Geologists love the Shenandoah Valley for its wealth of natural formations and what they can teach us about the history of the earth. But you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy the Valley’s offerings. Here’s a roundup of tourable hotspots that range from extensive cave systems to exposed rock edifices and interesting water features. You’ll take wonderful photographs and there’s plenty to excite your inner geology student. We’ve also included a collection of fun facts about the localities to help you shine at local trivia.
Caverns In The Shenandoah Valley
Limestone and dolostone make up much of the Shenandoah Valley’s bedrock. Millions of years of rain and underground water have washed the soft rock away, leaving extensive underground cavern systems. Many of these caverns, spread up and down the Valley, are open commercially to the public. Wear comfortable walking shoes and prepare to be wowed by one of nature’s coolest displays.
- Open since 1806, Grand Caverns (Grottoes) is a National Natural Landmark as well as the oldest commercial “show cave” in the country. Visitors can take a 70-minute walking tour or opt to get dirty on one of the extensive rugged tours.
- The Caverns at Natural Bridge reach 34 stories deep and offer wonderful views of stalactites, stalagmites, underground water features, and much more, including the impressive Colossal Dome Room.
- Civil War buffs will love Melrose Caverns (Harrisonburg). Not only can you explore the site’s interesting geological features, but you’ll also explore areas used by soldiers during the war. The caverns have protected these spaces from the elements, and visitors can still see well-preserved drawings and name carvings in the rock.
- Endless Caverns (New Market) offers at least six miles of subterranean passages and rooms. Take a tour to see massive spaces and some really cool highlights including natural basins and shield formations.
- Luray Caverns is the largest and best-known cavern in the eastern part of the country. Visitors can expect to explore paved and lighted walkways and large rooms with impressive formations like the Great Stalactite Organ and ceilings as high as ten stories.
- Skyline Caverns (Front Royal) offers one-hour guided tours. You’ll learn about the site’s anthodite crystals that grow in all directions including the Chandelier, which is the largest and oldest of this type. Don’t forget to stop in the Rock Shop to add to your rock and crystal collection at home.
- Experience the stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone formations that formed over millions of years on your tour of the 17 rooms in elevator-accessible Shenandoah Caverns. The caverns cover 64 acres and were formed by underground rivers and acid-bearing water seepage. Be sure to follow your tour with a visit to the onsite Main Street of Yesteryear and American Celebration on Parade exhibits that let visitors get close to intricate animated store window displays and parade floats.
The Blue Ridge Mountains started forming hundreds of millions of years ago with slow-moving, but dramatic shifts in the Earth’s tectonic plates. Remains of the ancient Grenville mountain range, lava flows, and sediment from an inland sea called Iapetus formed the main geographic units in Shenandoah National Park. The Appalachian Mountains peaked 350-400 million years ago and are slowly eroding, exposing the area’s many fascinating natural formations.
- Natural Bridge State Park gives guests a chance to gaze in awe at the 215-foot limestone bridge that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. The bridge is part of a massive chunk of limestone compressed by an inland sea 500 million years ago. In a case of “stream piracy” Cedar Creek flowed through the rock and carved the gorge. The bridge is the last remaining part. Visitors can hike 6+ miles of trails, play at a recently built Children’s Discovery Area, and take advantage of the park’s official dark-sky park status.
- Natural Chimneys (Mt. Solon) is an imposing 120-foot natural limestone formation rising up like a castle at Natural Chimneys Park and Campground. This small park offers both open fields and 2.5 miles of wooded trails. You’ll find close and distant vantage points of the chimneys as well as other scenic views from overlooks.
- Follow Belfast Trail (Rockbridge County) for a three-mile out-and-back hike to Devil’s Marbleyard. This unique landscape is a tumble of huge rocks that are fun to clamber over and around, the result of freeze-and-thaw weather patterns. This area was once an ancient beach that’s been compressed into sandstone and quartzite, and you can even see fossilized evidence of creatures that once lived in the sand. You’ll also catch some nice views of the surrounding mountains. The hike can be extended to an 8-miler if hikers want a bigger challenge.
- Harrisonburg was once called “Rocktown” because of the massive boulders that populated the city’s town square. The stones have been removed, but the nickname remains. You can still see plenty of rocks in the surrounding countryside. Rockingham County’s 4.5-mile Massanutten Ridge trail winds along Massanutten’s rocky ridge and provides incredible views of the surrounding mountains. You’ll see a hang-gliding launch site and a wide view of the resort’s ski slopes.
