Trip Report: Shenandoah Caverns

The Shenandoah Caverns were an afterthought. A stop on the way home from a long weekend trip, just XY and me. And they were breathtaking.

It wasn’t really an RV trip, because we drove the RV but stayed in a Massanutten, Virginia resort condo. We spent time with our friends, had some time at a water park, and XY and I managed to stretch a weekend into four days before we headed back to the DC suburbs.

I had decided we should stop and do something memorable along the way first. To us, first DC residents and then Marylanders, most of our time in Virginia is spent at National or Dulles Airports. So we don’t get down to the Commonwealth very often.

If you’re driving within 50 miles of Shenandoah National Park or Luray, Virginia, you’ll start to see signs pointing to Luray Caverns. It’s the one that’s in all the tourist literature. The grandest and best-known of the many Virginia caverns. And it’s the one we didn’t go see.

The Luray Caverns weren’t exactly on our route back to the house. And there might have been some grumbling about paying more than $40 for the two of us to go look in a cave. I’d been to Israel’s Soreq Cave as a child but have little memory of it. The last time we had a cavern visit was when we went to Put-in-Bay last summer. It was at the end of a winery tour that had pretty lousy wine. And there were some impressive rocks in that cave, but it was about the size of our living room. I couldn’t imagine paying $40 for something like that.

Then I caught a Google ad for the Shenandoah Caverns. On the way home. Near a potato chip factory. Virginia’s only caverns with an elevator, and a mile of walking on the tour. And only $34 for the two of us. Sold!

Wow, was I ever glad we made that choice.

First hopeful sign was when I pulled Roxanne into a parking space right by the front door of the place. During spring break, the day after Easter. The second was when we walked into the kind of homegrown, museum-meets-gift-shop type place we’ve seen so many times in our travels. A quick bathroom break and we sprinted for the elevator to meet our tour group. They take three loads of people down on a busy day, and I guess ours was a busy day. We probably had 30 people in our group, locals to tourists from the far east, and ages from stroller to grandparent.

What a magnificent space unrolled in front of us, as our knowledgeable tour guide (who had more than a decade of experience) explained the history of the caverns and turned the lights on and off to save energy.

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The caverns are privately-owned, though they’re protected by Virginia state law. Prior to the 1970s, it was perfectly legal to break off a piece of stalactite, put it in your pocket and take it home. Now, our guide explained, people aren’t even allowed to touch the rocks. The oils on our fingers prevent new minerals from attaching, preventing the cave from growing as it has for thousands of years.

Shenandoah has been a public attraction since 1922. It was discovered in 1884 by a couple of kids playing around a quarry during the construction of a railroad. Our guide told us they had only candles and ropes, and they came back up to the surface as soon as their candles started burning down too far. But this is all fairly recent history compared to the age of the cave itself.

It’s all a product of thousands of years of rain passing through limestone, and the confluence of two underground rivers. (Science geeks can read more about it here.) The formations are constantly growing, though only at millimeters a year. The temperature is 56 degrees down there, year round. Some of the rooms are many stories tall, and others required everyone taller than 5 feet to duck. (I’m used to ducking.) There are formations less than an inch thick, and there are huge stippled sheets of what looks like bacon.

The kid was impressed. And I was blown away. There’s nothing better than natural rock formations thousands of years old to remind a person that almost nothing he’s focused on during any given moment will matter in even a hundred years. It’s enough to make a person feel quite small. As I sometimes think we should feel, in the midst of trying to control every moment of every experience of every day when there are phenomena in the universe that are so much bigger than human understanding.

So it took a laptop, an internet connection, a credit card, an RV, the interstate highway system, internal combustion and electric light bulbs to bring us into the presence of this naturally-occurring phenomenon one recent Monday in Virginia. But I think I discovered something down there that is as old and basic as humanity itself.

As I’m doing my best to raise an 8-year-old, I tend to look for ways to keep her sense of wonder alive. I watch her in the grips of Cirque du Soleil or a Miyazaki movie or even a climbing wall at a birthday party, and I think about how my own sense of wonder doesn’t show itself as often as it should.

Trips like the one to Shenandoah Caverns make me glad it’s not gone forever.

Yes, we visited the Route 11 potato chip factory on the way out, but they don’t fry chips on Mondays. No “fry viewing” for us. But we did enjoy some free samples and picked up a couple bags on the way home.

Three vastly different things I enjoyed reading this week:

(The latter, a cautionary tale for all lifestyle bloggers and people who like to optimize things.)

Also published on Medium.

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  1. If you want another cool experience out in western VA, next weekend starts the apple blossom festival in Shenandoah. I used to go often when I worked at Washington Gas. It is s charming small town event.

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