Near the entrance to Skyline Drive, Skyline Caverns is the closest show
cave to the Washington metropolitan area and the least expensive. While not
as spectacular as Luray, it has three underground streams, a 37-foot waterfall
and rare and delicate spiky formations called anthodites. The hour-long tour is
high on content (though one part - when a booming narrator dares visitors to
tremble before the handiwork of Almighty God - may trouble parents who prefer
not to impart religious explanations of natural phenomena). In addition to a
gift shop, a 10-minute miniature railroad ride is available for an extra $2
(weather permitting), and a dilapidated fiberglass brontosaurus is ripe for photo
--John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
Food: Restaurants are plentiful around Front Royal. There also are
on-site picnic tables and a nearby country store if you want to buy some picnic items.
Post reviewer Karen-Lee Ryan writes:
When the thermometer struggles to reach the freezing mark, it's time to head underground -- not to Metro, but to one of the area's several commercial caves, where the mercury always registers an almost balmy 52 to 56 degrees.
After arriving at Skyline Caverns about noon on a recent weekday, I remove my coat, gloves, hat and scarf, relishing the thought of moving my muscles in a natural setting without the wool and fleece encasement. A friendly ticket clerk welcomes me with a broad smile and says, "You're our first visitor today." Two more reasons for winter cave exploration.
In the trinket-filled gift shop, books and postcards hint at the buried treasures below my feet. Turns out, the region now covered with the Blue Ridge, Massanutten and Shenandoah mountains was a shallow inland sea hundreds of millions of years ago. After the water dried up, exposing a limestone bedrock, the earth shifted to form the mountains, upending and cracking the bedrock. Over time, water and minerals seeped deep into these joints and started slowly carving a labyrinth of underground formations, or speleothems, through the porous rock.
Many of the most common speleothems are visible within minutes of my private tour of Skyline Caverns, the closest show cave to Washington and only an hour from the Beltway. Cheerful tour guide Pat Cullers points out stalactites hanging down from the cave ceiling and stalagmites building up from the cave floor. She says their growth is estimated at only one inch every 120 years, meaning the countless shapes inside this cave have been developing for an inconceivably long time. Dripping water means they're still under construction. Soon, we see our first sizable column, formed when a stalactite and stalagmite unite, named Capitol Dome. As with a number of formations at Skyline, it's bathed in a rainbow of lights to enhance the appearance, although I prefer the more natural white lights highlighting other formations.
We pass through a room with a constellation of dripping early-stage stalactites called "soda straws." "If you get dripped on," Cullers says, "it's called a cave kiss and is considered good luck." We pass several areas of flowstone, which looks like a stagnant waterfall made of rock, before arriving at the gushing Rainbow Falls. Cascading water drops more than 35 feet in the glow of technicolor lights, flowing into one of five streams that meander through this extensive underworld.
We reach Skyline's largest room, Cathedral Hall, home to an amazing "drapery" speleothem, made up of delicately folded sheets of calcite resembling a curtain. This particular formation, Headless Eagle, features dozens of rippling draperies shaped like outstretched wings clinging to the cave ceiling. We pass Royal Gorge and Fairyland Lake before seeing the caverns' most captivating feature: extremely rare anthodites. These spiky, bright white formations consist of calcite and crystalline and are nicknamed "cave flowers"; Skyline is one of the world's only show caves where they are visible.
"Every cavern has its own uniqueness," says Cullers, encouraging visits to other caves as we slowly ascend the 260 feet back to the surface, concluding the hour-long tour that covered more than a mile of the cave. "Each one is known for something different."