There’s no getting around it: The caverns of the Chesapeake watershed have an exit-though-the-gift-shop veneer.
At Shenandoah Caverns, a large Statue of Liberty replica greets visitors and flags flap in the mountain winds around a giant Cootie bug. A few miles down the road, Endless Caverns has imitated the Hollywood sign. Visitors to Luray Caverns end their tour with a peek at beautifully restored antique cars and a museum of farm equipment — after, of course, a stop at the fudge counter.
These are not places where you can disappear into nature, exploring crevices and formations and pondering the stories behind them. These are places with paved walkways, scripted tours and tour bus-filled parking lots.
Yet, to dismiss the caves as tourist attractions would be to miss something spectacular where each mountain of ivory, each strip of russet, and each ceiling glowing of blue magnesium has its turn to shine.
Most caves in the Shenandoah were formed millions of years ago. Over time, water seeped into the karst, a formation composed of limestone, dolomite and gypsum. The water mixed with carbon dioxide, became acidic and dissolved the calcite that is karst’s main mineral to create fissures in the rock, which allowed air in and caused the acid to evaporate and the rocks to harden. Over thousands of years, dripping water created stalactites, which hang from the ceiling, and stalagmites, which grow from the ground. Caves keep a temperature of 55 degrees year-round, making them cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Bay Journeys visited four of the Shenandoah’s caves with the hope of discerning each one’s personality. Turns out that if you’ve seen one cave, you really haven’t seen them all. So take a weekend and settle in to a centrally located cave town — New Market or Luray — and prepare for a spectacular geology lesson.
The Carlsbad Caverns of the East
There’s a reason Luray Caverns is the most famous of the Shenandoah’s so-called show caves. All of the famous formations are there — the “stalacpipe” organ, the Giant’s Hall, which features stalactite columns, and the Dream Lake that reflects the splendor of the formations. If you want to be wowed, these caverns, near Luray, VA, are the place.
For $24 a person, why shouldn’t you expect a wow? Plus, the price includes a tour of the Luray Valley Museum and the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum.
The hour-long tour follows a brick walkway that stops at the key formations, including one that looks like bacon and eggs. Children will remember this for a lifetime.
Yet what Luray delivers in wows, it lacks in intimacy. More than 500,000 visitors tour the caverns every year. About 150 people were on tour with us, which made it difficult to stop and look at the less impressive formations and almost impossible to pose questions. Still, it is absolutely worth a visit.
History on the Walls
Scrawl your name on a Grand Caverns wall today, and you’ll likely be in trouble. But such rules weren’t in place 150 years ago, when Civil War soldiers left their marks here in large numbers. Now, their signatures are as intriguing as the caverns.
Grand Caverns opened in 1806, making it the oldest show cave in the nation. In the early days, it was an expedition for the adventurous, who took an eight-hour tour with torches and ladders.
You’ll have it much easier. Grand Caverns is nestled into the mountainside near the town of Grottoes, a few miles off Interstate 81. The caverns are grand, but the setting is homey — a quaint town park with a visitors’ center built in the style of an old German lodge, which once housed tourists who arrived at the caverns by train.
Grand Caverns is a happy medium of impressive chambers and geologic formations, with a more intimate storytelling feel. The 70-minute tour is sprinkled with tales of soldiers, torch lights and water jugs. One chamber, known as the Grand Ballroom, was the scene of parties in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when more than 100 people would dance by candlelight to live music.
You’ll also get a look at the rare “shield” formations that hang from the cavern ceilings like lopsided flying saucers.
A Parade of Wonders
Just off Interstate 81, just north of New Market, VA, next to a feed mill, stands a giant replica of the Statue of Liberty in front of what looks like a souvenir shop. Ask to purchase a ticket to the caverns, and the woman at the front desk will ask you if you would also like to tour the parade float museum.
