Tucked into the rolling hillside of Quicksburg, Virginia, conveniently located off the highway, and very conveniently located near the post-office, Shenandoah Caverns has been aweing generations of people who can be convinced to go into a dark hole in the earth with strangers. Opened to the public in 1922, Shenandoah Caverns has worked hard ever since to distinguish itself from local competitors in the casual spelunking game, a tough feat when one such cave boasts a functional pipe organ made from stalagmites. So, at various times, Shenandoah Caverns has dug deep in order to stay ahead of the curve, installing an elevator – the first cave in the country to take this bold step and still the only of its kind in Virginia– that descends a whopping 60 feet, illuminating formations in a color palette that would make Prince blush, hosting wedding ceremonies underground (and what better way for newlyweds to send the “nowhere-to-go-but-up-from-here” message?), creating satellite attractions around the facility aboveground, and sprinkling the looping half-mile interior with plywood fantasy sprites.
While the Caverns have captured a certain kitschy charm, it excels in its more natural features. Its “Capitol Dome” so much resembled the U.S. Capitol building that, when I squinted at it, I could almost make out tiny Congress members not accomplishing much. The room housing the “Diamond Cascade,” shimmering like, well, a cascade of diamonds, was truly stunning, and not just because the flowstones were cast in unfiltered light instead of the lime green or hot pink shining on much of the other rocks.
And the thin drapery formations of naturally red-streaked pale limestone, or “Breakfast Bacon,” proliferating the caverns looked delicious. In fact, as the tour guide was quick to point out and, thereby, draw attention to the Caverns’s biggest claim to fame, this same bacon rock was once featured in National Geographic . . . in 1964. As they say, memories are long and deep in cave country. To be fair, that’s one more time than I’ve been featured in the magazine.
Lest a tourist get too carried away by the natural beauty, however, Shenandoah Caverns is quick to remind visitors of both its comfortable campiness as well as the legality of eating cave bacon. At several intervals and hiding in some unexpected alcoves loom painted wooden elves with sinister gleams in their eyes, which is far less exciting than it sounds, provided that you are even remotely intrigued by the idea of cryptozoological carpentry. Unlike elves of either the Keebler or Tolkien variety, the Shenandoah Caverns fey neither inspire one to salivate nor to question one’s sexuality, respectively, but rather mildly, and by way of placard, rebuke against touching rocks.
Humans, I am sorry to say, are greasy, and rocks are sensitive creatures. (And, also, elves are nosy, apparently.) The oil gushing forth from our bodies at any given minute, including as you read right now, can coat a mineral’s surface and kill formation growth by preventing sediment in water drops from clinging to an area and building up into, say, a stalagmite over the centuries; excessive contact with us dirty hominids could have devastating results. And, while the ability to kill a cave may look good on paper, it isn’t the best idea to go stomping around like a creature from the pages of Never-Ending Story. Besides, if the Shenandoah elves can be believed, it’s a misdemeanor in Virginia, carrying up to a $500 fine, i.e. roughly the cost of a new casebook. So please, dear readers, keep your hands where we can see them.
Gift Shop: Back on the surface level, many other delights await. Need a memento of your visit to the renowned Shenandoah Caverns of ’64 NatGeo fame? Exit through the gift shop, and for once, the purple and cotton-candy blue agate souvenir is fitting. Feeling hungry from perusing the rocks and magnets? Grab an oldschool malt and a sandwich in the diner in said gift shop. Want to mail a postcard you just bought from the gift shop? The town post-office is, you guessed it, in the gift shop.
Main Street of Yesteryear: Who needs sleep? On the second floor of the main building, smiling animated dolls shamble around in glass displays, eternally living out scenes of carnival shows and continental balls above the heads of innocent gift shop mailers and malt-drinkers. If this was what “yesteryear” was like, the past was a truly frightening place.
American Celebration on Parade: A safe distance from Main Street of Yesteryear but still somewhat unnerving, this hall boasts a massive collection of old parade floats from various Mardi Gras krewes and sports bowls. It is open seasonally, including a special “American Fright Night” event running in late October.
The Yellow Barn: Ogle antique farm equipment, pet a goat, taste and/or buy wine, not necessarily in that order.
In sum, as Plato taught us long ago, some people see better in caves than other people. But, in Shenandoah Caverns, everyone can enjoy cave elves, rainbow-colored spotlights on stalactites, and seriously stunning formations given the proper, no-frills lighting they deserve.