- Shenandoah National Park’s Chimney Rock hike is a 3.4-mile out-and-back hike that boasts a tumbled rock talus slope and two nice overlooks. It can be extended to the 10-mile hike.
- Front Royal’s long history of trade, transportation, and recreation connected to the Shenandoah River and have earned it the title of “Canoe Capital of Virginia”! It has both the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River running through, and nearby waters are appropriate for both beginners and experienced paddlers.
There are several free access, public spring-fed mineral water sites that are outstanding for drinking, coffee, and even home brewing in the mountains of Frederick County. One is on the south side of Hwy 58 about a mile before the West Virginia border and another is located on Wardensville Grade near the entrance of Pembroke Springs Retreat.
- Shenandoah County has 105 miles of the Shenandoah River that rises in northern Rockingham County and runs through the entire length of Shenandoah County and 31 miles of trout fed streams for fishing.
- Waynesboro also has several natural springs, including Loth Springs, along the South River Greenway. The city is in the process of creating a passive recreational area to encompass the springs.
- Waynesboro’s Water Trail winds for four miles through downtown Waynesboro. It’s great for canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. In fact, it’s one of only two urban trout fisheries in the state. New to fishing? Book a guided fly fishing trip with the experts at South River Fly Shop!
The Valley’s Fun Facts
Fun Facts About the Land:
- Augusta County is the second-largest county in Virginia.
- Not only does Page County provide access to Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, and the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, it also boasts more than 400 vacation cabin rentals. In 2009, the Virginia General Assembly named it the Cabin Capital of Virginia.
- Rockingham County is not only the largest Agricultural Producing County in Virginia but is also known as the Turkey Capital of the World.
- Shenandoah County has 178 miles of trails through the George Washington National Forest and 26% of the county is either National or State Forest. Home to Virginia’s largest publicly maintained OHV trail system.
- Before it consolidated in 1924, Waynesboro was two different towns divided by the South River. The lost town Basic City can be toasted with a craft beer at Basic City Beer Co., a stop along the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail.
Fun Facts About People
- Harrisonburg is one of the Valley’s most diverse communities, and residents include those with roots in Mexico, Iraq, Honduras, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Ethiopia, Jordan, Ukraine, Syria, and Russia. In fact, over 50 languages are spoken at the local high school. This is due in part to Harrisonburg’s status as an official World Church Service refugee resettlement community. The city’s annual International Festival, unique retailers, and restaurants serving international cuisine celebrate the rich heritage and diversity of the area’s residents.
- Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D, the physician-geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, was born and raised in Staunton. Recently, Collins served as Director of the National Institutes of Health for 11 years, making an enormous positive impact on biomedical research.
- President Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton in 1856; his birthplace became the official Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum in 2000.
- Grammy-winning country and gospel supergroup The Statler Brothers also hail from Staunton. Famous for their energetic music that often incorporated humor, the Statler Brothers earned the Country Music Association’s Vocal Group of the Year nine times and are featured in the Country Music and Gospel Halls of Fame.
Fun Facts about the Towns
- The Bank of Clarke County was established in 1881 in Berryville. The bank’s headquarters are still in downtown Berryville.
- Want to learn about the origins of the name “Front Royal” and take a selfie by a piece of the giant “Royal” Oak Tree of England that once stood in the public square? Learn this history and more at the Visitors Center.
Harrisonburg’s mountain bike scene is one of the oldest and best in the country; it’s earned an IMBA Bronze Level Ride Center designation for high-quality rides and fun off the trail. The city is also home to several nationally recognized cyclists.
- Built in the 1780s, the Burwell-Morgan Mill (Millwood) is a rare grist mill with a water wheel located on the inside rather than the outside. The wheel is 20 feet in diameter and weighs almost 20,000 lbs.
- Five movies have been filmed in Rockbridge County. Take a stroll and see if you recognize any scenery from War of the Worlds, Gods and Generals, Sommersby, Field of Lost Shoes, and Ronald Reagan’s 1938 film Brother Rat.
- Staunton is home to the only re-creation in the world of William Shakespeare’s indoor theater, The Blackfriars Playhouse.
- Founded in 1744, Winchester is the oldest city in the United States west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. George Washington held his very first political office in Winchester in 1758. His first piece of legislation was outlawing free-roaming pigs in Winchester.
For more information about the Shenandoah Valley’s destinations, click here.