GROTTOES, Va. (AP) —
Barbara Loflin steps down deeper into the cave as a drop of water hits her arm from above.
“Oh, I just got a cave kiss,” said Loflin, a Grand Caverns senior lead staff member.
Grand Caverns has a way of turning anyone into a child when they enter. One must allow their imagination to reign in order to get the full experience of the cave.
The caverns have been owned by the Town of Grottoes for almost five years. In that time, revenue has almost tripled, according to Lettie Stickley of Grottoes Parks and Recreation.
Stickley said it was a “big deal” when the town took ownership of Grand Caverns.
“They had become neglected and needed improvements,” she said of the cave. “Since the town’s taken it over we’ve received good feedback.”
Previously, the caverns were owned by the Upper Valley Regional Park Authority, which Staunton, Harrisonburg and Augusta and Rockingham counties controlled.
But when the the authority disbanded, Grottoes was awarded control of the caverns and park area.
Each year, with just over $450,000 budgeted, the revenues from the caverns have steadily increased. This year, the park has had a total of 33,000 visitors, which is up 2,000 from 2013, Stickley said.
For fiscal 2013 through 2014, Loflin said the caverns have broken attendance and revenue records every single month.
“Last year was so crazy busy,” Loflin said. Even during the winter months, the caverns were breaking records, which is unusual, she said.
For the Saturday of Fourth of July weekend, Loflin said they were doing tours every half hour.
The cave was discovered in 1804 and was opened up in 1806, becoming one of the oldest show caves in America, Loflin said.
Bernard Weyers, a trapper in the area, discovered the cave when one of his traps went missing. Searching for the trap, he stumbled upon a hole which led to a what is now Grand Caverns.
Grand Caverns is one of three caves along the same hillside. Fountain Cave, also owned by Grottoes, is an adventure cave which is accessible by appointment only and requires equipment for a more arduous journey — like actual spelunking. Madison Cave is privately owned, which was first surveyed by Thomas Jefferson in 1787.
The tour takes about an hour for a mile and a half trek, where you circle-back through the same part upon your exit.
At one point the cave is more than 200 feet below ground. The cave remains a cool 54 degrees, even in winter.
Going through the tour, each section of the cavern has a specific name and certain figures can be seen in the stalactites or stalagmites.
According to state law, there’s no eating or drinking in the caves and no touching of the formations, which Loflin said, had happened before laws came into effect in the 1960s.
The effects of people touching the cave or even carving into it can still be seen throughout the tour. What the staff calls the “ghost of George Washington” had been touched so much in the past it is covered in a oily-like casing, preventing the formation from growing, Loflin said.
In 2004, a new portion of the cave was discovered by a dog named Rosie. She was being trained for a search and rescue group when she noticed the air had changed in one section of the cave.
Exploring further, almost three miles of cave were found. It is not open to the public, due to preservation, Loflin said. Also, it’s a 15-foot drop down and a 45-minute crawl to get inside, she said.
The cave has three different colors that fill the walls which mask the topography of limestone — iron oxide, which is a brown color, magnesium oxide, which is a gray color, and calcite, which is white.
To go back in time, Grand Caverns hosts a Heritage Day.
One of the rooms within the cave is what the tour calls the grand ballroom. During Heritage Day, a dance is held in the cave, much like what was held in the mid-1800s. For the fourth year this past June, everyone dressed up in 17th century garb and danced by candlelight.
Even remnants of the past can be seen in the stone. When the cave was first opened to the public, owners tried to make it into an amphitheater. So, they carved out seating, which now looks like a staircase to nowhere, but soon discovered there wasn’t enough room to hold everyone.
Signatures from the early 1800s also can be found on the walls of the cave, including 200 signatures from the Civil War era.
Moving forward, Stickley said she’s impressed with how attendance has been growing.
“It’s a lot of word of mouth,” Loflin said.
Laura Peters writes for The News Leader.