GROTTOES — You need not even leave the boundaries of Augusta County to find your nature time. When you head to Grand Caverns Park, which is right on the Augusta-Rockingham line, you are technically still in Augusta, but the park is owned and operated by the town of Grottoes in Rockingham.
The park is more than just a place to get outside and hike or bike. One of the bonuses is you can enjoy nature both above and below ground. And, even if you didn’t already know, you might have guessed that there was a big cave here, especially with area names like Grand Caverns and Grottoes, not to mention nearby Weyers Cave.
The cave geology is spectacular, not just because of the usual amazing stalactites, stalagmites and columns, but also because of the unique shield formations, draperies and flowstone that present the image of water flowing. They are all actually solid rock created by mineral-laced water over millions of years. There are nearly eight miles of mapped passages in the park’s cave hill, including one of the largest underground rooms (280 feet long and 70 feet high) in any cavern in this part of the country.
A visit here brings the double bonus of history. This cave system is actually the oldest continuously operating show cave in the country, having been discovered in 1804 when Bernard Weyer was trying to retrieve an animal trap that had fallen into a hole and, voila, he found a very, very big hole! The cave was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1973. During the Civil War, hundreds of soldiers from the north and south went into the cave and several hundred penciled their names on the walls.
For many years, Grand Caverns and Natural Chimneys were part of the Upper Valley Regional Park Authority. That regional agency was disbanded in 2009 and the two parks were split between the two counties with Augusta handling Natural Chimneys and Grottoes handling Grand Caverns.
There is plenty to do above ground at Grand Caverns Park and it is a lovely setting along the South River with nice picnic shelters and open grassy areas (yes, the same South River that flows through Waynesboro and, which, a few miles to the north at Port Republic becomes the Shenandoah River).
Hikers should try out the hiking trail, accessed just behind the stone cottage that serves as the park headquarters. Look for the sign with a hiker on it. The first part of the hike is up hill on a somewhat steep, but nicely wooded trail. The path winds up the ridge to several nice overlooks over the town.
Hikers going up the hill are actually walking on top of the caverns and there are several cave-like openings on the trail that seem to lead down into the cave system. Hikers also pass the entrance to Fountain Cave, once part of the cave touring experience for tourists a century ago, but was closed to the public in the 20th century. However, recently (until the COVID-19 pandemic) the cave has once again been opened for special adventure tours. That’s something to return to when the pandemic is over, but until then hikers can take the stone steps down to the cave entrance and peek in through the locked door.
The park’s trails are nicely groomed and are not rocky and uneven. Recent work by staff has nearly doubled the trail’s length and added a loop that takes hikers past some Civil War trenches.
The walking trail begins at the east front of the stone cottage. The mile-long trail is a gem of a path — flat and wide with a tiny gravel surface. Fitness stops along the way provide a place for those to add another element to their workouts with calisthenics such as push ups, pull-ups and chin-ups. The trail circles the park counterclockwise and much of it follows the South River. Picnic tables along the river provide a nice place to stop and watch the river flow past. The walking trail is also suitable for bicycles with wider tires.
If one decides to hike, walk, bike, tour the caverns and picnic, it would be easy to while away a full day at Grand Caverns, especially if the pool figures into the mix. What better way to spend a hot, humid summer day than to go underground or take a walk in the woods?
Nancy Sorrells is a columnist and sports writer for the News Virginian.
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