Grand Caverns: The Land Down Under

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Good things take time. When you enter Grand Caverns in Grottoes, Virginia, you won’t be surprised that it took millions of years for it to form.

Stalactites, for example (which hang from the ceiling) typically take about 125 years to grow one inch.

With underground temperatures a near-constant mid-50s, the cave is a blessing for a family trip on a late summer day trip or vacation. Ashley Collier, the new Director at Grand Caverns, elaborated on reasons to visit. “Journey with us to a place where time seems to stand still,” she said. “Grand Caverns is the oldest, continuously operating show cave in the United States, conducting tours since 1806! We offer unique, educational fun for the entire family. Come learn about our rare shield formations, our unusual vertical bedding and our many, many calcite formations. Fully immerse yourself in the beauty that is found underground and learn about our grand place in history from some of the best tour guides Virginia has to offer.”

Grand Caverns was discovered in 1804 by a young trapper named Bernard Weyer. Some say he was digging for a lost groundhog trap. He gave the discovery his own name and two years later, opened it to visitors, making Weyer’s Cave the first commercially shown caverns in the U.S. Since then site has operated under different names and different owners, but it is indeed the oldest continually operating show cave in the country.

The National Park Service designated the cave a National Natural Landmark in 1973 in recognition of its shield formations and other features, such as flowstone, stalactites, and stalagmites.

The formation of the Caverns occurred as surface water seeped through weak, soluble limestone; underground streams slowly developed and carved out channels of considerable size. When the water table lowered, the streams disappeared and large underground caverns were left.

A couple of geologic phenomena make Grand Caverns stand apart from other caves in the Valley:

Vertical bedding – the caves of the Shenandoah Valley were formed in mostly horizontal limestone layers. At Grand Caverns the layers are vertical, turned on end by powerful tectonic forces.

Cave Shield Formations – Grand Caverns is known for its abundance of “shield formations,” though it is unknown exactly how these shields are formed. One theory is that as water is forced out of cracks in the cave wall, calcite crystallizes and a plate begins to grow. There are many other theories.

Another aspect of Grand Caverns is the “sister cave,” Fountain Cave—recently opened for the first time in about 100 years. Staff conduct guided Adventure Tours here, which take about two hours to complete and let you experience caverns how they originally were toured. There are no lights in this cave and some crawling and squirming will be necessary. Helmets, knee pads, and gloves are provided. Call ahead to schedule.

The main Grand Caverns walking tours are offered daily from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and are about a mile and a half. Fees are $20 per adult and $11 for children, but many discounts are offered, too.

Weddings and ballroom dances have been held in the Caverns over the years. And during the Civil War the cave was visited by both Union and Confederate soldiers—over 200 of whom scrawled their names on the cave walls. Battle activity around the Caverns area was significant. Over two days of fighting in 1862, more than 3,000 men lost their lives within five miles of the cave.

The nearby town of Grottoes is rich in Shenandoah Valley history—it was settled about 1735. Today, you can hear music every Thursday at Bluegrass in Grottoes, at Town Hall, and on September 15th celebrate the End of Summer Bash.

Directions: From Harrisonburg (19 miles) Take I-81 South, to exit 235. Follow VA 256 East to Grand Caverns Road.

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