The Virginia Cave and Karst Trail has more than a dozen stops where visitors can learn about and appreciate outstanding caves and karst features. The goal of the trail is to educate people about these sensitive environments and to promote their protection.
Many stops are in Virginia's scenic Ridge and Valley Province. Each offers visitors a unique experience such as a fee-based tour, an interpretive program or a scenic view. A few stops have trails or self-guided tours.
With a bit of planning, several stops can be covered in a day's drive. Be sure to contact commercial sites for information about admission fees and hours of operation.
Caves figure prominently in Virginia's natural and geologic history. More than 4,400 have been documented in the commonwealth, and many harbor delicate natural communities with a diversity of species. More than 160 cave-dwelling organisms are considered rare, and many inhabit just one or two caves. Caves, and protecting the life inside them, are an important focus for scientists and conservationists.
About a dozen caves in Virginia have been developed into show caves. Show caves contribute to local economies and provide visitors amazing views of caves they wouldn't otherwise see. The Virginia Cave and Karst Trail features show caves.
Karst landscapes occur with caves but aren't as noticeable to the public. Karst landscapes are characterized by sinkholes, sinking streams, springs and caves. They've formed in areas where mildly acidic groundwater has dissolved soluble rock, such as limestone, dolostone, marble and gypsum. Virginia is rich in karst resources, and they play an important role in water quality. In fact, thousands of Virginians depend on karst for clean drinking water.
The Virginia Cave and Karst Trail is a collaborative project between the governor-appointed Virginia Cave Board and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. DCR manages programs for cave and karst protection, and education.
Abrams Creek Wetland Preserve
1643 Meadow Branch Ave., Winchester, Va.
Cold springs and seeps created calcareous muck fens over much of this wetland. These fens are calcium-rich marshes with neutral soil, a result of decaying plant material mixed with buffering minerals from underlying limestone formations. Ice-age relict plants that typically grow further north thrive at this 25-acre preserve. Free.
Augusta County, Va.
Augusta Springs is located on the edge of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Karst features and wetlands can be viewed from a handicap-accessible loop trail, which also is part of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. Look for a variety of bird, butterfly and salamander species. Free.
From Interstate 81, take exit 220 to State Route 262 toward Route 11. Merge onto VA 262 North. Take the Virginia 254/Parkersburg Pike ramp and turn left. Continue on State Route 42 South. Destination is on the left.
Cowpasture River Trail
This 35-mile scenic driving trail takes motorists through Bath and Highland counties. See springs and sinkholes along the Cowpasture River, a tributary of the James. A series of interpretive signs explains the relationship between these karst features and water quality. Free.
5753 W. Main St., Salem, Va.
This show cave has been open to the public since 1923. Enjoy a 45-minute cave tour. $
1800 Endless Caverns Road, New Market, Va.
One of Virginia's many wonderful show caves, Endless Caverns is a 6-mile-long cave at the foot of the Massanutten Mountain range. It features seemingly endless tunnels and chambers, many unexplored to this day. $
Falling Spring Falls Overlook
U.S. Route 220, 5 miles north of Covington, Va.
A small parking area enables visitors to stop and view this fantastic waterfall, which is fed by a thermal spring. Free.
91 Bartlett Park Road, Middlesboro, Ky.
This cave inside Cumberland Gap National Historical Park awes visitors with massive stalagmites, fern-like crystals, curtain draperies, bacon strips and delicate straw-shaped stalactites. $
5 Grand Caverns Drive, Grottoes, Va.
Grand Caverns was the first continually open show cave in America. Enormous rooms lined with hundreds of exceedingly rare and magnificent shield formations are a highlight of the cave. $
Hupp's Hill Civil War Park
33229 Old Valley Pike, Strasburg, Va.
Several caves are visible atop Hupp’s Hill, site of the Battle of Cedar Creek. Learn about the site’s geology and history on a short interpretive walking trail. $
11 Bath St., Warm Springs, Va.
Archeological evidence shows humans have availed themselves of these natural hot springs for at least 9,000 years. Today, the pools are managed by a private resort company, and visitors can pay for a relaxing, hour-long soak. Not much has changed since the late 1700s, when the Gentleman's Pool House was built. It's still standing. The surrounding karst landscape keeps these waters warm and crystal clear year-round. $
970 U.S. Highway 211 West, Luray, Va.
Gaze at enormous rooms, towering columns and crystal clear pools during a one-hour tour. A show cave for more than 130 years, Luray Caverns is a designated U.S. National Natural Landmark. $
Natural Bridge and the Caverns at Natural Bridge
15 Appledore Lane, Natural Bridge, Va.
Virginia's famous Natural Bridge is actually a karst feature, carved out by water over thousands of years. But there are great sites underground, as well. A trip to the caverns takes visitors 34 stories below ground. The 45-minute tour showcases Mirror Lake, the Well Room and the Colossal Dome Room. $
94 Natural Chimneys Lane, Mt. Solon, Va.
Managed by Augusta County, this local park features seven awe-inspiring rock formations as tall as 120 feet. There are also walking trails, picnic shelters and seasonal campgrounds. Open seven days a week, dawn until dusk. Free.
Natural Tunnel State Park
1420 Natural Tunnel Parkway, Duffield, Va.
More than 850 feet long and as tall as a 10-story building, Natural Tunnel was naturally carved through a limestone ridge over thousands of years. It is an amazing karst feature. William Jennings Bryan called it the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Other scenic features include a wide chasm between steep stone walls surrounded by several pinnacles, or "chimneys." The park provides two cave tours and a tour through the tunnel. $
Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve
State Route 721, Russell County, Va.
Named for a 400-foot dolomite rock outcrop, this preserve showcases limestone ledges and karst features. A suspension footbridge enables visitors to cross Big Cedar Creek, a tributary of the Clinch and a state scenic river. Free.
Shawnee Springs Preserve
Winchester, Va. Preserve is located off U.S. Route 17, on the west side of Hollingsworth Drive.
Nature lovers and history buffs alike will enjoy this 19-acre preserve in the heart of Winchester. The landscape boasts natural springs, limestone outcroppings, open fields and more. It is also where the largest Civil War field hospital was located. Learn about this history through a series of interpretive signs at the adjacent Town Run Linear Park. Free.
261 Caverns Road, Quicksburg, Va.
Earthquakes, in addition to the eroding of limestone over millions of years, helped form these spectacular caverns. Shenandoah Caverns opened as a show cave in 1922. $
10344 Stonewall Jackson Hwy., Front Royal, Va.
This show cave is home to three underground streams and the 37-foot Rainbow Waterfall. A nature trail on site enables visitors to explore the beautiful surroundings of the caverns. $ (Access to the nature trail is free.)
The Cedars Natural Area Preserve
Lee County, Va.
Sensitive karst features abound in this natural area preserve. Free, but visits must be arranged in advance with the land steward. Call 276-676-5673.
Virginia Living Museum
524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News, Va.
The museum features a walk-through simulated cave exhibit with calcite formations and cave-dwelling animals. $
Top left photo courtesy of Luray Caverns.