It all started with a couple of curious boys. Two Neff brothers slipped into Shenandoah Caverns in 1884 after playing in a sinkhole. Decades later, the caverns opened for public tours in 1922.
Today, you can start your visit easily with an elevator ride. "And when you come back out," says tour guide Jessica Sager, "you're eager to see the elevator after you've walked the full mile on the tour."
You’ll reach as deep as 220 feet below the surface. The "full mile" at Shenandoah Caverns leads to limestone formations, flowstone, stalagmites, stalactites and columns called "Capitol Dome," "Leaning Tower," "Grotto of the Gods" and "Oriental Tea Garden."
And don't worry about getting wet from the falling water of a "cave kiss," says tour guide Patricia Turner. "Cave kisses are supposed to bring us some good luck.”
In the “Drapery Hall,” the flowstone of the caverns appears to resemble big drapes. "But that would be one huge window that needs drapes of that size," says Turner. "I wouldn't want to wash those drapes."
One formation resembles the U.S. Capitol dome of Washington, D.C. at
But would you eat the bacon, seemingly sizzling, on the ceiling?
Clarification: “Cave Bacon” is not really bacon. There are no pigs involved.
"It is rock—just like everything else," says Sager. "But the rock? The water runs down. And instead of dripping straight down like it would for a stalactite, in different years, when earthquakes and things have occurred, and the water has shifted, different minerals come down. So you can see some years the streaks are just iron oxide, and some years it's from the calcium carbonate. And that combination just makes it look like bacon."
Outside the cave, all ages "ooh" and "ahh" over the parade floats at "American Celebration on Parade" at Shenandoah Caverns. It’s one of the many places to see in Shenandoah County, Va., situated along the parallel paths of I-81 and U.S. 11.
"This place is awesome for a vacation," says Wendy DeMello, the co-owner of Shenandoah County’s Third Hill Winery at DeMello Vineyards. "We came here because it's beautiful. You've got hiking. You've got the Shenandoah. You've got kayaking here on the river."
For a night, I stay at the River Bluff Farm Bed and Breakfast, a 20-acre retreat near the winery in Quicksburg. And here, I discover the North Fork of the Shenandoah River.
Plan a trip, but pack a fishing pole. You’ll find a canoe to use. Or come here for a cookout: The lodge offers a fire pit and a picnic table.
Matthew and Donna Griffin opened this B&B in 2016; the main house is centered by an antique log cabin. "You can rent it by the room as a traditional bed-and-breakfast," Donna Griffin says. "Or you can rent the whole house."
Guests often come from Coastal Virginia, says Griffin. "We've gotten people from Newport News last week. And my first guests were from Virginia Beach."
Breakfasts consist of strawberries sprinkled with balsamic vinegar plus bran muffins. Then it’s the main course: spinach Frittata, seasoned with herbs and tomatoes, and made with eggs from the Griffins’ own chickens and ducks. It's served with locally sourced sausage.
Wendy DeMello overlooks the grape fields of the Third Hill Winery at DeMello
Within walking distance of the River Bluff Farm, Wendy DeMello's tour of the Third Hill Winery at DeMello Vineyards includes a history lesson. "We started the vines in 2006, so we've been growing for quite a while," says DeMello, who moved here from California.
"Our idea was to embody the Shenandoah Valley and share it with outsiders and make insiders welcome in a place that they feel comfortable,” DeMello says. “We love it here. There's so much to see here."
Like what's up at Woodstock.
"I love Woodstock," DeMello says. "It's the best little town around."
Consider Woodstock a double destination.
First, for a show, I wind up the Woodstock Tower Road a few miles to reach the trailhead of the Woodstock Tower. Then, in less than half a mile, I take in views of valleys and the “seven bends” of the Shenandoah River.
Then I return to town to slice up a salad at the Woodstock Cafe, one of the top draws to South Main Street in the municipality that calls itself "The Other Woodstock."
The Meems Bottom Covered Bridge lies just off U.S. Highway 11.
Next, I'm on the road again and taking a trip through the Meems Bottom Covered Bridge. At 204 feet, this is the longest covered bridge in Virginia. And it stands south of Mount Jackson, just off U.S. 11. It’s also not far from the must-see production plant of the perfectly-named and perfectly-tasty Route 11 Potato Chips.
Heading south, I navigate to New Market to discover the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. This impressive stop presents the entire four-year struggle of the War Between the States with a special emphasis on the Battle of New Market in 1864.
Outside, the preserved battlefield blooms with grasses and wildflowers. It’s a memorial, lined with fences and dotted by cannons and historic markers. But, too, you cannot ignore the beauty of this scene, like so much of Shenandoah County.
"It's just green and relaxed here," DeMello says. "And a lot of people come here to relax and to enjoy the scenery."
Extend Your Stay
River Bluff Farm Bed and Breakfast
Route 11 Potato Chips
Third Hill Winery at DeMello Vineyards
Virginia Museum of the Civil War