Fall is the ideal time to visit the mountains and valley to our west. In our September 2023 issue, we reveal where to go for great hikes and how to see the area by plane or by car. Plus, we’ve found the best places to eat, drink, and shop — and where to kick back and stay awhile.
Mountain views, lush forests, and meandering hiking trails may be the main attractions, but there’s a lot more to see along the Shenandoah Valley than meets the eye. To get the whole picture, you’ll need to tunnel (literally) beneath the surface.
Several of Virginia’s more than 4,400 natural caves are located near Shenandoah National Park. Some have been developed over the years into show caves, or caverns, that are open to the public for study and enjoyment. Some of the most popular are Skyline, Luray, and Shenandoah caverns.
“Virginia’s caverns offer a breathtaking panorama of subterranean beauty,” says Andrew Cothern, director of communications at Virginia Tourism Corporation. “Many visitors to the area are unaware that some of the most spectacular creations formed over time are right beneath their feet.”
Luckily for fans of those wonderous mineral formations known as stalagmites and stalactites, exploring caverns is a year-round, all-weather activity in Virginia. Temperatures in caverns generally stay in the mid-50s, so bring a sweater, plus comfortable shoes for walking along rocky, and often puddled, paths. For those with young children, it helps to explain beforehand the importance of not touching formations, keeping a low voice, and staying on tour paths. Not all caverns are stroller- or wheelchair-friendly, so check the websites and plan ahead.
Skyline Caverns is one of the few places in the world to view crystal anthodite formations, including The Chandelier, the world’s oldest and largest known anthodite at 18 inches long. Home to three underground streams, Skyline’s not-to-miss formations include the 37-foot Rainbow Waterfall, the multicolored Painted Desert, the Wishing Well (which you can drop money into), and the spacious Cathedral Hall, which is even rented out as a wedding venue.
Cost: Cavern tours: $28 adults, $14 children, free for kids 5 and under. For an additional $7, the Skyline Arrow miniature train offers 10-minute outdoor rides spring through fall, weather permitting. For another $7, the Enchanted Dragon Mirror Maze provides dizzy, disorienting fun for all ages.
Hours: Open 365 days a year, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Location: 1 mile from the northern entrance to Skyline Drive. 10344 Stonewall Jackson Hwy., Front Royal
This U.S. Natural Landmark is the largest and most visited cavern in the eastern United States. Well-lit, paved walkways guide visitors through cathedral-sized rooms with 10-story-high ceilings. All formations are of calcite, a crystalline form of limestone. Highlights include spark-ling lakes that reflect mirrored images of the wonders above, as well as the world’s largest musical instrument, the Great Stalacpipe Organ, which plays symphonic-quality music from connected ancient stalactites. Admission includes a cavern tour, access to the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, Shenandoah Heritage Village, and Toy Town Junction.
Cost: $32 adults, $29 seniors, $16 children, free for kids 5 and under. Additional fees for Gem Sluice, Garden Maze, and Ropes Adventure Park.
Hours: Open 365 days a year, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closing varies by season)
Location: 9 miles from the Thornton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive. 101 Cave Hill Rd., Luray
Here, you can view 17 rooms of crystallized formations, including Long View Hall and Grotto of the Gods, both with cathedral-like ceilings, and the Diamond Cascade made of shimmering white calcite crystals. Don’t miss the rippled Breakfast Bacon formation or the dramatically lit Rainbow Lake. Before leaving, drop a postcard from America’s smallest post office, located in the lobby. Admission includes a cavern tour and access to Main Street of Yesteryear, featuring animated department store displays dating back to the 1940s.
Cost: $32 adults, $28 seniors, $15 children, free for kids 5 and under. Additional fees for American Celebration on Parade (colorful floats from famous national parades) and Gemstone Mining Sluice (both open seasonally).
Hours: Open every day except December 25, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closing varies by season)
Location: 1 mile from I-81. 261 Caverns Rd., Quicksburg
Feature image of Luray Caverns, Bruno/stock.adobe.com
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