6765. www.crystalcavepa.com. Drive time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, the caverns of Crystal Cave Park offer a variety of natural rock formations resembling everything from a totem pole to an ice cream cone. The park also has a rock museum, Amish buggy rides and a miniature golf course.

Hours: Weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the remainder of the year. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in May and Labor Day to the end of September; and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in March, April, October and November.

Admission: $8.50 for adults; $5 for children 4 -11; and free for children 3 and under.

Penn's Cave

222 Penns Cave Road, Centre Hall. 814.364.1664. www.pennscave.com. Drive time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Formed from a shallow sea millions of years ago, Penn's Cave bears the distinction of being the only all-water cavern. The one-hour tour of the cavern is by boat. As you tour the underground cave, you'll see brook, brown and rainbow trout swimming beneath you. Penn's Cave also has a wildlife park with wolves, elk and bison.

Hours: Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 15 to May 31 and Sept. 1 to Nov. 30; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. June to August; and weekends only from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in December.

Admission: $11 for adults; $10 for seniors; $5.25 for children 2 to 12; and free for children 1 and under.

Virginia

Skyline Caverns

U.S. 340, Front Royal. 800-296-4545. www.skylinecaverns.com. Drive time: 2 hours

Skyline Caverns is at the northern entrance to the Shenandoah National Park. There are eight show caverns in the state. Skyline is the only one that has formations known as anthodites, the "orchids of the mineral kingdom." Appearing as delicate white spikes on a cave ceiling, anthodites grow just one inch every 7,000 years.

Hours: Daily from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. from June 15 to Labor Day; weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 15 to June 14 and Labor Day to Nov. 14; and daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 15 to March 14.

Admission: $14 for adults, $7 for children 7 to 13 and free for children 6 and under.

Luray Caverns

970 U.S. Highway 211 West, Luray. 540-743-4531. www.luraycaverns.com. Drive time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Luray is the largest, most popular and probably best-known cavern on the East Coast. Among Luray's attractions is its "Stalacpipe Organ." The organ's pipes are stalactite formations from the cavern and it really works. Music is usually piped into the listening chamber, but occasionally an organist performs live. Luray also features an antique car museum, a bell tower, an outdoor garden maze and its own motel and golf club resort.

Hours: Daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. from June 15 to Labor Day; daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 15 to June 14 and Labor Day to Oct. 31; and weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 1 to March 14.

Admission: $17 for adults; $15 for seniors; $8 for children 7 to 13; and free for children 6 and under.

One last thing ...

A stalagmite grows up from the floor to the ceiling, and a stalactite grows down from the ceiling to the floor.

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