Shenandoah Caverns: 100 years of colorful caving

On the outskirts of New Market lies yet another worthwhile cavern adventure in the form of Shenandoah Caverns.

Although not as heavily marketed as nearby Luray Caverns, Shenandoah has its own unique charm that make the hour tour notable. Driving onto the property you are greeted with several incongruous, larger than life (Ok, cheesy) cartoonish statues that likely make little kids go gaga.

Again, like the recent tour of Luray, I had the place mostly to myself. After taking an old-fashioned elevator with a metal gated door down 200-plus feet below, I joined up with a tour guide and a trucking couple visiting from Minnesota.

Shenandoah is celebrating its 100th year of discovery this year. Unlike Luray that was discovered by grown men, Shenandoah was stumbled upon by two intrepid boys (where were the parents?).

In October 1884, when the Southern Railway line was being built through Shenandoah County, Virginia, local farmer Abraham Neff agreed to let the railway quarry limestone from his property, located alongside the railroad.

One Sunday while the workers were away, Neff’s sons were playing in the quarry when they felt cool air rising from a hole in the ground. They retrieved ropes and candles and scrambled down a 275-foot twisting and winding shaft. At the bottom, they discovered a huge, dark room filled with stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone.

They were too afraid to venture farther, so they went back up the shaft and told the family about their discovery. The family explored the cave further and discovered the large caverns system beyond the original room.

History of Shenandoah Caverns website
Like the underside of a field of carrots, many of the cavern features look like objects found in nature.

These caverns are a little bit more, well, “cavier” than some of the other tours taken. At times, although there is a large gravel pathway (which took two years to construct), the visitor must occasionally duck-walk to get into various rooms. Be careful not to bean your head – my fellow tourist who was well over six-feet tall, was saved from a goose-egg by his hat.

The tour guide will at one point, turn off all the lights so you get the spooky effect of being totally in the dark. Conversely, colorful lights abound, as some features are lit up by the guide with the flip of a switch into a fairyland.

The natural, shallow underwater lake (with unnatural lighting).

Unlike other cave experiences, Shenandoah was formed millions of years ago by both earthquake and river water. The river layers are evident in the rock wall as you travel through the exhibit. A fun fact I did not know before this tour is the stalactites and stalagmites that make these tours so enjoyable, need water to “live” and continue to grow.

This mineral feature towards the end of the tour looks like a melted wedding cake.
Craving a BLT?

Once the tour ends, you have the option of taking the ancient elevator, or skip the gym that night and take the stairs back to the gift shop. A side feature that is worth seeing (if you have kids, or crave a 60’s flashback) is the animatronic Main Street of Yesteryear. The glass display sound and motion ramps up as you walk through, featuring Cinderella’s carriage and other fairy-like scenarios.

End the tour with a bang (and a gasp!)

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