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Beneath its lush green surface, the Shenandoah Valley is like Swiss cheese—its deep limestone layer riddled with holes where water has dissolved the rock. The holes are caves, and the calcite-laden water, over millions of years, created fantastic stone formations, drip by drip.
In places like Natural Bridge State Park (6477 S. Lee Hwy., Natural Bridge; 540-291-1324), parts of collapsed caverns appear above ground—in this case, as a 215-foot-high stone arch. Historians believe that the “G.W.” on Natural Bridge was carved by young George Washington on a 1750 surveying trip.
Virginia has more than 4,000 caves, most “wild,” or unaltered by humans. Six in the Valley are “show caves,” with lights, smooth paths, and admission fees. Arguably the Valley’s first tourist attractions, these show caves date to 1806, when part of Grand Caverns opened. It’s the nation’s oldest cave concession.
Each of the Shenandoah caves is unique, but all have a few things in common: The temperature is about 55 degrees, cell phones won’t work, you’ll probably get dripped on (a “cave kiss” is considered good luck), and “no touching” is a strict rule because oils from skin can stop the progress of a formation that grows a cubic inch every 120 years. In the presence of millions of years of nature’s handiwork, respect is warranted.
The only place in the US where you can see extremely rare anthodites, beautiful six-sided crystals of white calcite. 10344 Stonewall Jackson Hwy., Front Royal; 540-635-4545.
The East Coast’s largest cave system is home to spectacular calcite “draperies,” some so thin they’re translucent. 101 Cave Hill Rd., Luray; 540-743-6551.
The state’s only cavern elevator opens onto a mile-long gravel path through 17 chambers. The “breakfast bacon” formation and “waterfall” walls are striking. 261 Caverns Rd., Quicksburg; 540-477-3115.
No end has been found, but there are six miles of explored passages. The 75-minute tour includes gigantic chambers with spooky crevices. 1800 Endless Caverns Rd., New Market; 540-896-2283.
Cave walls bear more than 200 signatures of Civil War soldiers, but the cavern is best known for hundreds of disk-like “shields.” 5 Grand Caverns Dr., Grottoes; 540-249-5705.
The East Coast’s deepest cavern has passages 349 feet underground. The vast Colossal Dome Room is a main attraction, along with Mirror Lake. 6313 S. Lee Hwy., Natural Bridge; 540-291-2482.
This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Washingtonian.