Why you should care

Because some journeys take you across the world — and some journeys actually take you into it.

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As I descend, the air is cool and damp. The stones around me form toothy grins and jagged jaws — images of prehistoric predators flood my mind. I came for the rocks, but instead I’m getting an unexpected kick to my boyhood imagination. There are only two rules: Follow the brick road (thanks, Munchkins) and don’t touch anything. I “accidentally” trace the smooth stones as I pass, dew collecting on my fingertips. Deeper and deeper I go, into one of the largest caverns on the East Coast.

I turn the corner. At first, all I see are more stalactites suspended from the roof. Beneath, pillars reach up to meet them. Only then do I see the water’s edge and realize the pillars are a reflection. Little Atlantises appear in the underground pool, mirrored cities of rock and flint that look strikingly real. A few rooms later, the Great Stalacpipe Organ plays. Tiny hammers tap at stone pillars, filling the subterranean hallways with music. The effect is magical.

You don’t visit places like this to escape the world, but rather to remember you are a part of it. Eight spellbinding caves dot the Shenandoah Valley — and that’s just in Virginia, for God’s sake, home to the saccharine slogan “Virginia Is for Lovers,” which I saw on plenty of license plates on the two-hour drive here from Washington, D.C. Admission isn’t as cheap as a walk in the park — it’s between $20 to 30 per person, almost the price of a roller-coaster park, and it’s just as crowded with selfie-takers. The $28 ticket at Luray Caverns helps pay for upkeep, says spokesman Bill Huffman, including bonus attractions such as the adjacent car and toy museums.

Each cavern is distinct, filled with golden columns, crystalline drips and calcium carbonate creations and boasting names like the Diamond Cascade and Grotto of the Gods, Titania’s Veil and the Giant’s Hall. The latter, at Luray Caverns, is a popular wedding spot. At 34 stories deep, Natural Bridge Caverns is the deepest cave this side of the Mississippi. Dig stalagmites? The Pillar of Hercules, at Gap Caverns, is one of the tallest in the world.

The next morning, I’m just starting my drive home when I see a sign for the Skyline Drive. The 109-mile highway starts nearby, at Front Royal, and winds down through Shenandoah National Park. “People will escape the heat down in the valley and then go up into the mountains,” says Huffman. To help quench visitors’ thirst, there are at least a half-dozen wineries in the area. The first hour of the Skyline Drive is filled with scenic overlooks, one every mile and a half or so. After having been 164 feet below the Earth’s surface the day before, I soon find myself 3,385 feet above it. The clouds pass beneath me, and I’m awestruck. Because, really, what’s the point of this journey if not to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows?

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