Grand Caverns is located in the central Shenandoah Valley at the foot of the western wall of a part of the Blue Ridge Mountains that form Shenandoah National Park, along a scenic stretch of U.S. 340 at what is, not coincidentally, named Grottoes, Va.
Since opening to the public two years after it was discovered in 1804, Grand Caverns has been continuously attracting visitors ever since, including Union and Confederate soldiers who were fighting battles in the Shenandoah Valley during the American Civil War.
While not the largest cave in the Shenandoah Valley, it's big -- particularly after its size effectively tripled in 2004 after a group of cavers came across an inconspicuous new portal during one of their monthly visits. The newer part remains a totally pristine cave, and just for that reason, it may never be open to the public.
Like other Shenandoah Valley caverns attractions, Grand Caverns is open year round, offering a moderate and consistent underground temperature that's always unaffected by whatever blustery weather may be going on up above.
The caverns entrance is located on spacious park grounds, a natural spot for private family gatherings and annual summertime bluegrass music and heritage festivals. Last year, the caverns, which is owned by the Town of Grottoes, introduced a new type of festival -- Caroling in the Caverns. It for the first time introduced live, holiday season music in the larger subterranean rooms.
The new event had been at least initially envisioned as a local celebration. But last year's debut festival turnout was surprisingly high, even to the point of catching organizers a bit off guard, according to the town's Parks & Rec Specialist, Lettie Stickley.
“It was very successful,” Stickley explains. “Much more than we ever dreamed. We were hoping to get 20 people, and I think we had 185. It was much more successful than we had imagined. So we weren't quite as prepared as we could have been. It was a good feeling to have that many people.”
And so, Caroling in the Caverns continues in 2012. This year's event will be held on Dec. 8 from 6 to 8 p.m. Tour groups will enter the cave at 15-minute intervals and remain underground for about 45 minutes. As the visitors move from one of three designated chambers to another, they'll be greeted by different types of live music -- all performed continuously and concurrently throughout the entire event.
Individual tour groups will stop at each station, where they can either choose to sing along to holiday music or just listen. The first stop will feature bagpipe music in a cavern room known as Solomon's Temple. The next stop is the Armory, and a locally-known barbershop music singing group: the Harrisonburg Harmonizers. The final stop reveals Shekina, an Eastern Mennonite University a cappella group. Outside at the caverns visitors center, local musician Peggy Counts will perform throughout the entire event in the lobby. There, visitors can join in on sing-alongs and enjoy refreshments.
Thanks to the size of the cave and the fact that two of the three musical acts are performed without musical instruments, there is little problem of musical bleed-over between the large cave rooms where the performances are held. Accordingly, the bagpipes performance had been strategically placed in the outermost room, which is more isolated from the other rooms.
Although the month of December follows the peak tourism season in the Shenandoah Valley, there is still much to see and do here at this time of year. Although the lines of out-of-town foliage-viewers have long since departed, area resorts, including nearby Massanutten Resort, are already busy gearing up for ski season.
There are also many municipal holiday celebrations in the towns and cities throughout the entire region, including a number of Christmas parades. Many visitors at this time of year are family and friends who may come to see folks living here in the Valley.
Stickley says that many people in the Grottoes community really do get caught up in the holiday spirit, as they did last December during the one and only cold-season event that's held at Grand Caverns.
“Our tour guides will get into it as well. They are usually in their Christmas best, with their little Santa hats and, you know, we try and make it festive and happy and where everyone feels that they can enjoy it and are relaxing.”
The charm of this scenic and historic region can often be best experienced at any time of year off the beaten path, but particularly now, among community folk in a local small-town or small-city atmosphere that invariably evokes a sense of friendliness and nostalgia for bygone holiday seasons.
During nearly any public Christmas celebration in the Shenandoah Valley, it may often be difficult not to experience the feeling of being “home for the holidays,” regardless of where you actually live.
True to the community holiday spirit, organizers say that profits from Grand Caverns' Caroling in the Caverns festival will be donated to a local Ruritan club who will then funnel the funds to local children's organizations and scholarship programs.
Caroling in the Caverns is a visitor-friendly event but is not handicapped accessible. Caverns visitors should remember to wear comfortable shoes and have a jacket that's right for the 55-degree underground environment.
Other than that, Stickley says, “just show up and we'll get you in the cave and we promise a good time.”
For more information about Grand Caverns, visit GrandCaverns.com. Information about many holiday events held throughout the entire region can be found right here on ShenandoahValley.com.
Photos courtesy Grand Caverns, story ©copyright 2012 by Shenandoah Valley Productions LLC.