Stretching 469 miles from near the Tennessee/North Carolina border to the upper reaches of Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers not only scenic views, but also interesting attractions along its path. Along or near the route, fans of subterranean wonders can tour several caverns with a variety of rock formations, underground waterways and cultural and natural history.
Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend, Tennessee, were first discovered in the mid-19th century when sawmill workers watched water from a heavy rain drain into a sinkhole. Today visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains area explore the series of caves, including the "Big Room" that's more than 400 feet long, 300 feet wide and 150 feet high. Stalagmites, which are rock formations that rise from the floor toward the ceiling, as tall as 24 feet fill the room. That cavern is also filled with smaller stalactites that drop from the ceiling toward the floor. The caverns are known for other unique features, including the "Toothpick," a stalagmite that's 12 feet tall and only 6 inches wide, and the waterfalls that sometimes fill the caves during the rainy season as water drains into the earth.
At Bristol Caverns near the Tennessee/Virginia border, you'll follow lit walkways along the banks of an underground river that carved these caverns hundreds of millions of years ago. The caves are filled with colorful arches and columns with rich veins of minerals that give them their sparkle, as well as stalagmites and stalactites that range from the sizes of tree trunks to drinking straws. The tour takes visitors through three levels of the caverns, from Mayor Preston's Chamber -- where the local town council once held meetings due to the constant comfortable 55-degree temperatures -- to the river at the bottom level where Native Americans once gathered.
Linville Caverns in Marion, North Carolina, dubs itself as the state's only "show cavern," and the passageways below Humpback Mountain beg exploration. A fishing expedition discovered the caves in the early 1800s when members of the party observed fish appear to swim in and out of solid rock. They discovered a narrow opening to a subterranean series of caverns that still house trout in an underground stream. Linvill Caverns are among the coolest caves at a constant 52 degrees Fahrenheit, so bring your jacket. Most of the tour is handicapped accessible. You'll see an assortment of stalagmites and stalactites on the route and learn how Civil War deserters used the caverns as a hideout. Visit in fall or winter and you may catch a glimpse of brown bats, which hibernate here in colder months.
Elevator going down. Shenandoah Caverns in Virginia, which opened in 1922, offer elevator service into their depths, or you can walk the gradually descending walkways into the underground paradise. Worldwide visitors have toured the limestone formations that appeared in "National Geographic." You'll encounter unique features like Capitol Dome, an extra wide stalagmite, and Diamond Cascade, a calcite crystal formation that looks like a frozen waterfall, as you explore the series of narrow passageways, most of which are handicapped accessible. You'll walk through 17 rooms in all on the tour.
Luray Caverns below the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia is on the list of U.S. Natural Landmarks and among the must-see attractions along the parkway. Discovered in 1878 by a local photographer and a tinsmith, these caverns are massive, with some ceilings 10 stories high in cathedral-sized rooms. In addition to a large assortment of stalagmites, stalactites and cascades, you'll see the Great Stalacpipe Organ, which uses stalactite formations over three acres to create concert quality tones. You'll also walk by Dream Lake, in which the clear water creates a mirror image of the stalactites that hang above.