Armchair Road Trip Day 8: Shenandoah and the Caves

September 6, 2020 — Leave a comment

caverns video

A year ago this Sunday, we left DC to begin the southern leg of the Long-Distance Dad road trip. But rather than head straight south, we went west to check out the Shenandoah Valley and enjoy a little more scenic route.

The map indicated a town called Front Royal, Virginia as the Gateway to the Shenandoah. Since I’d made no plans other than drawing a yellow highlight on the area on my map weeks earlier, we stopped in for some tips.


front royal train


Front Royal is a lovely little place with a historical Bedford Falls kinda downtown that you know was bustling back in the day, with a local department store and hardware store and one-screen cinema. Luckily I got to experience this in the 60s in my hometown, before malls destroyed small community downtowns everywhere. 


Historical downtown street in Front Royal, Virginia

Old downtown street in Front Royal. Many of the shops were empty.


A woman at the information booth gave us directions for good views without driving up into the mountains. And she recommended we stop at the Skyline Caverns. I’d never been in a cave. Mtuseni has been at the Cradle of Humankind site in South Africa.

Check out our Instagram greeting from the caverns!

The caverns were very cool. In fact, they were downright chilly! I’m glad I asked when we got our tickets and changed into long pants and a jacket.


Underground room in Skyline Caverns, Front Royal Virginia


Underground lake in Skyline Cavern, Front Royal Virginia

Underground lake in the cavern. The colored lights really made the features pop. 


I can get a little claustrophobic, but figured if I got antsy I’d just turn around and head back out myself. Not! As our tour guide advanced deeper into the earth, he would turn off the set of lights behind us. Pitch black! There was no option but to go forward. Luckily it was so beautiful and amazing — and the young guide was so good — that I never got freaked. Though at one point I did think, “Shit, we’re underground. There’s like 300 feet of rock above us!”

At one point the guide turned off all the lights. Absolute darkness. I mean, cannot-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark! He explained what would happen to a person if they were stuck there alone in the dark: They would gradually lose one sense after another over time. And eventually their mind, though he didn’t say that.

I thought of those Chilean miners and Thai soccer kids trapped underground for days and weeks. I wouldn’t have been the hero in those situations. I would have been one of those characters from those 70s disaster movies — who panics right away and the rest of the group either bitch-slaps me… or leaves me behind to die because I’m sucking up all the oxygen and generally bumming everybody out.

But I survived — and it was one of the most unique experiences of the trip!


cavern path


The gift shop above the cavern was classic… aisles of cheesy schlock that would entice any kid — or adult with no taste. It reminded me of old gift shops when we’d spend summers on Cape Cod in the 60s and 70s… and probably hasn’t changed much since those days. It was actually nice to not see overpriced corporate merchandise as you find in most tourist sites. (Hello, World Trade Center observatory! We’re six weeks away from that experience.)


gift shop 1

Dream catchers, local jams, stained glass ornaments, geode slices… on knotty pine shelves? It don’t get more classic than that!


magnet map


gift shop sale

We didn’t have time to rummage through the canoes.


gift shop stones

For 4 or 5 years I asked Santa for a rock tumbler set from the Sears catalog. He never came through. I really wanted to fill a bag. They were cheap!


I was surprised at how beautiful the Shenandoah Mountains are, but that’s why we went there: I wanted to see them. After driving down the valley, making out cars atop the mountain range along the Skyline highway, we pulled into some crap hotel in Troutville, outside of Roanoke. (This was my pick for worst hotel of the trip … mainly for the thin dirty towels and a couple roaches in the bathroom.)  Supper was really bad Pizza Hut pizza. The cosmopolitan choices of New York and DC were behind us. We had entered the South.


shenandoah mtn


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