You do. Strange as it sounds, just behind the admissions hall are giant, intricate floats that have been featured in every major parade in the nation, from the Rose Bowl to the last 12 presidential Inaugurations. King Tut is there, along with a Chinese Dragon, a family of bunnies and an iridescent American flag that is about the size of a Baltimore city block.
It’s all there because Earl Hargrove, the caverns’ owner, has a business designing the floats.
It gets even better; Hargrove has designed an exhibit space upstairs from the caverns to showcase department-store windows of yesteryear. Children can press the buttons and watch a miniature circus or Cinderella in her carriage. Though these other attractions are not the primary reason most people come, they are a pleasant surprise.
In the cave, colored lights show off a rainbow lake, like a Cro-Magnon discotheque. A white-capped formation looks like the capitol dome. The cave also has plenty of “cave bacon,” gorgeous rust-and-white formations.
Our guide, J.P. Rohrbaugh, was terrific — knowledgeable and enthusiastic. With 13 of us on the tour, he had time to address questions. The cave is handicap-accessible.
After touring Shenandoah Caverns, we appreciated the intimacy of a smaller tour, but were not prepared for what we found at Endless Caverns, which announces itself with a Hollywood-like sign in the mountains outside New Market. A family of three joined our party of two, and a young woman with a flashlight took us to an old-fashioned door with a padlock.
The woman, who introduced herself as Caitlin, didn’t have a key, so the man from the gift shop opened the door. Before he did, he looked at the group and said, “you sure you want to go in there?” It would be cold, he said. But Caitlin assured him it was 55 degrees all year.
As we descended the steps, Caitlin said she’d been giving Endless Caverns for five months. That was reassuring, until she said she doesn’t do them often anymore because she is now a high school senior. We’d just have to hope that Endless did eventually end, and that Caitlin knew the way out.
Of all the caverns, Endless felt the most like a cave. Instead of wide walkways, there were narrow crevices. It was hard to imagine pushing a stroller, as people do at Luray. Because of concerns about algae growth, management keeps the lights off; guides turn them on as groups pass through.
We felt intrepid hiking through the formations with little besides a flashlight to guide us.
In 1879, two boys hunting rabbits discovered this cave. Called Endless because no terminus was ever found, the cave is about five miles long. One mile is available for exploration.
Six-thousand visitors a year journey into Endless’ crevices, and it’s hard to find a brochure for the place. But in the 1920s, when the cave opened it was quite an attraction.
The cavern even has its own airstrip. Well-dressed dignitaries flew in, according to local historian Paul J. Murphy, who owns a bed and breakfast and is working on a history of the caverns.
Today, Morgan Management, a New York real estate company, owns the caverns and the adjacent RV campground.
Got a craving for caving?
The Shenandoah Valley has the bulk of the region’s show caves, and basing a trip in the region is the easiest way to see them all. But the Chesapeake Watershed is home to a smattering of other caves that are well worth a visit. Hours vary in the winter season, check before making plans. Here are a few:
- Penn’s Cave, in Centre Hall, PA, includes a wildlife park. For just the cave, tickets for adults are $16.95; $8.95 for ages 2–12. This cave, near State College, is the only cave around that offers a tour by motorboat. For details: 814-364-8778; www.pennscave.com.
- Laurel Caverns, in Farmington, PA, located 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, is just outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed. What sets these caverns apart is that they offer a real spelunking experience instead of just the traditional guided tour. They also offer rappeling, for an additional fee. Tickets cost $11 for adults, $9 for grades 6–12, and $8 for grades K–5. For details: 724-438-6090 or www.laurelcaverns.com.
- Crystal Grottoes, in Boonsboro, MD, was discovered by highway workers as they were quarrying limestone to pave Route 34 in 1920. Almost a century later, it is Maryland’s only show cave. Visitors coming from Central Maryland or the Eastern Shore can stop at Crystal Grottoes on their way to the Shenandoah. Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for ages 11 and younger. For details: 301-432-6336 or www.crystalgrottoescaverns.com.