Since 1922, when Shenandoah Caverns became an attraction, it has battled for tourist dollars with Luray Caverns, a bigger and better-known cave down the road. Shenandoah has learned a trick or two over the years, and although it hasn't gone as far down the rabbit hole as Secret Caverns, we admire its willingness to try pretty much anything.
Shenandoah's first coup was building an elevator, the first one ever in a cave, and still the only one in a cave in Virginia (Luray still doesn't have one.). You only go down 60 feet, and there's already a big staircase descending into the earth, right in the center of the gift shop. And the elevator only holds four people. But Shenandoah will take you down in it anyway, just because it can.
A few dozen yards into the cave is Shenandoah's most famous formation, "Cave Bacon," made of draperies of naturally red-striped limestone hanging along the main passage. Although it isn't mentioned on the tour, Cave Bacon is Shenandoah's riposte to Luray's famous "Fried Eggs" formation. What IS mentioned on the tour is that the Bacon appeared in a photo in National Geographic. A copy of that magazine is displayed, under glass, opened to the photo, in the Caverns Museum above the gift shop. It was published in 1964. Memories are long in cave country.
Shenandoah Caverns is a half-mile long, S-shaped hall, with lengthy galleries that have soaring ceilings, lots of off-white and red-brown draperies, and a nice, flat, gravel path. Our guide was young and honest. "This is called 'cave popcorn,' she said, pointing to a lumpy mass. "It has a real long scientific name and I don't know it." The cave uses lollipop-hued purple and lime lighting on some of its formations -- Luray does not -- and gives them easy-to-remember, un-scientific names such as Diamond Cascade and Capitol Dome. A giant boulder, balanced on a couple of microscopic pivots, offers thrills at the cave's back end.
Another thing that Shenandoah has, and Luray does not, are pixies. With big bells on their caps and boots, they were invented by Earl Hargrove when he bought Shenandoah Caverns in 1966. "He was trying to think of something he could use for a logo," said Joe Proctor, the cave's general manager, "and someone gave him the idea that elves or pixies or gnomes or trolls lived underground."
A modern, humanized fiberglass pixie greets visitors to the gift shop, based on Shenandoah's scary "Come See Follow Me" pixie that graced the promo brochures for 30 years. Down in the Caverns are needle-nosed 2-D pixies from the Come-See era, smiling as they hold signs that warn against touching the cave, taking anything out of the cave, or smoking.
To get a leg up on the Big Cave down the road, Shenandoah has introduced satellite attractions that have nothing to do with dripstone or stalactites.
The Caverns Museum prominently displays one of these, a nine-foot-tall polar bear that for decades stood outside of Zlotnick Furriers in downtown Washington, DC. Earl Hargrove Jr "borrowed" it in 1967, and it's been at Shenandoah Caverns ever since. The bear was a favorite, for many years, with visitors who remembered it from the city. But that was a long time ago, and the bear, stained gray from decades of Washington air, with patches of fur yanked out at about the height of a grasping six-year-old, must seem odd to current visitors. Or -- maybe it doesn't. This is, after all, a tourist attraction, and you EXPECT to see something like a stuffed polar bear at a tourist attraction.
Another unusual tangent at Shenandoah Caverns is "Main Street of Yesteryear," which shares the second floor with the bear. It's an indoor "street" of ten old, animated department store window displays, the kind that families used to visit on Main Streets during the Christmas season, according to Earl Hargrove. Earl, who is described by one sign as "a stage manager of American history," collected and restored these gyrating tableaus as part of his work designing corporate events and presidential inaugurations.
Cinderella is present, and a circus, and lots of furry animals dressed as people (sort of) playing instruments covered in glitter. There's even a miniature presidential inaugural parade, tricked out with tiny copies of some of the giant floats that are exhibited just down the hill in American Celebration On Parade, which was the next attraction built by Hargrove and Shenandoah Caverns.
If it all seems like a little much for a cave, remember: Luray Caverns built a pipe organ out of stalactites in THEIR cave. So, really, anything is fair game here.