A Great hangout!
Day-trippin’ Destination: Crystal Grottoes Caverns
See breathtaking rock formations during a tour of Maryland’s only show cave.
I’d been meaning to visit the Crystal Grottoes Caverns near Boonsboro for years, so when I heard about the state-of-the-art LED lighting installed last year and a newly opened passageway, I thought it was the perfect time to get a glimpse of Maryland’s only show cave. On a recent sunny spring Thursday afternoon that coincidentally was far too nice to spend sitting at my computer, I hopped in my car and hit the road.
When I arrived at my destination, I was greeted by cave tour guide James Klispie and joined by three others, Bill Watkins and his two children, Camron, 11, and Abby, 9, from Connecticut. They were visiting the area during spring break and found a brochure for the Crystal Grottoes Caverns in their hotel room, they told me. “I like to take them places on vacation, like my parents did when I grew up,” Watkins said when I asked what had brought them to Washington County. “There’s a big, wide world out there, so it’s nice to get out and see it.”
Klispie began the 35-minute tour by leading us down the stairs from the first floor of the stone building that guards the entrance to the caverns. The caverns were discovered on September 18, 1920, during a quarry operation, Klispie explained when we reached the bottom of the stairs and gazed around the long chamber, but they’re actually far, far older than that. “All of these formations are around 250 million years old,” he continued as we trekked deeper into the caverns, which are comfortable 54 degrees Fahrenheit year round. “And they say the bedrock itself is somewhere around 4 billion years old,” he added. The cave was opened to the public in 1922.
Prior to its discovery, there was no natural entrance or exit to the cave, according to Klispie. “It’s a karst topography type of cavern, and they generally don’t have natural entrances,” he said. “They also generally don’t have this massive of formations or get anywhere near this big—it’s really one in a million.”
As we toured a thousand square feet of high, narrow passages and a few larger “rooms” filled with formations like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, ribbons, and drapes, Klispie pointed out several particularly awe-inspiring formations like Snowcap Mountain, a formation of rimstone pools that looks like it could be made of ice rather than pure-white calcite crystals, and some huge drapes that are believed to be the oldest formations in the caverns. He also showed us some “cave bacon,” a drapery formation recognized by the iron oxide that makes reddish-brown stripes, giving it a bacon-like appearance.
“We have more than 3,000 square feet mapped, and unfathomable depths of cavern,” Klispie said as he shone his flashlight into a seemingly endless tunnel lined with gleaming formations. The formations are still growing, too, at a rate of one cubic inch every 100 to 150 years, he added.
Before we headed above ground, Klispie showed us an underground lake and took us through the new Tri-State Passageway, named after the Tri-State Grotto speleological group that helped with the excavation and opened in April last year. It’s nearly 100 feet long and packed with sparkling formations, which are made even more impressive by the new powerful LED lighting. “This is the most natural way to light a cave,” said Jerry Downs, third-generation owner of the Crystal Grottoes Caverns, when we spoke after the tour. “And when it comes to pure white stalactites, I’m telling you, pure white light sets them off like nothing else.”
Downs said he strives to keep the caverns as natural as possible. “Other than the lights, there’s nothing about them that’s man-made,” he said. “And if you look at the awesomeness and the uniqueness of each formation, what can you compare that to?”
To learn more, call 240-217-7623 or visit www.crystalgrottoescaverns.com.
Crystal Grottoes Caverns
19821 Shepherdstown Pike
Boonsboro, MD 21713
Adults Admission: $20
Kids 11 & Younger Admission: $10