Stay Cool in the Shenandoah Mountains: Cool caves, the town that time forgot, gorgeous vistas, and a perfect B & B
Somewhere in the fabric of space, there is a town that time forgot. So, if you want to go back to the good ol’ days, follow Route 66 to Front Royal, Virginia, sleeping at the base of the Shenandoah Mountains, by the northern entrance to Skyline Drive.
As I turned in to the Front Royal exit the radio switched from Aerosmith to Johnny Mathis. I drive past a strip of motels with names like the Twi-light Motel, a one-story stretch of rooms fronted by a small swimming pool. To complete this retro scene, there is a drive in movie theater showing a double feature. I was convinced I’d hit a time warp and needed to find more proof.
Small shops line up on Royal Street. Nothing fancy, just the Toy Shop, Stokes hardware store, Clip and Curl salon, some restaurants like Victoria’s or The Mill, where the staff calls you Honey. Cruising around town, I stop at a frozen custard stand for vanilla custard, and pick up some homemade donuts at the Country Restaurant. Finding the ubiquitous bandstand in the center of town, I lapped up the melting custard quickly as it dribbled down my arm, thinking this place would have inspired The Music Man. The pace of life mirrored fifty years ago, so, curious, I put this little town to the test and stop at the DMV to see how crowded it is: Greeted with smiles, I am the only customer there.
CavernsThe Shenandoah Valley is the coolest place to be in a blistering heat wave. While others sweltered, I burrowed deep underground in the Shenandoah’s famous caverns. The nearest one to Fairfax County is Skyline Caverns, discovered in 1937, buried over two hundred feet underground where it is a delightful 54 degrees. Although Skyline is a small cavern, it boasts three underground streams and the extremely rare (only three in the world) Calcite formation called Anthodites or cave flowers that look like clusters of shredded coconut. “Theoretically, they were formed in vacuum [according to its discoverer, Dr. Amos], said James Bolen, general manager of Skyline Caverns. Dr. Amos was digging through a wall when he heard a pop and air whooshed out of a hole, blowing his hat off his head. When he stumbled into this newly discovered chamber, he saw the delicate formations. Skyline Caverns, open seven days a week, offers one- hour tours by professional guides. The kids love it because several formations look like animals, fried eggs, dragons or whatever else your imagination can conjure up. The property includes a train and an Enchanted Dragon’s Maize where kids can get lost and found.
The next coolest place is the Luray Cavern, first discovered in 1878 by a local tinsmith named Andrew Campbell and photographer Benton Stebbins while exploring the area for caves. When Campbell’s candle blew out from a cool burst of air, they dug for four hours. Imagine their surprise when they stumbled upon this massive underground hole in the earth. Court battles ensued for decades and, unfortunately, Campbell and Stebbins held legal clam to their discovery for a very short time. Famous for its enormous stalagmites and stalactites, Luray boasts the Great Stalacpipe Organ, the largest musical instrument in the world and the only one of its kind. Developed by Leland W. Sprinkle, it operates electronically when tiny rubber-tipped mallets hit selected stalactite pipes. Sprinkle spent thirty-six tenacious, exasperating years perfecting the organ making it a magical setting for weddings.
Driving down Skyline Drive through the stunning Shenandoah National Park, there is more wildlife than cars. Proud deer stare at me as I slow down to admire them on the roadside; one ran along side the car. Besides the numerous trails and campgrounds, there are black bears hiding in those scenic vistas and although I’m not fortunate enough to see a bear, I pull off the road to view a hazy sunset showcasing our “purple mountain’s majesty”. Reaching my exit just before dark, it’s time to head for my inn for the night.
The Shenandoah Valley is a great escape to soothe the psyche, step back to a slower time and connect to nature again.
If You Go
Award winning journalist, Karen Hamlin is a native New Englander who moved south to Florida in 2004. The mother of two grown children, she attributes her success as a traveler to her daughter. Starting at twelve years old, Lindsey and Mom tripped into adventures around the world accumulating miles and memories, relying solely upon each other. Karen specializes in dropping into new situations and taking the reader along for the ride. First prize winner of the 2003 and 2004 North American Travel Journalists Association competition, Karen's peripatetic travels have taken her through most of Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, China and the Middle East. Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, International Travel Writers Alliance, and Washington Independent Writers. Now a veteran world traveler, she writes for national and regional magazines from her home in the DC area.