Ask anyone what they love most about the Shenandoah Valley and “The views!” will be a common answer.
But some of the Valley’s best views are underground.
The Valley’s caverns have been awe-inspiring people for generations and they are as powerful an experience today as they ever were. Here’s a thumbnail guide to where they are and what you can expect.
Skyline Caverns— Exit 13 off I-66
Discovered by a retired geologist in 1937, Skyline Caverns, about a mile south of Front Royal, near the northern entry to Skyline Drive, offers one-hour tours reaching a depth of about 260 feet. The 1-1/8 – mile walk include stalactites, stalagmites, columns, “flow-stone,” anthodites, and aragonites. Skyline Caverns also features three flowing streams and a 37-foot waterfall. Kids love the additional treats of a mini-train ride and the Mirror Maze. A short nature trail provides the opportunity to see local wildlife.
Caves tend to be dark, of course, but an effective lighting system allows good views of highlights such as: The Capital Dome, Rainbow Trails, Painted Desert, Wishing Well, Grotto of Nativity, Cathedral Hall, Shrine, Fairyland Lake, Anthodite Clusters, Chandelier and more. (The Chandelier formation is believed to be the oldest known pure calcite anthodite—it’s an estimated 126,000 years old.) If the guide turns the lights off for a minute, you’ll understand what real darkness looks like. Finish your visit at the well-stocked gift shop to take home some memories.
Luray Caverns— Exit 264 off I-81
Just last month, Smithsonian Magazine named Luray one of its “20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2018.” The most compelling reason why is the world-famous Luray Caverns. Take a guided, 1.25-mile path through the cave to see a true geologic wonder–pools of water so clear they mirror the rocks above them, musical notes played on the Great Stalacpipe Organ, and staggering chambers filled with towering rock spires. Combinations of color—red, orange, brown, yellow and white—decorate the cave in a milieu of earth tones.
While the cave tour itself is the reason half a million people from all over the world visit, there are additional attractions on the Caverns’ complex, included in the price of admission. The Luray Valley Museum houses Shenandoah Valley artifacts back to the 1750s. Across the parking lot, the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum houses some of the rarest automobiles and carriages in the world.
Coming up August 11th, visitors will be able to experience the Caverns in a different light at the Grand Illumination—a celebration of the 140th anniversary of the cave’s discovery.
“The main attraction throughout Discovery Day will be the Grand Illumination Tours,” the Caverns’ John Shaffer told us. “The first Grand Illumination took place in 1878, when The New York Herald reported that a ‘thousand candles illuminated the antechambers making it nearly as bright as day.’ “This year,” Shaffer continued, “guides in period costumes will tell of Luray Caverns’ storied past in special candlelit sections throughout the caverns. After dusk, a dramatic fireworks display will light up the skies accompanied by a recital from the Luray Singing Tower — a 47-bell carillon located on the event’s perimeter.”
Shenandoah Caverns— Exit 269 off I-81
A ticket to Shenandoah Caverns, the closest cave to I-81, includes three other attractions— American Celebration on Parade, The Yellow Barn, and Main Street of Yesteryear. The American Celebration on Parade—a massive display of parade floats from presidential inaugurals, tournaments of roses and other venues—will have your children wide-eyed and gleeful. As for the cave itself, guided tours are about a mile long and take an hour. Seventeen chambers take you to places like Long View Hall, Rainbow Lake and Grotto of the Gods. And put two upcoming events on your calendar: August 4th is the Dog Days of Summer Beer Jam, featuring bluegrass and food trucks (BBQ, burgers, hot dogs and Mexican); November 10th is the annual “Shenandoah Corked” festival—Virginia wine, food, crafts and more.
Grand Caverns and Fountain Cave— Exit 235 off I-81
Grand Caverns is located in Grottoes, about 30 minutes south of Harrisonburg. A tour takes about an hour and a half, and there are a couple of geologic features that distinguish Grand Caverns from other caves in the Valley. One is Vertical Bedding – the caves of the Shenandoah Valley were formed in mostly horizontal limestone layers. At Grand Caverns the layers are vertical, turned on end by powerful tectonic forces. Another is Cave Shield Formations – Grand Caverns is known for its abundance of “shield formations,” though it is unknown exactly how these shields are formed. One theory is that as water is forced out of cracks in the cave wall, calcite crystallizes and a plate begins to grow. There are many other theories.
Grand Caverns also offers a very different underground experience with Adventure Tours of Fountain Cave — which has not been open to the public for nearly 100 years. There is no lighting in this cavern, and it can involve some serious climbing and crawling. Grand Caverns’ Nathan Garrison told us, “Throughout the summer, Grand Caverns will be offering our Adventure Tours very frequently. These tours are a two- hour long excursion, and it’s a down and dirty experience. Helmets, knee pads, and gloves provided. Please give us a call to schedule! Of course, Grand Caverns walking tours are offered daily from 9am – 5pm.”
Also available at Grand Caverns are: miniature golf, a swimming pool, fitness trail, hiking trail, cycling trail, fishing, picnic areas, and shelters for rent.
Endless Caverns— From I- 81 North take Exit 257; from I- 81 South, take Exit 269 540-896-2283
Discovered in 1879, Endless Caverns offers 75-minute guided tours, just under a mile long, of this cave, at the foot of Massanutten Mountain. Located about five miles from New Market, Endless Caverns may not be literally “endless,” but there are long sections that haven’t been explored. An expansive, pet-friendly campground can accommodate RVs and other vehicles on 265 scenic acres. Take a dip in the swimming pool, hike nearby Civil War trails, and explore local vineyards and breweries. A bath house, laundry, WiFi hotspots, game room, and recreation hall add to the appeal of a summer camping trip.
Caverns at Natural Bridge— Exits — 175 and 180 off I-81
Said to be the deepest commercial caverns on the East Coast. Open March through November, the cave can be toured in about 45 minutes, and trips usually begin on the hour. You’ll descend more than 34 stories underground and be awed by the Colossal Dome, Mirror Lake, the Well Room and the Canyon Room. Stop at the Gift Shop on your way out. Just in: The caverns are part of a new offer from the Natural Bridge Historic Hotel and Conference Center called the Adventure Package. It includes: Two night accommodation for 2 adults and 2 children; breakfast for all each morning; four tickets to The Caverns at Natural Bridge, Natural Bridge State Park, Natural Bridge Zoo, and Dinosaur Kingdom II. Learn more here.
Note on Caverns apparel: Temperatures in the Valley caverns hover around the 50s all year, so take a light jacket or sweater. Wear comfortable walking shoes and watch out for spots that are slippery or uneven.
Lead Photo of Cathedral Hall courtesy Grand Caverns. Inset photo Luray Caverns.