By KJ Mushung
Looking to take your family somewhere for one final vacation this year? You've been to the beach plenty of times, and soon it will be too cold to go. Skiing is expensive and can lead to injury. You've seen all the museums you want to see. Now what?
Fortunately, Virginia has the beautiful Shenandoah Mountains. And beneath one of those mountains -- Massanutten -- lies a vast, underground cavern that visitors can explore year-round to view remarkable rock formations that formed over millions of years.
Endless Caverns is one of several majestic caverns located two hours west of Fredericksburg that is open to the public. However, two things make Endless Caverns different from the others. First, it's owned in part by Larry Silver and Jud Honaker of Fredericksburg. Going there is like shopping local, only two hours away. Second, its owners, which include Egerton Burroughs and are known collectively as EC Holdings LLC, have partnered with Morgan RV Resorts to reengineer it into a premier campground resort with extras from an upscale swimming pool to a catch-and-release fishing pond.
Endless Caverns offers much more than a cave.
There are now approximately 140 RV hookup sites on the property, with refurbished bathroom, shower and laundry facilities, a well-defined nature trail, a sandy volleyball court, a gift shop and playground. Honaker said there will be 300 RV sites when the renovations are completed.
The newest addition to the resort is a 24,000-gallon swimming pool with water bubblers, a giant water mushroom and, most notably, an in-pool basketball hoop. However, it should be noted that there is no lifeguard, the pool only goes as deep as four feet and children under age 16 must be with an adult to be at the pool.
"I liked it," said Amanda Burns of Virginia Beach. "It was good for big sibling, little sibling interaction. But I wish it had a deeper end."
Amanda's younger brother, Brendan, said playing basketball in the pool was his favorite part.
Inside the large recreation building by the pool is a small arcade with video games, along with air hockey and pool tables and a change machine for those who didn't bring quarters.
During the weekends from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend, Endless Caverns also offers children's activities such as youth volleyball games by the campgrounds, scavenger hunts, karaoke and ghost stories in the cave. Though it's debatable which is scarier, the ghost stories or the karaoke.
Honaker said more amenities will be added for campers over time, like a miniature golf course and the afore-mentioned fishing pond. The caveat here is that, aside from the tour of the caverns, the pool, volleyball court, arcade and such are intended to be used only by campers, not general drive-up visitors.
But even day-trippers can experience something extra this fall when the caverns become haunted from Oct. 22 to Oct. 31.
According to Mindy Kirtley, manager of Endless Caverns, the annual Haunted Caverns event will be held the final two weekends of October, Thursday through Saturday, in the evening.
Youth activities and regular tours of the caverns will still be held during daylight hours.
Kirtley warned the Haunted Caverns tour is "pretty intense haunted house, not intended for young children," and gave it a PG-13 rating. It will involve strobe lights, fog machines and scary music. She wouldn't say much more than that because the more surprising the tour is, the scarier it will be.
"For some people, a cave is scary enough," said Kirtley of the caverns, which take visitors approximately 150 feet below the earth's surface along a dark, winding, sometimes slippery, network of paths. It's a chilly 55 degrees and lightly lit. Spooky sounds travel along the walls of the passageways. Cell phones don't work, and two-way radios are unreliable beyond a room or two. Not to mention the bats. Lots and lots of little, brown bats sleeping on the cave ceiling and best left undisturbed.
Who knows what's behind the next magnificent rock formation, waiting to jump out at visitors?
Normal tours of the caverns last 75 minutes and take visitors through nearly a mile of underground trail. However, Haunted Caverns tours are abbreviated and last about 30 minutes. Perhaps their insurance company didn't want Endless Caverns to scare anyone to death.
In addition to spooking visitors, the resort will have Halloween activities for those too young to go into a haunted cave. "We're looking at doing costume contests. We'll have a little fall festival. We'll do trick-or-treating around the campground," said Kirtley. That means campers should bring candy for trick-or-treaters.
If given a choice between going to the beach, the mountains or the caverns, Bobby Burns, 19, said he'd choose the caverns because they are unique.
"I like when we got to the back, to Fairyland," said 11-year-old Richmond resident Maki Bennett of a particularly beautiful area of the caverns. Her 9-year-old sister, Carleigh, concurred.
"I really liked seeing the stalactites and stalagmites," added Maki.
Their 5-year-old brother, Indy, thought the caverns were amazing. "We got see things like rocks that look like cities."
"Going to the beach is fun, but to see the world beneath us was absolutely fascinating," remarked the children's father, Brian Bennett, after taking a tour. "It's a good way to spend the day. We got everybody out of the house. But we weren't really outside; we were underground."
For more information, go to EndlessCaverns.com or call 540-896-CAVE.
KJ Mushung is a Stafford County parent and reporter.
HOTELS & RESTAURANTS:
Above the caverns visitors will find picturesque views of mountains and valleys and the quaint little town of New Market where they can shop, eat and sleep.
WHERE TO STAY IN NEW MARKET:
Shenvalee Golf Resort
9660 Fairway Drive
162 W. Old Cross Road
9360 George Collins Parkway
2192 Old Valley Pike
WHERE TO EAT IN NEW MARKET:
Jalisco Mexican Restaurant
9403 S. Congress Street
Pack's Frozen Custard
9895 Massanutten Avenue
Southern Kitchen Restaurant
9576 S. Congress Street
Johnny Appleseed Restaurant
Connected to the Quality Inn
162 W. Old Cross Road